Fashion in Motion: Phoebe English at the V&A

 

On Friday, 20 October, the V&A hosted a spectacular retrospective presentation by British designer Phoebe English as part of the museum’s Fashion in Motion series. The series features leading contemporary fashion designers and makes live fashion experiences available to the public.

Set within the V&A’s grand Raphael Gallery, the Fashion in Motion series typically features a runway show. English, however, broke with this tradition and presented her designs on raised, round platforms where four models donning a range of English’s womenswear designs stood next to marionettes wearing a scaled-down version of the original designs. This provocative presentation blurred the lines between performance art and fashion show when models, or, rather, performers dressed in plain white jumpsuits moved between the platforms to toy with the marionettes, puppeteering the movements of the fashion models. Indeed, the spectacle created by this inventive set design continues English’s practice of staging her collections within immersive environments. Combined with live music by a harpist, the sublime designs and the playful scale of the marionettes resulted in what felt like visual gluttony.

The individual, rounded platforms allowed the viewer to weave through the presentation and move closer to the designs in a way that would not be possible during a traditional runway show. Although this set design was much more engaging that a catwalk, the act of moving around the platforms and observing the models and their marionettes up close felt somewhat intrusive. The models made direct eye-contact with onlookers and members of the press, posing consciously for Snapchat stories and press photos. This directness coupled with the uncanny marionettes and the puppeteers’ manipulation of the models and their puppets created a haunting, powerful experience. The weight of the presentation was most palpable at the end of the show when the models slowly descended from the platforms and walked out of the gallery, leaving only the puppets. The dangling, lifeless marionettes dressed in their Phoebe English miniatures represented, for me, the eerie, indescribably strange and alienating space that fashion can occupy.

Aside from the memorable spectacle of the show, English’s luxury designs demonstrated an expertise in technique, materials, and construction. English, who aims to set her label apart from mass made fashion, creates striking silhouettes with unconventional textures to indicate balance between craft and design. The Phoebe English label, which is entirely made in England, is certainly one to watch.

By Abby Fogle

All photos authors own

Dress History: The story of Corrie in her parachute silk blouse, ca. 1943

A black-and-white photograph captures a young woman posed against a plain backdrop, smiling confidently. She wears a blouse made of a seemingly light-coloured fabric. The blouse’s gathered sleeves end just above her elbows, and its yoke appears to be punctuated by small dots in five horizontal rows. The handwritten caption under this photograph, found glued into an album, not only identifies this young woman, but also ‘identifies’ the blouse by revealing its materials and how it was made. Moreover, it reveals that this woman is both the wearer and the maker of the garment. Originally in Dutch, the caption states: ‘Corrie in self-made blouse with smocking in parachute fabric from English aviator’.

‘Corrie’, short for ‘Cornelia’, is my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1925 as the eldest daughter and the third of six children. Her family lived in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. As a young girl, Corrie learned how to sew. Decades later, I remember Corrie, known to me as my grandmother, as having an eye for the intricate details of clothing – the quality of the material, the cut, the construction and the finish. Her appreciation of and interest in textiles and clothing, and how to make them, must have been hereditary. It runs like a thread through my family, from my grandmother to my aunts and mother, to my younger sister and me.

Before she married my grandfather Nel in 1950, my grandmother completed commissioned pieces in addition to making clothes for herself and her family. However, because of the years of textile rationing during the Second World War, none of her original pieces have remained. The earliest surviving self-made garment is her wedding dress, which after her death in 2011 was passed on to my mother. The blouse she wears in the aforementioned black and white photograph has disappeared. I did not even know about its existence until a few months ago, when I discovered this photograph in a photo album compiled by my grandmother’s younger sister, Nellie.

