French fashion is the top and Paris is the crowning jewel. Other countries have looked to Paris for hundreds of years for style inspiration and chic design. This remains true today, as France is home to such prestigious design houses as Chanel, Dior, Lanvin and YSL, to name a few. The Musée de la Mode exuded this rich legacy as I approached its semicircular courtyard surrounded by stately pillars.
Fashion as art is somewhat controversial given the fact that it is mostly meant to be worn and not to be displayed. I am not one of the skeptical ones, however, and there was never much doubt in my mind that fashion can be an expressive art to be displayed and admired. The Crinolines exhibit did an excellent job of showcasing the artistry involved in creating and wearing nineteenth century women’s fashions, from the lace stitched by hand to adorn a pair of gloves, to the acres of embroidered silk to drape over the crinolines.
The exhibit was split into three acts to mimic a play, intertwining simple display with a progression of technique and style. Although there was a clear effort to give the exhibit dynamism, it largely failed to achieve this. The three acts were not differentiated enough to strike me as development and instead the changes were subtle and hardly highlighted by the paragraph explanations found at the beginning of each act. Nonetheless, the impact of mechanization and dying techniques was detectable and sometimes well explained. For example, there was a glass case to the side that directly compared handmade lace with mechanically made lace by putting the two directly next to each other.
The accessory displays were well done and captured the spirit of the times better than the crinolines. The luxurious materials used and the truly intricate detailing found on the combs, hats, shoes, gloves, fans, and parasols seems unnecessary to a modern eye, but were clearly of utmost importance to the aristocratic women who used them. Their delicacy seemed impossible to my large hands and athletic feet, representing how much expectations of female fragility and daintiness have changed since the nineteenth century. The shoes were impossibly small and narrow, as were the ornate corsets. Their proportions were alien yet still beautiful.
In spite of the apparent differences in modern female expectations, I was shocked by the lack of explicit social commentary in the exhibit. The corsets and absurdly full skirts were not presented as cumbersome and restrictive manifestations of society’s attitude toward women; instead, they were simply displayed in the glass cases as handsome art of the past. Perhaps the commentary was implicit, but I would have preferred to read a bit about the reactions of the women who wore the crinolines and how it may have tempered attitudes toward the oppression of women.
I must admit that the lack of political motive in the exhibit supported the notion of fashion as a pure art form. The fashion of the nineteenth century is beautiful and meaningful unto itself—it doesn’t need political context to be important. I learned a lot from the exhibit, both about the clothing and les toilettes, and about myself and my perceptions of fashion as art.