Paris’ Musée Carnavalet is the city’s historical museum, a museum that tells the story of Paris with the help of various themes such as painting, drawings, interior design…and, with its most recent exhibition, Roman d’une Garde-Robe (The Novel of a Wardrobe), fashion. How natural for a city that has always been and still is entitled the capital of fashion and chic to be the guiding thread of a display illustrating the making and the life of an elegant Parisian wardrobe from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s. Actually, I’d rather say that what is a the centre of the exhibition is not quite Paris (although the city’s activity as a haute couture market is clearly contextualised) but rather La Parisienne. The famed Parisienne, the one foreigners and sartorial authors still much babble about: ‘The Parisian style’, ‘The Parisian diet’, ‘How to..like a Parisian’….Some ‘Parisiennes’ have made a living of their mythologised identity, I’m thinking Ines de la Fressange…However, being a Parisian myself I still have not quite understood what makes a style, Parisian…I actually believe there is no such thing as a Parisian style. Maybe foreigners observe something I don’t quite see myself.
Anyhow, this is not the subject of my post today but what brought me to talking about La Parisienne is that the exhibition proposed by Carnavalet, in association with the Musée Galliera, clearly plays with the concept of La Parisienne but a Parisienne less known by the public, a Parisienne who evolved in the beginning of the 20th century.
Let me announce it clearly right now, I loved this exhibition. I truly appreciated the concept, the precise observation of the life and work of Alice Alleaume, the woman around whom the whole display is built. Between 2008 and 2010, indeed, were donated to the Musée Galliera hundred of garments and accessories belonging to the descendants of the Dumas family, pieces that illustrated the lives of Alice, her mother Adèle and her elder sister, Hortense: a veritable and brilliant piece of fashion history, spanning from the 1830s to 1930s. In addition, those historical items were accompanied by precious documents such as photographies, letters and notes that enabled the museum curators to develop a strong insight into the context in which the clothes were made and worn. Such a rare opportunity had to be shared with the public!
The museum therefore decided to focus on Alice Alleaume who not only led a wealthy bourgeois existence and had been brought up in a family firmly anchored in couture, but was herself first vendor at Chéruit, an experience that enables the display to bring the attention on a couture house that is often forgotten although it was, alongside such houses as Lanvin and Poiret, a major witness of 1920s fashion.
Alice Alleaume is our guide throughout the display. We follow her traces through four main sections: the influence of her family and her first steps into the professional environment of fashion – the context of Paris and couture within its key centre, the Place Vendome and the Rue de la Paix – Alice’s career at Chéruit – the 1930s and how Alice embodied Parisian chic.
We thus enter a first clear room in which are displayed pre-war garments: children pieces and the crinolines of Adèle, her mother, that lead us within the context in which she was brought up. We discover the great taste of her parent who was herself a renown seamstress alongside the dresses of her sister, Hortense, who worked at Worth. We also observe the clothing of Alice’s young years who despite her youth is already very elegant and possesses numerous hats. All these items come along various photographies and paintings that illustrate the family’s environment, the stylistic context of the time and most of all put a face on the protagonists.
The second section interestingly tells us more about Paris’ fashion scene and how it concentrated between the Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix. Various articles and illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s evoke the atmosphere of this area while certain drawings by Sem mock the fashion ‘wannabes’ (fashion evolves not attitudes!). A slideshow presents a very entertaining photographic reportage published by Le Figaro in 1910 and that invites us behind the scenes of the main couture houses.
The third and most important section is dedicated to Alice’s work at Chéruit from 1912 to 1923. To enhance the contextual feel, large blow-up photographies of the Chéruit salons serve as a mural background. A couture house, Chéruit’s designs were tailor-made and Alice Alleaume encountered with many wealthy clients to whom she gave her best advices and she consciously took notes of all the alterations that were to be made on her clients’ garments. Alice indeed kept a notebook she updated daily: an extraordinary document that tells us all about the technical work that had to be done but that also shares her remarks about a client’s physical characteristics and humours. She thus, for example, signifies that this lady being ‘large, the waist should be loose-fitting’
The scenography also evokes the rich productivity of the house with the images of the 200 hundred models of the summer 1920 collection used as a wallpaper as well as the airing of vendors’ voices that give the impression of taking part to their bursting activity.
Most of the Chéruit garments on display come from Alice’s personal wardrobe and reflect the versatile and elegant style of the vendor who follows the evolution of fashion and adopts jersey swimsuits, beach pyjamas and Art Deco prints.
Finally, we enter the 1930s section, a decade during which Alice is no longer a vendor but nevertheless continues to demonstrate her taste for refined garments. She adopts the 1930s style with bias cut dresses, plastic Art Deco jewellery and inventive dressing-up costumes. Many Jeanne Lanvin pieces are displayed and we are told that Alice led the existence of a socialite: going to premières and to the theatre.
The Roman D’une Garde-Robe is not only the tale of a woman and her wardrobe, it greatly illustrates the evolution of high fashion and its professional working. Alice is the embodiment of a wealthy bourgeoisie that, to keep up with its social obligations, possessed a rich and elegant wardrobe and followed trends without being an avant-garde. What is added with this precise figure is her role as a vendor in a major couture house who brings an exclusive and rare insight into the everyday activity of a fashion house in the beginning of the 20th century.
By choosing to tell the story of a real life person, the museum added an emotional feel to its display. We can more easily relate to the garments as they were ‘explicitly worn’. And we finally come to envy Alice who got the chance to wear such exquisite dresses that, with the help of great work of contextualisation, are not fantasy-like garments but become true wardrobe items.
Goissiord, Sophie. Roman D’une Garde-Robe: le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30. Paris Musées, Paris: 2013.