I brought it to our ‘Documenting Fashion’ seminar on ‘History and Memory,’ for which we had to bring a personal dress-related object. I had read before about garments made of so-called ‘parachute silk’ during and right after the Second World War. For instance, Dominique Veillon, in her book Fashion under the Occupation (2002), writes about the case of Vichy-France (1940–1944). During shortages of clothing and its raw materials, “any piece of cloth or the like was a godsend.” Veillon points to the emergence of a “fairly widespread fashion” for clothing made out of parachute silk among women close to the Resistance, even though this was risky because it revealed one’s links with the Resistance and the Allied Forces.[1] And Julie Summers in her book Fashion on the Ration (2016) about wartime fashion in Britain, writes: “Almost every woman who was alive at the time remembers either acquiring some [parachute] silk or having seen a garment made from it, and it was indeed considered to be a wartime luxury.” [2] However, Summers notes that “[a]lthough so many people claim to have had parachute silk, few can remember how to acquire it.”[3]

After finding the photograph of my grandmother, the stories about parachute silk garments suddenly became more personal. My grandmother, still a young girl during Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), at some point had acquired parachute silk and made it into a blouse for herself and, as a second photograph of Nellie confirms, for her sisters (Figure 2). A handwritten comment on a piece of paper accompanying Nellie’s photograph states “1943?”, but this date remains unconfirmed.

Photograph of Nellie in a parachute silk blouse made. Foto Middendorp, Hilversum. Ca. 1943

I am currently trying to unravel this history further. The only remaining source is Cileke, my grandmother’s youngest sister. The story goes that the fabric for these blouses was salvaged from the parachute of an English aviator shot down not too far away from where my grandmother’s family lived. Having an uncle active in the Dutch Resistance might possibly explain how my grandmother managed to acquire such material. I would love to learn more about this material’s status in the specific context of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Was it forbidden to own this material? Was it dangerous to wear a garment made of it during the occupation?

The photograph of my grandmother in her parachute silk blouse has evoked many questions; some are broader, relating to wartime history, and others are personal, relating to my family’s personal history. Unravelling dress-related (and family) history can be hard when time has passed and the wearer is not alive anymore, and indeed, even the garment is gone. Nevertheless, this photograph makes me feel connected to my family. And although black-and-white, it adds more colour and depth to a topic that I have been interested in for a while, namely dress during the Second World War.

By Nelleke Honcoop

[1] Dominique Veillon, Fashion under the Occupation (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 137–38.

[2] Julie Summers, Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War (London: Profile Books, 2016), 137.

[3] Summers, 138.

Dress Talks: Crossing Boundaries: Dress and Exclusion in Italy, 1550-1650

Join us for a talk by Elizabeth Currie this Friday, 10 November. Elizabeth will discuss dress and deviancy in early modern Italy, from the perspectives of the fashionable elite to others at the social margins.

The typical black attire of the Italian nobleman represented an ideal of restraint and sobriety. Other styles that strayed from this model were often denounced, particularly the kind of flamboyance usually associated with soldiers: leather, feathers, and slashed, figure-hugging garments.  How did this impulse to regulate clothing change in the context of groups of ‘outsiders’, increasingly prominent in visual imagery from this period, such as fortune tellers or beggars?

Drawing on contemporary debates on morality, etiquette, and health, the talk will investigate why specific types of dress were vilified and considered to pose a threat. It will highlight clothing’s power to bind together communities as well as to disrupt gender identities and social hierarchies.


Elizabeth Currie
 is a lecturer and author specialising in the history of early modern dress, fashion and textiles.  She currently teaches at the Royal College of Art/V&A and Central St Martins. Her articles have appeared in Fashion TheoryRenaissance Studies, and the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Recent publications include Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence (2016) and (ed.) A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion, Vol. 3: Fashion in the Renaissance (1450-1650) (2017), as well as contributions to the Bloomsbury Visual Arts blog, Gucci Stories, and Apollo online.

Friday, 10 November 2017 at 12:30 pm in The Courtauld Research Forum Seminar Room 
Open to all, free admission. No advance booking required.

 

Addressing Images

Every term we have a meeting of the Addressing Images Discussion Group.  Actually, that makes it sound far too official and formal, what really happens is that anyone who feels like spending their lunch hour talking about fashion can drop in and join my students and me.  It started as a way to share ideas and has become a regular venue to think about what fashion representation means.  Past sessions have included looking at Bill Cunningham’s entrancing photographs of Editta Sherman dressed in vintage, out and about in 1970s New York, amateur film footage of a late 1930s family holiday to Europe, and Paul Iribe’s images for Les Robes de Paul Poiret – this last one was extra special, as we had the original 1908 book on display from our collections.

