You Wear What You Are: Palais Galliera Launches a New Fashion Exhibition

You Wear What You Are: Palais Galliera Launches a New Fashion Exhibition
It is often said that you are what you wear – that your clothes tell the world heaps about your social status, confidence, and state of mind. And you probably get treated accordingly. But the just launched exhibition, Anatomie d’une Collection, which runs through October 23 at Paris’s fashion museum, Palais Galliera, and which explores the question, Who wears what?, could just as appropriately have been called “You Wear What You Are.” For it is no more likely that the plain red wool twill uniform on display worn by an anonymous convict would have been worn by, say, Napoleon I, than that the convict would have worn Napoleon’s black silk velvet jacket embroidered in silver, also on display. The exhibition – a hundred articles of clothing and accessories from the 18th century to today, worn by both the famous and the anonymous – are displayed along five themes – Relics of the Past, Stage Actresses and Female Personalities, Charismatic Clients and the Totally Anonymous, Closest to the Couturier, and Fashion Prototypes or Real Clothes. They tell the world about the wearer’s social status, the way they lived, and the way they were probably treated. The opening section, Relics of the Past, reflects on the unique aspect of clothes in absorbing the essence of the person to whom they belonged. Anyone who has ever thrust their face into a well-worn article of clothing worn by a deceased loved one to try to recapture their essence, if just for a moment, will understand this. And it is due, of course, to the proximity of the item to the wearer. It is this aspect that turns clothing into “relics.” Indeed, in Catholic theology, an object that has touched the body of a saint is recognized as a “real relic” or “contact relic.” Among the articles of clothing in the Relics section is a corset worn by Queen Marie-Antoinette around 1785. It was kept by Madame Éloffe, the Queen’s milliner and marchande de modes – a fashion designer who specialized in decorating clothes with lace, artificial flowers, and other whimsical flourishes. There is also a dress worn by Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon I. It is made of white cotton muslin, a fabric forbidden by Napoleon because it was imported from India by England, France’s enemy. Josephine often flouted her husband’s decrees. Also included are two dresses worn by Blanche Castets, wife of Dr. Paul Gachet, who treated Van Gogh near the end of his life and whose portrait Van Gogh famously painted. The dresses, made with yards of fabric, are nearly identical, except for the color. One, her wedding dress, is of ivory silk faille; the other, in grey violet silk faille, is her robe de lendemain de noce – her “day-after wedding dress.” In the 19th century, brides would wear such a dress on their obligatory visits to friends and family in the two weeks after their wedding. In the same display is a silk taffeta dress decorated with a wheat and cornflower motif worn in the 1850s by the French novelist and memoirist, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, whose nom de plume was George Sand. The first haute couture house in Paris was established in 1858 by English couturier Charles Frederick Worth. He coined the term “fashion designer” and created luxury fashion for upper-class women. The term “haute couture” was first used in 1908. The Stage Actresses and Trendsetters section presents garments made by haute couturiers especially for stage, theatre, and opera performers, whose clothing both on and off stage was closely chronicled in the press. They became walking advertisements for the couturiers, and trendsetters. Items on display in this section include a floor-length coat worn onstage by Opéra-Comique singer Marthe Davelli in the early 20th century. Made of royal blue silk velour trimmed in rabbit fur made to imitate ermine, and miles of metallic silver braid trimming, it is sumptuous. And there is a blouse that is the very embodiment of femininity worn by Belle-Époque dancer Cléo de Mérode. Made of floral-decorated fabric and richly trimmed with blue fabric insets and metallic thread, its leg-of-mutton sleeves and tight bodice emphasize the dancer’s famous eighteen-inch waist. The Charismatic Clients and the Totally Anonymous section does include several items of clothing worn by laborers, but by far the more interesting pieces are the dresses and accessories worn by such people as Audrey Hepburn; Catherine Deneuve; the Duchess of Windsor; and Daisy Fellowes, fashion icon, Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and daughter of Isabelle-Blanche Singer, heiress to the sewing-machine fortune. One spirit-lifting ensemble, created by Yves Saint Laurent for the Duchess of Windsor, is composed of a vibrant floral print blouse, multicolor patchwork silk organza skirt, and wide hot pink satin belt bowed at the waist. It absolutely screams 1969. But in a good way. Among the many other items in this section is a collection of hats worn by Princess Murat, great-granddaughter of Marshal…

Lead photo credit : Blouse worn by Belle-Époque dancer Cléo de Merode / by Diane Stamm

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Diane Stamm occasionally writes from Paris.