Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Musings on ‘Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe’

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Following an incredible visit to the archives on Monday, we returned to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York on Tuesday for the exhibitions – we simply could not miss out on the opportunity of seeing more of FIT’s work. One of these was Proust’s Muse- The Countess Greffulhe which is based on a show previously held in Paris entitled La Mode retrouvée: Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffulhe. The exhibition focuses on Countess Greffulhe’s style and fashion and aims to highlight her role in inspiring the character of Oriane in Marcel Proust’s In Search of a Lost Time.

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT

Located in the basement of FIT, the exhibition was separated into two rooms. One of these was a long entry hallway. Here, the show was introduced through photographs of the Countess and some of her contemporaries as well as by means of a video. This was extremely useful in setting the tone of the exhibition. Narrated by Valerie Steele, FIT’s Director and chief curator, it highlights the thinking behind the exhibition and outlines some of the key dresses on display. The exhibition itself was located in a large hall, which allowed for the clothes to be spread out generously. The black wall colour, high ceilings and dim lighting helped to highlight each garment, although some of the colours of the fabrics were a little lost as an effect. The exhibition showcases a selection of Countess Greffulhe’s clothes and accessories over the course of her lifetime, enabling the viewer to gain an overview of her personal style. House of Worth, Fortuny and Babani are just three examples of her choice of designers. Particularly insightful into the Countess as a style icon is the “Byzantine” House of Worth dress from 1904, which she chose to wore for her daughter’s wedding. The viewer is told that in it, she outshone the bridal dress of her daughter, having arrived at the wedding venue with enough time to spare to showcase her dress to any guests and bystanders.

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Countess Greffulhe, as an exhibition and as a person, seemed a perfect fit for our course as it reflects the breadth of the role that fashion can take. It sums up the personal element of style, reflecting questions of identity and representations as well as using dress as a mediator to express these. This is applicable to both, the Countess’ clothes as well as her staging of dress in photographs. As Steele sums up, ‘the Countess Greffulhe believed in the artistic significance of fashion. And although she patronized the greatest couturiers of her time, her style was very much her own. Today, when fashion is increasingly regarded as an art form, her attitude is especially relevant.’

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe Installation View | Installation view of the exhibition Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at The Museum at FIT. An exhibition developed by the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. Photograph © 2016 The Museum at FIT.

Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe will be on display at FIT New York until January 7, 2017.

 

Sources:

Proust’s Muse – The Countess Greffulhe Exhibition Handout

http://www.fitnyc.edu/museum/exhibitions/prousts-muse.php

https://flic.kr/s/aHskJYFyX2 

Dress Secrets: Documenting Fashion goes to NYC part 1

People keep asking, and I keep failing to share a single favourite thing from our recent trip to New York. Certainly, the group went into collective paroxysms of bliss when a 1923 opera coat of black velvet, gold brocade and grey chinchilla trim was whirled in front of us at Museum at FIT. There were more than a few exclamations of, “But this place has my entire undergrad art history coursework in it’s collection!” from those who had never been to MOMA. And when the Museum of the City of New York turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of costume and couture from the city’s historic hoi polloi, I will admit to a certain amount of gaping.

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim's 1936 'Object' at MOMA (L) & The MA's trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Giovanna inadvertently channeling Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 ‘Object’ at MOMA (L) &
The MA’s trying to find the best angle for photographing the light installation at the Museum of the City of New York (R)

Perhaps that’s it. Proximity, presence, reality—the physical experience of objects we’d only previously seen in print. There is inevitably a certain amount of staring at reproduced images in Art History, and Dress History is no exception. The world doesn’t hold an endless supply of Fortuny Delphos gowns to pass around, no more than it has endless Matisse. Neither can Fortuny be replicated more easily than Matisse, his pleating technique, lost to history has never been accurately replicatedSo when a peach silk Delphos is uncoiled from its box, and the lightness and fragility of the silk has to be carefully balanced in an archivist’s hand against the incredible comparative weight of the Venetian glass beads at its sides you can’t help but feel like you’re being let in on a secret. In pictures, both on the body and on mannequins, the Delphos gown lends an air of the impenetrable, neoclassical statuesque. Up close in the Museum at FIT archives, it looks so delicate you begin to imagine what it would be like to wear  how it would cling and skim over your body, the hang of the beads and stretch and pull of the intricately pleated fabric.