Deciding what to discuss is always fun.  We need to choose something that will spark discussion, and interest the wide and wonderful range of people who attend – everyone from fellow Courtauld academics and administrative staff to textile designers, photographers, Instagram friends, vintage collectors – anyone who likes to talk about dress.  Ideas are just as diverse as the backgrounds of the people and that’s the point – sharing what we do at The Courtauld with others, and in turn being inspired by the people that attend.

  Detail of illustration of Elsa Schiaparelli design by Marcel Vertes, 1938

Detail of illustration of Elsa Schiaparelli design by Eric, 1938

Out most recent session focused on Christian Berard’s illustrations for Elsa Schiaparelli’s famed 1938 Circus Collection.  With the original double page spread as our focus we considered the way Berard’s technique drew viewers in to a tumbling series of glimpsed images of couture-clad women, clowns, acrobats and animals.  We compared his illustrations to Eric’s more earthbound, but no less seductive style, and to Marcel Vertes’ fantastical dreamlike drawings.  Discussion ranged from brushstroke to colour, from character to iconography and from fashion to funfair.

It was, as always, a wonderful, enlightening way to spend an hour … so do put the date for next term’s Addressing Images on 9 February in your diaries.

Fashion is a technology of communication: The intimacy of accessory in Lygia Clark’s dialogue goggles

 

Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s ‘Óculos’ (Goggles) and Dialogo: Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles) from 1968 draw attention to the performance of wearing, looking and seeing; and the fashion accessory as an object of communication.

Both artworks are performative and are a sensory experience for the participant as well as being an immersive sculpture and fashion accessory. The artwork is the participant wearing the object: a pair of glasses that alters the vision of the participant(s) with magnifying lenses.

In ‘Goggles’ (1968), the artwork exists when the participant wears the goggles. Even here, in this photograph, we are not experiencing the artwork, instead we are seeing a photographic documentation of how the artwork functions when brought to life. We can appreciate this photograph of the glasses on the participant, but we cannot understand what it feels like to experience the glasses; for instance, how they would alter the participant’s vision and the way the participant would feel and interact with others in the space not wearing goggles. ‘Goggles’ is the experience of the participant wearing the goggles in the context they are situated in – it is the interactions they have as a result of ‘being’, ‘seeing’ and therefore communicating as the artwork.

In Clark’s ‘Dialogue Goggles’ (1968), two participants are joined by the goggles they wear. The artwork is the communication between the two participants which is facilitated by the accessory.

There is something both menacing and tender about ‘Goggles’ and ‘Dialogue Goggles’. The goggles, as the object, remind me of WW1 gasmasks or military goggles – the metal arms are jarring and mechanical, and the rubber eye pads are like heavy black shells. The large shape of the goggles obscure the human face like a mask, so that some parts are completely hidden beneath the rubber frames and the eyes are only visible to the other participant. And then, the human aspect of the participants wearing the goggles together puts the objects to function as the artwork and a physical closeness is instigated between the two participants joined by their eyes. The artwork then facilitates an opportunity for intimacy through the participant and the accessory, which is suggested in both of these photos of participants in optic dialogue.

By Evie Ward

 

The Avant Garden

Moschino’s Spring/Summer 2018 ready-to-wear collection designed by Jeremy Scott is inspired by biker ballerinas, Hasbro’s ‘My Little Pony’, and flowers. An eclectic group of influences that are not aesthetically comprehensible but work insofar that the designs make the models look as if they are playing dress up on the runway. The designs make sense as a presentation of dress-up in the way they are in direct conversation with the runway design itself. The show’s threshold is shrouded with vegetation and overflowing with flowers of all different sizes and colors. The Moschino brand name is visible on the threshold only as a trace, an imprint created by negative space. The runway is made of glass and appears black, reflecting the walls that surround it—making it seem as if the models are walking in a fantasy space. The models reject ‘types’ through what they wear. Instead of being either ‘the biker’ or ‘the ballerina,’ they are both. Scott’s designs for Moschino expose how fashion shows can be taken too seriously in terms of how they can present a new standard of dress for women and instead the show parodies that notion through dress-up. The joke is particularly visible when the models walk out dressed as various flowers–the ultimate gift-object in society–which is often a metonymic representation for women in general. Scott’s use of humor in his designs to reject presentations of standards of dress for women, which makes visible the spaces in which women are told to exist are actually quite fetishistic and unsettling.

