I have achieved my tour of the Musée Galliera’s fashion exhibitions taking place in Paris and what a final! The museum proposed a sumptuous Haute Couture display at l’Hotel de Ville, a show celebrating Paris and its craftsmanship.
Strangely, a Haute Couture exhibition had never been organised before: we could have thought so, the subject seeming quite an evidence. The display curated by Olivier Saillard and Ann Zazzo, brings together garments by Worth, Poiret, Chanel, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Christian Lacroix, Azzedine Alaia, Christian Dior and more: an incredible reunion that gives visitors the opportunity to discover exceptional pieces. L’Hotel de Ville (Paris’ town hall), therefore, stands out as the ideal venue with its rich interiors and impressive nave.
The first level of the exhibition space is dedicated to original sketches, photographs, patrons and samples that help comprehend the making of Haute Couture and bring us into the discipline’s secret behind-the-scenes.
I particularly appreciated a series of beautiful black and white photographs by François Kollar that simply depict the hands of famous couturiers such as Coco Chanel, Jacques Fath or Jeanne Lanvin. Moving on, we can observe how is created a Haute Couture garment (a Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld dress) from its original sketch to the final design: a pedagogic and useful section that enables visitors comprehend that haute couture is the result of a hard and meticulous work. To complete this understanding are finally displayed samples of Lesage’s embroideries or Lemariés feathers that celebrate the atelier’s traditional craft.
The lower and principle level (Salle St Jean) is where the magic occurs. Dozens of garments are installed in the centre within glass cases and on the sides(without any glass protection this time): an abundance of beauty! The display is partially chronological: the oldest garments are presented via a chronological organisation whilst the most recent pieces are placed alongside those earlier designs to echo a style, technique, cut or colour, yet each garment makes a strong statement.
The glass cases installed up and down the gallery enable to have a complete view of the garments pushing visitors to turn around them, come back on the other side, start again…My only concern would be that it was terribly dark and I wish I could have observed the exquisiteness of the designs better.
The sides are differently arranged. The left side presents the garments elevated on elegant black and white steps while the opposite right side displays an array of mainly black and white garments against a mirrored wall that enables visitors to see the back of the creations: a stunning mise-en-scène!
The oldest dress in the exhibition dates back to 1895, it is a Charles-Frederick Worth tea gown that belonged to the Countess Greffuhle, one of Proust’s main inspiration. The garment highlights the English couturier, often rewarded as being the father of Haute Couture: there can be something quite ironic for French people to discover that what seems so inextricably French (or should we say Parisian) has been invented by a foreigner, moreover an Englishman! Haute Couture is furthermore a protected certification given by La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture created by Worth himself in 1868.
The display also tells the story of fashion and styles and we move on to Paul Poiret’s high-waisted and corset-free oriental garments that introduce the visitors to the Roaring Twenties when hemlines were shorter and sumptuous embroideries adorned the garments to shimmer under electrical lights. The key piece of this section is Madeleine Vionnet’s 1924 light green silk muslin evening dress with its peacock-like layered train.
Then come the 1930s that favour a new aesthetic encouraged by the financial crisis that prevents couturiers from using rich fabrics and heavy adornments. It is the cut that prevails now: long draped or bias-cut (invented by Vionnet) garments with plunging backs give a new sophisticated and sensual identity to the body.
WWII challenged Paris’ Haute Couture and Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale, fought to maintain the activity in France. At the end of the war, the touring exhibition, Le Théatre de la Mode and its fashion dolls helped revive the industry and bring the spotlight onto Paris again. In 1947, Christian Dior will be the main initiator of this recognition. With his New Look, he erases the war’s deprivations and restrictions and highlights a new silhouette highlighting a flamboyant femininity. During the 1950s, the Jolie Madame style initiated by Pierre Balmain proposes unpretentious yet highly elegant designs that seduce a new generation of clients.
However, it is the 1960s decade that will transform Haute Couture. Young designers like André Courrèges, Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Cardin break up with the past and imagine new silhouettes with short skirts, modernist patterns and flat cuts. As a symbol, Coco Chanel’s iconic suit with its easy to wear aspect adapted to society’s changes and the evolution of women’s status, ends the exhibition and introduces this new generation of designers.
Since, these innovators have open the way for designers who freely interpret Haute Couture: some stay true to its splendour, others prefer an eccentric approach while some design simple masterly cut garments. Haute Couture, today, has many faces thanks to its inspirational history.
The display is free and accessible to everyone which makes it even more educational. I could sense that many people surrounding me during my visit were not used to visiting exhibitions and I was particularly moved by a woman who expressed out loud all her emotion and excitement at seeing so many beautiful things, things she had never observed. I was myself accompanied by my 14-year-old sister (the real teenage kind! )and I was truly happy to see her appreciate the beauty of the garments (of course, which girl would not?) but also gather very seriously the educational information she was given and understand what curators had intended to say: that is that Haute Couture is not just about frills and red carpets but is the result of an incredible craftsmanship and that it can also reside in the simplest day wear.
Paris Haute Couture is not just a show-stopping exhibition, it is also a very informative and brilliantly displayed presentation that brings into light audacious and compelling affiliations.
The exhibition has just ended but you can find its beautiful catalogue.
Maziers, Amandine. L’oeil et la Main: Les Artisans de la Haute Couture. Paris: Editions du Collectionneur, 2005.
Wilcox, Claire. The Golden Age of Couture. London: V&A Publishing, 2008.
You can add to your list: Ashley’s reading advice.
And, of course, Paris Haute Couture’s Fashion Week just took place so you’ll find numerous delightful reviews and photographs all over the web.