The Virtue of Spectacle and Fantasy in Fashion Exhibitions: Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

One of the consequences of studying fashion history is that I can no longer go to exhibitions and simply enjoy them in the straightforward way that I used to. The analytical, critical habit takes over and before I know it I’m unpicking everything I see before me. It is hard to remember that sometimes it can be good to just let oneself be carried away by the sheer joyful extravagance of it all.

The iconic Bar Suit, 1947

2017 marks 70 years since the founding of Dior, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is celebrating the anniversary with Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams. An expansive exhibition, it charts the history of the illustrious couture house. It’s a smorgasbord of luxury and dazzle, and a reminder of fashion’s power to create seductive spectacle.

No exhibition is perfect and this one has its flaws. The broad brush concept and comprehensive scope could have benefited from some streamlining, and a modified layout of the themed rooms might have constructed a stronger narrative. However, the exhibition’s virtue lies in the breathtaking drama in which Dior’s exquisite creations are displayed. It’s an exhibition that doesn’t seek so much to tell a story as to bombard the visitor with spectacular sight upon spectacular sight.

There’s a room dedicated to dresses inspired by the 18th century, the displays evoking the interiors of Versailles. Further on, paper blooms and trails of paper ivy carpet the ceiling, lit by soft pastel lights. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter that the room simply illustrates the frequency with which flowers feature in Dior’s designs. The pure pleasure in seeing the exquisite craftsmanship of the dresses in such splendid settings replaces the need for lengthy museum-speak explanations.

Some rooms have music playing in the background, or screens showing film clips and interactive touch panels that reveal images and quotes. Three iconic photographs of three iconic Dior dresses are printed on a glass wall. The lighting changes and the photographs disappear, revealing the original dresses behind. Far from overshadowing the clothes, the spectacular displays only enhance the experience of the exquisitely crafted garments.

After a while the visitor begins to feel dizzy with the drama, as the theatricality is amplified until the final room where the exhibition culminates in an explosion of hypnotic, unadulterated spectacle.  Gold glitter cascades from the ceiling and walls, which shimmer and morph into an Italianate fresco, before changing again into the façade of 30 Avenue Montaigne. Fantasy truly takes over in this room where sequinned dresses sparkle and glint under the shifting lights.

Emerging from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs onto the Rue du Rivoli one has that dazed feeling of having been woken slightly too early from the most fantastic reverie. If Christian Dior ‘Designed Dreams’, then this exhibition takes those dreams and works them into the display itself, creating a fashion fantasy-world.

Visit Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs until 7 January 2018.

http://www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr/en/exhibitions/current-events-1322/musee-des-arts-decoratifs/christian-dior-couturier-du-reve/

 

Leah Gouget-Levy

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center

The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.

HOUSE OF WORTH (French, 1858-1956) Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) BALL GOWN, 1898, haute couture | Light blue silk satin brocaded à la disposition with yellow and ivory silk; embroidered with silver sequins, clear rhinestones, and clear and silver seed beads; trimmed with ivory cotton lace, black silk velvet, and light blue silk mousseline | Brooklyn, Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 (2009.306. 1324a, b)

A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?

The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.

VIKTOR & ROLF (Dutch, founded 1993) Viktor Hosting (Dutch, born 1969) Rolf Snoren (Dutch, born 1969) BALL GOWN, spring/summer 2010 | Blue polyester tulle, and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)

The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.

Left: MADELEINE VIONNET (French, 1876-1975) EVENING DRESS, 1929, haute couture | Dress: pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; slip: pink silk gauze and crepe de chine | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.248a, b)  Right: JOHN GALLIANO (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) EVENING DRESS, spring/summer 1999 | Peach nylon lace | Gift of John Galliano, 2000 (2000.168)

HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA (French, founded 1937) Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) DRESS, 1967, haute couture | Green silk gazar | Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015 (2015.711)

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) DRESS, 2015; original design: spring/summer 1983, haute couture | Black silk crepe embroidered with pearls, clear rhinestones, and red, green, gold and orange beads | Gift of CHANEL, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.632)

HOUSE OF CHANEL (French, founded 1913) Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) SUIT, spring/summer 2011 Jacket and skirt: navy and cream cotton-acrylic nylon-polyester tweed with ivory nylon net; blouse: ivory rayon twill | Gift of CHANEL, 2013 (2013.157.1a-e, h)

Left: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) ENSEMBLE, autumn/winter 2014-15, haute couture | Coat and waistcoat: black silk faille embroidered with polychrome silk and metal thread, silver plastic sequins, and clear and iridescent glass beads; blouse: black brushed-wool twill; trousers: black wool flannel | Gift of Christian Dior Couture in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.256a-d)  Right: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Christian Dior (French,1905-1957) “MYSTÈRE” COAT, autumn/winter 1947-48 | Black wool melton and dark green silk taffeta | Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959 (C.I.59.26.2)

The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.