Anna Cleveland for Moschino Spring/Summer RTW 2018

Supermodel in-training, Kaia Gerber, opens the show. Gerber wears a feathered light-blue tutu, “My Little Pony” t-shirt paired with fishnets, black leather combat boots, and a black leather jacket (fig.1). Gerber’s look sets the tone for the biker-ballerina designs by Scott. The mixture of hard lines created by the biker aesthetic and the soft lines and colors of Hasbro style in conjunction with Gerber’s almost seraphic face further establishes the show’s theme of dress-up.

Gigi Hadid for Moschino Spring/Summer RTW 2018

There is no fluid transition between the first act and the second act of the show. Anna Cleveland opens act two by sauntering onto the runway dressed as a pink lotus flower picking out her own petals (fig 2). Scott’s flower-wear took the shape of lilies, roses, orchids, tiger lilies and tulips. The show ends with Gigi Hadid, literally dressed as a gifted bouquet of flowers (fig.3). The end of the show makes the viewer aware that the models (or flowers rather) were all gifts to be received by the eye. Scott complicates this in that Hadid’s make-up does not fit with the rest of the flowers that frame her face. Her make-up makes her appear older. Hadid’s face stands out amongst the flowers instead of blending in. Jeremy Scott’s designs use dress up as a means to complicate how clothes, our second skin, can actually reveal the physical body even more.

By Destinee Forbes

Plenty of Pockets: Pockets as a 1940s Wartime Phenomenon

In her article for COS about pockets, Rebecca Arnold discusses the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ held in 1945 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. According to Arnold, the exhibition’s curator Bernard Rudofsky signalled a degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothing and “bemoaned the excess of pockets in the tailoring of the time (24 by his calculation), many of which never carried anything”.[1] While spending the last few months doing research on the Dutch woman’s magazine Libelle, in particular its issues covering WWII, I was struck by the abundance of – often extravagantly large – pockets on both haute couture designs, discussed in the magazine’s regular fashion column ‘Libelle-Cocktail’, as well as on patterns for the home dressmaker. Praising their practicality, Libelle presented pockets as one of many “wartime phenomena” in fashion that may signal fashion’s response to immediate wartime conditions.

Unlike other Dutch women’s magazines, Libelle, a popular and still-existing ‘domestic weekly’ first issued in 1934, was continuously published for almost the entire duration of Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (10 May 1940–5 May 1945). The magazine thus provides us with an interesting insight into Dutch domestic life under the pressing wartime conditions of food and textile scarcity. The Dutch textile rationing system, which was implemented on 12 August 1940 and was only abolished in November 1949, proved to be an ongoing, daily challenge for Dutch women responsible for keeping themselves, along with their families, adequately and, if possible, fashionably, dressed. Responding to the immediate needs of Dutch housewives, Libelle increasingly provided practical yet fashionable ideas on how to mend and make do with one’s wardrobe and make the most of one’s textile rationing card. Numerous sewing and knitting patterns were given, as well as instructions on how to make new garments, often from outworn or unused garments or from unusual materials. Practicality, frugality and diligence did not preclude modishness.

In its 19 April 1940 issue, Libelle mentions fashion’s “latest thing” from America, namely the ‘cash-and-carry-belt’. Resembling the ‘fanny pack’ (also: ‘bum bag’) popular during the late twentieth century, this belt with two large, attached pockets could be used to carry money and other small belongings. Libelle states that Parisian women wear this belt on their daily shopping trips, using one pocket for carrying money and the other for carrying the purchased goods. Providing a pattern and full description on how to make their own version of this wartime-related, American fashion novelty item, Libelle advises women to choose fabric “in accordance with the frock on which the belt will be worn”.

