Of Ice and Diamonds, Sequins and Pom Poms: Haute Couture in the Hôtel de Ville

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Of Ice and Diamonds, Sequins and Pom Poms: Haute Couture in the Hôtel de Ville
A teenage boy in a hoodie and jeans throws himself across the ice like a colt, revelling in the ease of his passage through space. A middle aged man comes next, cautious on tip toe and then a wave of girls with big pom poms on their beanies. Here at Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the old and the new Paris show off together. Hôtel de Ville stands like a great fairy tale castle with twinkling lights, winking over the ice skating rink at a carousel loaded with candy colour ponies and a bright crepe tent. The city of lights sets the stage for a new generation of cool continental teens in glossy jackets and scuffed sneakers. But what kind of costumes once animated this stage? Fashion week has just ended here in Paris, and during these nine days of celebration, Le Mairie de Paris, or City Hall, has launched a free fashion exhibition entitled Paris Haute Couture inside the Hôtel de Ville. The show runs until the 6th of July and showcases over a century of custom made, luxury fashion. Each item of clothing, made for a specific client, is sewn with enormous attention to detail by the finest seamstresses and the richest materials. Inside the Hotel, the show begins in a wide hallway dedicated to the process behind the outfits we are about to see. A series of black and white photographs capture moments between the model, the garment and the designer. Moving down the hall, coloured prints, framed drawing and paintings from the designers’ sketch books are presented along the walls above the drawing books themselves. These have been opened to pages that show the initial visualisations of pieces that wait in the next room. Swatches of fabric are taped into visual diaries or hung on the walls showing the test runs for texture and colour. Tightly sewn with sequins, beads and embroidered images of birds, flowers and geometric origami-like samples hang beside colourful feathers that have been plucked from birds and reordered into new kinds of plumage. Silent films show the designers and their pattern makers, cutters and sewers crafting their works with needles, scissors and hammers. At the end of the hallway, the wall is covered salon style with black and white portrait photographs of the designers. Dior, Rabanne, Lacroix, Galliano, Balenciaga, Chanel and Lagerfeld are all assembled, and just around the corner and down the stairs we are about to see their work. Spilling out into the hall of Couture is a bit like entering a science museum of taxidermy reptiles and birds of the jungle. Rare species housed in glass cabinets, spiny with diamonds, take dramatic leave of the human form. These garments are built objects that seem to use the body as a means of staying upright. I am arrested in horror before a piece by Charles Frederick Worth. His Cape du Soir of 1898 is a monstrous black and orange mountain, heavy with texture, its raised, rock-garden of piping made of thick bubbling fabric.  In contrast, a fine and slippery dress by Madeleine Vionnet in the early 1920s flows like a green waterfall from its mannequin, weighted and punctuated by glittering black stones. I cannot quite make out the description written in French of a monumental gown encrusted in dark crystal and trimmed with fur, but I imagine it was made for Anna Karenina to wear to the Opera in Saint Petersburg. A black woollen Dior cape stands out among the murky vegetation of expensive sequins and clawed gloves. Its simple form is decorated by enormous pom poms in bright colours and fastened to a hem that sweeps upward in a wide arc. What strikes me is the size and texture of all the pieces and their adornments. They are so bold. An electric blue bejewelled collar at the throat of a Chanel dress reminds me of the enormous necklaces worn by Frida Kahlo. And the dense black, red and gold beading on a cocktail dress is reminiscent of a matador’s costume. In fact, although these pieces are all designed to be worn and viewed at close range they are strikingly similar to the costumes of the Ballets Russes in their bold geometry and bulky embellishments. They are certainly not designed to minimise the female figure but instead, they are fearless explorations of decoration and appropriation, risking the ridiculous to create delightful new inversions of old forms.          
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