Paris Haute Couture

February 7, 2010By Leaf ArbuthnotArchive

Getting a Lift
From Haute Couture

Paris Update Paris Haute Couture VIONNET 1924

Silk evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet (1924). © Collection Musée Galliera

For many, haute couture has never seemed so irrelevant. With the euro on the brink of collapse, jobs being lost all over world and weather conditions becoming ever more malignant, it can be hard to see what place beautiful clothes can, or should, have in our lives. Is couture not the exclusive domain of the beautiful and damned, to be celebrated in times of boom rather than bust?

“Paris Haute Couture,” the latest exhibition at the Hotel de Ville, responds to this inquiry with a resonant “no.” It shows that exquisite clothing does, in fact, deserve a place in our cultural landscape, no matter how cheerless we feel, no matter how far we are from affording million-dollar dresses or the lifestyles they imply.

The exhibition opens with a montage of photographs showing couturiers’ hands at work, sewing, cutting, embroidering. It is a fitting introduction to the display of artisanship that the show stages, reminding visitors that human beings create couture, not machines. Herein lies the difference between Zara and McQueen – the former’s stock is generated by a slick whirring of contraptions, the latter’s by a weaving set, or sets, of hands.

Sketches of dresses intermingle with the photographs, some familiar as the type of illustrations one might find in fashion magazines, others more strikingly artistic, evoking dresses in the fewest possible strokes. It is difficult not to be impressed by the skill of these drawings and by the finality with which they dismiss those who assign fashion a subsidiary place in the world of art.

A startlingly ornate blue Dior dress confirms this, displaying the varying stages of its development from paper diagram to puffy-sleeved frock. It is a delight to see such an elaborate product in embryonic form; it rather recalls those textbook photographs of a plant at different points during its growth, from minute seed to billowing oak.

The highlight, however, without shadow of a doubt, is the main room, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of sartorial treasure. Mostly consisting of dresses, the collection is laid out in easily navigated columns, with some gowns displayed on monochrome steps, some in glass cages and others in a mirrored corridor running down the right side of the room. Each dress is eye-catching, each a masterpiece of measured, laborious effort. Though some of the gowns are heartachingly beautiful – the Givenchys and Chanels in particular – others are more playful, with draping sleeves or multicolored baubles. Apparently, even haute couture has a sense of humor.

Most visitors to “Paris Haute Couture” will never be able to afford the gowns it showcases or even the accessories displayed alongside them. Yet the exhibition sweeps this reservation aside, proving that seeing beauty incarnated in sartorial form can be just as uplifting as actually owning expensive clothes. Even, if not especially, in periods of financial uncertainty, haute couture deserves recognition as a force that can inspire us, fire our imaginations and offer us an escape from humdrum realities, usually devoid of diamond studs and gold thread.

Leaf Arbuthnot

Hôtel de Ville: Salle St-Jean, 5 rue de Lobau. 75004 Paris. Métro: Hôtel de Ville. Tel.: 01 42 76 51 53. Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-7pm. Closed on public holidays. Through July 6. Free admission.

Reader Michael Harrington writes: “Your article was captivating, and I am writing to say ‘je vous en prie.’ Every time I watch an episode of ‘Project Runway’ that features a contestant challenge deemed ‘haute couture,’ I have to laugh out loud. If only the competitors could visit something like this exhibition and glimpse the real deal, instead of coming up with ersatz haute couture outfits in a two-day challenge. Wish I were there to see it in person. Your article brought it close to me here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am grateful for that. Meilleurs voeux!”

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