Libelle’s interpretation of “The latest thing: The cash-and-carry-belt”. Libelle, no. 16 (19 April 1940), p. 101.

Pockets were a practical asset to any garment at a time when handbags were increasingly difficult to acquire due to scarcity of materials and rationing coupons. The cash-and-carry-belt, and similarly any type of large pockets integrated in or separately attached to a clothing item, could prove handy at times when citizens, frequently plagued by air raids, had to be prepared to quickly pack and easily carry their valuable belongings with them to bombing shelters.

Illustrations in Libelle of the latest designs by French couturier Jacques Heim. These clearly military-inspired, khaki-coloured, woollen ensembles feature a “[…] brown leather belt with separate pockets, which can be worn at will on skirt or coat.” Libelle, no. 13 (29 March 1940), p. 3.

As the complaint by Rudofsky suggests, the fashion for large pockets did not disappear with the cessation of war. In an article about her trip to London during spring 1946, Libelle correspondent Corry Erkens noticed that pockets, “a wartime souvenir”, were still en vogue, and were sported on coats, dresses, skirts and blouses.[2]

 

A leather belt with an attached bag, which could be worn with all kinds of suits and dresses that did not have enough space to carry one’s necessities. Libelle, no. 18 (3 May 1940), p. 3.

 

By Nelleke Honcoop

 

[1] Rebecca Arnold, ‘On Pockets’, COS website. Accessible via: https://www.cosstores.com/gb/Studio/Projects/On_Pockets (accessed: 16 September 2017). See also: Rebecca Arnold, ‘Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram’, Documenting Fashion blog. Accessible via: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2017/07/25/clothes-modern-read-diagram/ (accessed: 16 September 2017).

[2] Corry Erkens, ‘De Engelsche Vrouw en Wij’ [‘The Englishwoman and We’], Libelle, no. 6 (17 May 1946), pp. 20-23.

Balenciaga’s Legacy: Reinventions of the Modern Female Silhouette

The Victoria & Albert Museum puts on a major fashion-related exhibition every year. This year’s show, Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, celebrates the 100th anniversary opening of Balenciaga’s first dressmaking shop in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary opening of his haute couture house in Paris, France. The exhibition showcases some 120 outfits and accessories, with the majority of the collection from Balenciaga’s 1950s and ‘60s-era.

The exhibition is housed in a cosy two level space within the V&A. On the ground floor, visitors are led in a counter-clockwise direction between themed window displays of exquisite Balenciaga designs. Each row of display focuses on Balenciaga’s innovations in the female silhouette, broken down into the fundamental elements of modern ‘dress’, including cut, fabric, form, and embellishments.

Balenciaga’s pioneering interpretation of the modern female silhouette was characterized by simplistic straight lines, bulky volume at the back, and obliteration of the waistlines which resulted in the abstraction of the body. For example, the trapeze-shaped volume in his ‘baby doll’ dress blurred the contours of the body. It was surprising to learn that this loose-fitted design was highly controversial at the time, considering how the ‘baby doll’ dress is now so widely adopted and replicated today. If I remember correctly, the baby doll is part of the basic-wear line of Zara and H&M.

Balenciaga’s later designs of the 1960s and ‘70s are characterized by the increasingly architectural shapes in his garments, such as the flared lantern sleeves. Balenciaga worked closely with fabric manufactures, like the Swiss company, Abraham, to produce innovative fabrics such as the lightweight ‘gazar’ silk which could hold the elaborate shapes without cumbersome supportive structures inside.

Semi-fit dress, 1957-58

Finally, the ground floor ends with some of Balenciaga’s most iconic designs such as the ‘unsexy sack’ which eradicated a pinched waist altogether, the ‘semi-fit dress’ which was only fitted in the front but loose in the back, and the three-quarter bracelet sleeve jacket with the stand-away collars which allowed for the display of jewellery at the neck and wrists. These designs contrasted sharply with the dominant, and conventional, waist-hugging, hourglass shape favoured by his contemporary competitors.

Heading upstairs, visitors are welcomed into a high-ceiling, well-lit room. Unlike the first half of the exhibition, which highlighted Balenciaga’s experiment in silhouette, his skills and ingenious designs, the second half focuses on Balenciaga’s legacy and the vast array of designers he has influenced.

