I am preparing a conference I will be participating to on the 13th February at the Chateau de Versailles – a conference about Marie Antoinette’s influence on contemporary fashion. Among the two other speakers will be Severine Experton-Dard, a textile and fashion expert that closely collaborates with a Parisian auctioneer, Thierry de Maigret. When I first met Severine, not only did we talk about our conference but she also kindly presented an extraordinary auction she was then preparing and that is taking place tomorrow at the Hotel Drouot, in Paris. This auction gathers textile elements from the 18th century but also rare costumes of the 18th and 19th century kept until now by old aristocratic French families that never hesitated to use those historical garments as fancy costumes. Moreover, alongside the ancient pieces, are also sold several haute couture dresses and theatrical costumes from the 1940s and 1950s.
I must admit I was very unaware of how such auctions functioned. I did, of course, already, attend and observe fashion auctions (a subject I have already written about here and there) but I had never been confronted to such ancient garments and the naive little girl in me believed these only belonged to museums. I was fascinated to learn how so many old families still possessed such objects and how well preserved they were despite being used as fantasy bal costumes. Such auctions highlight very intimate pieces – more than museums – and add a more familiar feel to our experience to fashion. How lovely to take a look at the baby bibs from the early 1900s: some stained – and you can only imagine a baby’s first experience with food – others spotless and one embroidered with the charming word ‘Darling’. Who decided one day to keep all these sophisticated laced bibs? Especially the dirty ones…And those women undergarments from the late 19th century? When we know how rare it is to find them in good state because of their proximity with the body and its sweat…Much mystery resides in comprehending the context of the objects but how fascinating.
Severine also explained that most buyers during those kind of auctions were designers from international high street brands (I told you I was very naive!) that bought the -incredibly- cheap textile elements to copy their motifs and add them to next season’s best selling shirt or dress.
The auction also presents exotic garments from Japan, China and Persia, most dating back to the 19th century that please the eye with their exquisite embroideries and materials while we can’t help but observe the fluidity and looseness of Asian feminine dress compared to the tightness and extravagance of the Western costumes visible a few pages later within the catalogue.
The Western ensembles are the most dramatic objects of the auction. As I said, I couldn’t believe such garments were still secretly kept within the intimacy of modern families. I got the chance of touching and observing a little number during my meeting with Severine and I felt like a child in a candy shop. The dresses and masculine jackets of the 18th century and 19th century presented at this auction take a whole new identity and are installed in an objective dimension. They no longer belong to museum glass cases or classic painting, they belong to reality. They were the clothing of a great-great-great-great grandparent that lived in it and the superbly preserved textiles enhance their proximity.
When we hop to the haute couture garments, we can’t help but think what an interesting genealogy of the fashion silhouette the auction catalogue is and why not imagine that one of those 18th century robe à la française and that adorable 1970 Escada flowered tunique may have belonged to the same family: two women confronted to two extremes of the fashion form.
I am shocked by the cheap prices of the objects sold: Severine admitted she never hesitated to buy historical dresses for herself to wear at fancy parties and she surely made me want to do the same. Obviously, museum professionals will be the major buyers of the most outstanding objects but there will surely be enough left for the passionate amateurs…
Do have a look at the catalogue online, it is full of treasures I could not all write about here.