Left: MAISON MARGIELA (French, founded 1988) John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 2015, artisanal | Coat: red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; bra top: black nylon net embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; briefs: black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads; shorts: black cotton denim | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Insititute Gifts, 2015 (2015.541a-f)  Right: French COAT, 1787-92 Red wool broadcloth Purchase | Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1992 (1992.65)

ISSEY MIYAKE (Japanese, born 1938) BUSTIER, autumn/winter 1980-81 | Red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate  | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2015.61)

Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.

Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Sketches, Dresses, and Fashion Plates in the Archives

During our MA study trip to New York City we were fortunate to visit several excellent archives. Our very first stop on Monday, to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections archive, kicked off the week with a look through fashion illustration’s past. Among the items shown that day were several lady journals dating back to the eighteenth century. An anthology of La Gazette Rose, a Parisian ladies’ magazine, displayed high quality coloured fashion plates from the early 1870s. The plates, interspersed throughout the volume, show women posing in various outdoor settings adorned in sumptuous costume, creating an intriguing contrast between their hyper-decorated dresses and the simplicity of nature.

Fashion plates from La Gazette Rose. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

Paul Poiret objects were also on display, including two early catalogues and a fan from his perfume shop Rosine. The albums, Les Robes de Paul Poiret of 1908 and Les Choses de Paul Poiret 1911, show Poiret’s fashions in the pochoir technique­–each limited edition album was laboriously hand stenciled and coloured. The fan, a souvenir from Rosine, featured multiple scents on the back in divided columns.

Yona sniffs the Rosine fan to see if any perfume scents remain. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Finally, we looked through a wealth of mid-twentieth century designer sketches. When we were invited to browse them at the end of our visit, Harriet and Barbora took on that task. Their exploration of several large boxes found inventive sketches by designers like Balmain and Balenciaga.

Harriet and Barbora find a Balenciaga sketch in FIT Special Collections. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Balmain sketch. Photo: Barbora Kozusnikova.

Later that day, we visited the storeroom of the Museum at FIT. While there, we saw clothing from the 1920s to the 1960s, including a brilliantly beaded dress from the roaring 20s, daringly cut dresses from the 30s, and a full Dior ‘look,’ complete with matching floral cocktail dress, heels, head wrap, and shawl.

Dior look in the FIT storeroom. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Later in the week we stopped by the Parsons School of Design and were introduced to the sketches of former students well-known in the twentieth-century American market: Claire McCardell, Mildred Orrick, and Joset Walker. While at Parsons we also saw a luxurious red evening gown by McCardell and publicity albums from Orrick and Walker.

Group at the Parsons Archives flipping through McCardell, Orrick, and Walker sketches. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Our last archive visit was to the Brooklyn Museum where we viewed their collection of playful sketches by Elizabeth Hawes, as well as her publicity albums. Though the museum gave most of their fashion collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, they retain sketches like Hawes’ artfully rendered designs. Hawes’ sketches stand out for their attached fabric swatches and humorous names, like ‘Go Home and Tell Your Mother,’ ‘The Clinging Tina,’ and ‘Chicken Little.’

Sketches by Elizabeth Hawes. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

Group looks at sketches and books by Elizabeth Hawes at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jamie Vaught.

We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to visit each archive. A special thanks to April Calahan at FIT Special Collections, Emma McClendon at the Museum at FIT storeroom, Wendy Scheir at the Parsons Archives, and Lisa Smalls and Deirdre Lawrence at the Brooklyn Museum.

A Visit to the V&A

For viewing fashion from 1920-1960, there is no better place in London than the Fashion Galleries, Room 40, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. So, off I went to South Kensington to see the displays which cover the highlights of fashion from 1750 to the present. The display cases are lined along the perimeter of a large circular gallery which allows one to choose whether to follow a chronological path or to travel against time as one wishes. These are some of the highlights of the exhibition.