We see from the displays that Balenciaga’s commitment to minimalism has been adopted by designers such as Emanuel Ungaro, Rick Owens, and J.W Anderson. Balenciaga’s emphasis on shape and volume that stood away from body has influenced the likes of Molly Goddard, and Rei Kawakubo. Balenciaga’s innovative pattern cutting and adoption of new materials has influenced designers like Issey Miyake, McQueen, Alaia, and a whole wave of designers who came after him. Like Christian Dior once said, ““Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.”

Baby Doll dress by Molly Goddard

Today, Balenciaga is known more for its streetwear-inspired, knitted, high-top sneakers and oversized hoodies, than for its radically abstracted haute couture dress designs. The V&A exhibition serves as a worthy reminder that it was Balenciaga who laid the foundations for many of the basic dress designs in the western wardrobe that we may take for granted today.

All images author’s own

By Lily Mu

An Attempt to Unravel Agnes Richter’s Jacket

Within The Fashion System Roland Barthes puts forth the notion that meaning from fashion can only be obtained by its relationship to image and text. The illegibility of the garment itself however, does not imply that said garment does not have meaning; only that it is obscured. This notion is interesting to consider in relation to an embroidered straitjacket produced by the psychosis of Agnes Richter within the confines of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895. Various words and incoherent sentences are maniacally stitched upon every available space while visible perspiration stains map the contours of the jacket. This sense of corporeality gives a ghostly impression of the artist’s body and hand; a hand that punctured and stitched the very garment that restricted her. For Richter, the needle became the phallus that she, as a woman, was deprived of within the patriarchal structures of the 19th century sanatorium. The needle-qua-phallus operates as an object that gave Richter a mode of expression, whilst the jacket itself — designed to restrict the arms thus inhibiting the ability to sew — can be seen as an object of castration. The puncturing of the jacket thus becomes an act of aggression that enabled Richter to conquer the object of castration while simultaneously embedding herself within it.

Within her book Agnes’ Jacket, Gail A. Hornstein closely analyses the textual content of the straitjacket and ultimately concludes that it remains illegible to the viewer. Written in German in a style called Deutsch Schrift, the jacket’s musings have never been discerned from the erratic stitchings that line the topography of the garment. What can be deduced however, lies within the abstract nature of the piece; such as the unravelling and withering threads that represent the decomposition of the artist’s mind during the jacket’s production. What Hornstein ultimately concludes is that the ghostly corporeality of the garment comes to embody Agnes and allows the viewer to revel in the obscurity of trying to ascertain who she was.

This obscurity and illegibility, in relation to Barthes’ statements on fashion, provides interesting insight into the gendering of language as well as Richter’s rejection of it. Whilst Barthes claims that language is one of the vessels through which fashion can convey meaning, language itself —as explored by Lacan — is a patriarchal structure that signifies a child’s entry into the Symbolic Order. It is therefore no surprise that Richter, alongside many of her contemporary female patients, rejected language and relied upon other means of expression. Charcot’s hysterics, for example, relied upon contortions of the body while Richter utilized the needle and thread as a means of communication. The similarity that lies between the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ is one that becomes divided when considering the gendering of each. The written word was a privilege predominantly gifted to men while women were often delegated to crafts such as embroidery and weaving. In rejecting language Richter makes a return to the feminine art of embroidery that ultimately subverts and obscures meaning. Trying to unravel the threads of Richter’s jacket is a task that no one seems to be equipped for; and it is in this rejection of the symbolic that allows Richter to speak in a voice that no one understands but everyone wants to listen to.

