Fashioning Fashion: Deux Siècles de Mode Europeene 1700-1915

February 7, 2010By Leaf ArbuthnotArchive

Intelligent Fashion Exhibition
Fits Museum like a Glove

Paris Update Fashioning-Fashion 2

French-style dress, England, c. 1765, satin and silk. © 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA

It is a rare thing for a temporary exhibition to fit a museum space like a glove, rarer still for a show on fashion to treat its subject with rigorous intelligence and subtlety. “Fashioning Fashion: Deux Siècles de Mode Européenne” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs does both these things and more; it is perhaps one of the most accomplished shows to have ever settled in the museum.

The exhibition traces the developments of sartorial trends in Europe between the beginning of the 18th century and World War I. Though a large proportion of the clothes on display have French origins, the show is an import from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it was shown in 2011, before going to Berlin in 2012.

The trans-Atlantic hybridism of the exhibition’s identity is crucial to its success. The show marries perfectly the tendency of American museums to flesh out their objects with ample information, and the often-unbeatable quality of French museums’ objects. Art shows in Paris can leave their visitors floundering amongst the relics, oblivious to the stories lurking behind each one and unaware of the careful thought behind the show’s design – this exhibition, by contrast, combines a collection of remarkable historical pieces with a well-judged quantity of descriptive fodder. Many of the clothes come coupled with the familiar blurb listing the object’s date and origins, but next to a good number of them, there is also a knee-high screen with close-up photographs of details of the piece, so that its intricacy and workmanship can be appreciated. This is especially useful, since the exhibition is dimly lit to preserve the fragile garments. Surprisingly, the spectral half-light enveloping the clothes is yet another of the show’s assets, for it preserves the magic and theatricality of the outfits, allowing the diamonds on shoe buckles to shimmer and the copper wire in miniscule bodices to glitter.

There is something pleasingly sinister, too, about the poses adopted by the mannequins:

Paris Update Fashioning-Fashion 1

French-style dress, England, c. 1765, satin and silk. © 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA

they stand not as rigid dummies but as sentient human beings, with their heads quizzically cocked and their hands outstretched to their neighbors as if caught in the middle of an arresting conversation.

The exhibition’s hundred or so items are arranged in chronological order; visitors enter at the beginning of the eighteenth century and exit in 1915 with a flavor of the approaching war. Highlights of the collection include a beautiful assortment of buttons, some curious “at-home caps” worn by men returning from work and wanting to cover their wigless heads, a vibrant revolutionary waistcoat woven with the words “L’habit ne fait pas le moine” (“The clothes don’t make the man”). Also fascinating is the exhibition’s demonstration that trends developed in line with the political upheavals – as revolutionaries increasingly required more practical clothing, for example, suits became simpler and soft female corsets replaced those stiffened with whalebone.

Viewers begin to appreciate that the forces that fashioned fashion over this period were multiple and complex – trends were not just created by influential bourgeois Parisians, but also by the political and social changes that were shaking the continent to its roots. If ever there were a need to convince dissenting voices that thinking seriously about fashion is an intellectual exercise, this exhibition could do it.

Leaf Arbuthnot

Musée des Arts Décoratifs: 107, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. Métro: Palais-Royal. Tel.: 01 44 55 57 50. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm (until 9pm on Thursday). Admission: €9.50.

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