The Mariano Fortuny 'Delphi's' Dress at FIT

The Mariano Fortuny ‘Delphos’ Dress at FIT

Again at FIT, a Charles James gown on display conjured up romantic visions of an idealised 1950’s silhouette, all curves and flounce and extremes of femininity. Exterior layers of tulle belie a lightness, the impression of which is quickly dispelled when confronted with a muslin archive copy that audibly groans on its hanger from the sheer weight of fabric involved in these creations. James’ wish to be regarded as a sculptor make more sense than ever from this vantage, as the dress is able to stand under its own support, and the addition of a body inside it seems inconsequential to its existence.

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

The enormous Charles James muslin copy showing in thick folds of padded fabric

I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of examples—how seeing the serious corsetry under a loose, a-line 1962 Balenciaga, or hearing the sheer volume of noise created by a fully beaded 1920’s flapper dress made me feel like I had been handed closely guarded knowledge about dress history. Seeing these garments, even on hangers, or being gently removed from archival boxes gave a sense of weight and movement and even sound that images will always struggle to convey, and which going forward encourages me to seek the real thing out wherever, and whenever possible.

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)

The heavily boned Balenciaga (L) and the beautifully noisy flapper dress (R)

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Fashion Institute of Technology Archive

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The MA class admiring a beaded dress from the 1920s.

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Muslin copy of a 1920s Chanel dress.

On one of our museum visits in New York, we were lucky enough to be shown a selection of objects from the Fashion Institute of Technology Archives. On arrival, we were greeted by an alumnus of our course, Emma McClendon, now an assistant curator at the museum at FIT, with whom we discussed our similar academic and Courtauld experiences, and then our not so academic love of Percy Pigs that we had brought over as a souvenir from the UK.

Her colleague, Liz Wei, then brought us to a study room in which we came face-to-face with the garments, fashions and trends that have graced our books, seminars and imaginations. On a packed, non-descript clothing rail were some of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of dress from America and Europe ranging from the 1920s to the late 60s. We were shown couture, eveningwear, daywear, sportswear, and everything-in-between-wear from European designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Paul Poiret. We were also shown examples of ready-to-wear and couture by American designers such as Adrian, Charles James, Phil Macdonald and Claire McCardell.

We were able to get familiar with the objects (without actually touching them) and see the minute details of stitching, beading and construction, and really gain an understanding of the craftsmanship of these beautiful garments. Having discussed these objects in an abstract manner in seminars and readings, we were able to finally see the objects themselves and fully appreciate the properties and themes that encapsulated fashion in the interwar period in a tangible way.

Unlike other fashion archives, FIT also functions as an educational institute, and so has a unique set of muslin copies of select objects. This allows design students to physically interact with garments that would otherwise be too delicate to handle. This allowed us, as dress historians, to grasp an understanding of dressmaking techniques, and see the innovative and diverse methods of construction employed by couture designers, tailors and home dressmakers in these historical garments.

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Fortuny tea dress curled up in its storage box.

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Detail of pleats on the Fortuny dress.

Despite the feeling of deep reverence for all of the objects introduced to us, for me, there was one standout object. Unlike the other garments hanging on the clothing rail, this garment was curled up inside a square white box. Furled up in a whirl of finely pleated silk, was a stunning, peach-coloured, Mariano Fortuny dress and belt from the 1930s. When the dress was unravelled, the intricate tight pleats sprung forth to reveal the long, elegant sheath and the Venetian glass beads that decorated the seams. The pleating, loose-fit and columnar style of the dress reflected its original intent as a Tea Gown, to be worn without a corset, and on more relaxed social occasions, entertaining at home. This garment encompassed concepts of modernity, machinery and the changing activities of women in the 1930s, despite its classical inspirations. Remarkably, this notion of modernity still survives within the garment today, with the endurance of its tight pleating that would rival Issey Miyake’s authority of the technique. Indeed, the gown is as fresh as a Pleats Please garment available for purchase today. Much like Miyake’s technological textile research, Fortuny experimented with machinery and techniques to create his unique pleating system, a process that is still a mystery to this day. Only a few pieces of archival information on his pleating process remain. This method used a pulley system and included heated ceramic rollers through which the silk was passed to create the tight folds. Though this is still speculative, as Fortuny kept the process a well-guarded secret and it seems never recorded it. Women would have to resend their dresses to Fortuny to be re-pleated, if they had been flattened from sitting, or been dampened.

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Detail of the top of the Fortuny dress.

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Detail of the bottom of the Fortuny dress.

The technological innovation of Fortuny’s pleating, the modernity of the garment, its classical sources and its relatively intact condition, seem almost anachronistic and belie its era. It was this clash of temporalities, the captivating mystery surrounding Fortuny, and its resonances in contemporary fashion that provoked a visceral response in me.