 

Further reading:

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

 Gail A. Hornstein, Agnes’ Jacket

Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self

 

By Niall Billings

Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris

I was thrilled to learn that my local art museum, Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, was to stage an exhibition of French jewelry this summer. Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris was the Joslyn’s first jewelry exhibition and their first partnership with a Parisian museum. The exhibition featured 70 pieces of jewelry and luxury accessories and over 100 works on paper from the Petit Palais’ collection. The Petit Palais’ Parisian heritage was an important factor within the exhibition since Paris has been home to a continuous tradition of jewelry production since the Renaissance. Bijoux Parisiens highlighted over 300 years of French jewelry innovation and creativity and placed the precious stones and luxury items in a historical context to emphasize the way in which French jewelry reflects the aristocratic wearer’s position in society and the designer’s creativity. While some of the artifacts spotlighted artists who are lost to history, others pointed to the mastery of France’s famous jewelry maisons such as Boucheron, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Through its use of contemporary fashion plates and prints from popular French magazines, Bijoux Parisiens also highlighted the intimate relationship between jewelry and fashion. The sartorial aspect of the exhibition was clear from the beginning as the first section of wall-text was accompanied by an 1884 portrait of a young woman by artist Paul Baudry. The painting’s subject, Madame Louis Singer, wears an off-the-shoulder black gown with delicate ruffles down the skirt and a bustle. The sumptuousness of her dress is enhanced by her jewelry, a diamond and pearl brooch at her bosom, double-strand pearl bracelet, sapphire and diamond ring, and dainty diamond earrings. The combination of Madame Singer’s smart black dress and glittering jewelry announce her as a woman of refined taste and high status.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition began with engravings by Gilles L’Égaré dating to the 1660s. These drawings of various ring and chain designs were produced to train apprentices and mark the artist’s ownership of the designs. The earliest piece in the exhibition was a pendant of gold, enamel, rubies, and pearls. I was struck by the intricacy and scale of this pendant, which was about three inches tall and featured a woman embracing two children, symbolizing the Christian virtue of charity. Both the early drawings and jewelry pieces set the tone for an innovative and ornate exhibition.

There was little evidence of  eighteenth-century splendor in the exhibition, but a large portion of Bijoux Parisiens was dedicated to nineteenth-century France and the link between its tumultuous political climate and jewelry aesthetics. Napoleon’s reign ended the repression of luxury during the French Revolution and encouraged the privilege of excess. The renewed production of jewelry, like the visual arts and fashions of the period, featured neoclassical designs and a revival of ancient art. Cameo necklaces, bracelets, and brooches as well as drawings of cameos featured prominently in the exhibition. Cameos in particular were a staple of Napoleon’s court because they alluded to antiquity and displayed wealth while their semi-precious materials were affordable to the aristocrats who were still recovering from the Revolution. Contemporary fashion illustrations from Germany in the exhibition show typical neoclassic, columnar gowns with deep necklines that made for easy display of large cameo necklaces such as the one below.

A wall broke Bijoux Parisiens into two distinctive spaces and appropriately separated twentieth-century artifacts from the earlier jewelry and forced visitors to pass a physical threshold into the turn of the century section of the exhibition. The radically different Art Nouveau style that dominated the turn of the century materialized in Bijoux Parisiens in jewelry and graphite drawings. An amazing selection horn and enamel hair pins and brooches by René Lalique exemplified the natural plant motifs and insect-adorned designs of the new style.

Perhaps my favorite artifacts in Bijoux Parisiens was the selection of color lithographs by George Barbier, Edouard Halouze, George Lepape, and Charles Jacqueau. The prints revealed the synergy between the radical fashions and jewelry designs of the early twentieth century. Works by Lepape from the Gazette du Bonton from 1912-1915 featured Paul Poiret’s radically simple and exotic styles such as his ‘lamp-shade’ dress and turban looks accessorized with equally elegant bangles and long necklace strands. The First World War slowed French jewelry production and wiped away aristocratic dynasties, leading to a new social order and new design aesthetics. Color lithographs from the 1920s expressed the new, modernized forms embraced by French jewelry designers. An ad for Van Cleef & Arpels illustrated by Edouard Halouze presents a woman surveying her Van Cleef & Arpels collection. The simple strands of pearls and bracelets she wears compliments the striking simplicity of her low-cut, bright red dress and in-vogue cropped hairstyle.

 

I adored this exhibition (so much so that I visited three times) and although the exhibition is now closed so I cannot suggest visiting, its display of French jewelry innovation sheds an important light on the intimate relationship between fashion, jewelry design and French history.

All photos by the author

Abby Fogle