The 1920s and 1930s are emphasised as a time of increased bodily ease and comfort in fashion as designs became more fluid and less ornate than before World War I. No longer defined by the waist, fashions of the 20s were tubular in shape and hemlines were raised to below the knee, allowing for a wider range of motion benefitting popular dances such as the Charleston. In the 1930s, attire for sporting activities became important and influenced fashion which is represented in a display of a tennis dress, two bathing costumes, and a beach walking suit. The active body and increased independence for women were key aspects of modernity reflected in the fashions of the time. Fashionable sportswear presents such activities as tennis, bathing, and dancing as appropriate and even desirable for women.

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Wartime austerity in Britain is represented by a Utility Suit from 1943 with a gas-mask bag worn cross-body as many handbags are today. Restrictions on clothing circumscribed that skirts should be knee-length without pleats and folds that would require an excess of fabric and jackets could not have more than three buttons.

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The close tailoring of the 1940s, imposed upon women, lasted until 1947 when Christian Dior famously showed his collection featuring longer, voluminous skirts and nipped-in defined waists dubbed the ‘New Look.’ To help women embrace what was a sea-change in dressing, magazines such as Vogue promoted the new silhouette heavily, which eventually became an icon of the 1950s. A display devoted to Dior’s ‘Zemire’ dress from 1954, made for Lady Sekers, showcases the elements of the ensemble. The undergarments reveal how the silhouette of a sculpted bodice and full, circular skirt are achieved. The close narrow shoulders and wasp-waist jacket contrast with the skirt’s volume to create the extreme hour-glass figure reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century, a source underscored by the mirror and fan in the display. The Dior case is a clear highlight of the gallery, at once deconstructing and celebrating the designer’s signature look.

dior-va

A Day in the Life of a Courtauld Student – 18th November 2015

With a vast number of libraries to visit across London, and a variety of fascinating lectures to attend, no day as a student at the Courtauld is quite the same. On a Wednesday morning, I would usually attend the Foundations lecture series, however today I made my way to Brixton for a tutorial on our first marked essay. Rebecca and I had a productive discussion at the Ritzy café on my topic – how Alfred Hitchcock uses Dior’s New Look in his 1955 film Rear Window – then once everyone’s sessions wrapped up, the course gathered to discuss our quickly approaching field trip to New York (time does indeed fly on a nine month MA course!).

Brixton

However, we weren’t quite ready to head back to school and were keen to explore Brixton a bit more so Giovanna, Leah, Aric, Aude, Eleanor and I popped over to Brixton Village Market to energize ourselves with a quick coffee before heading back to Courtauld to resume work on our essays. We stopped at Federation, an Aussie-owned café, and treated ourselves to their famous Anzac biscuits and gluten-free brownies, which we enjoyed over quality flat whites and lattes.

Walking through Brixton Village Market. Christmas decorations are up already!

Federation

Enjoying some very needed coffee and treats.

Intense dress history discussion.

Flat White at Federation.

Afterwards, we took the tube back to the Courtauld and buried ourselves in the stacks! We settled in our cozy basement library for an afternoon of (hopefully) productive study. In search of 1950s contemporary commentary and images regarding femininity in America for my essay, I spent most of the afternoon immersed in the Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily archives at the Courtauld’s Book Library.

Everyone on the tube.

Secluded study spot in the Courtauld Library.

Some research materials.

In need of a bit of fresh air after an afternoon of study, I ventured up to the Somerset House courtyard, where the Fortnum and Mason’s SKATE rink, Christmas Arcade and Lodge have now been officially opened – indeed to much fan fair yesterday. Dodging enthusiastic skaters and passerby’s taking selfies, I walked over to the New Wing of Somerset House for the Law Society’s “Art Law” course in which I have enrolled. The certificate is essentially a crash course in copyright, intellectual property law and related themes, which will hopefully allow me to speak with a bit of confidence on the subject one day.

Somerset House and Christmas tree!

F&M Christmas tree decorations.

Tom’s Skate Lounge.

Skaters on the rink.

Tomorrow promises to be equally diverse and exciting with visits to the British Film Institute’s archive and the British Library planned. Perhaps I’ll wrap up the day with the yoga society’s weekly evening session. Namaste!