Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sous l'Empire des Crinolines

Though by no means a meticulous student of fashion, I have been known to occasionally flick through a copy of Vogue or visit style.com. So having seen a massive billboard on the métro advertising an exhibit on French fashions during the mid-19th century, it was an easy decision choosing to spend Thursday afternoon at the Palais Galliera with Midori. The exhibition, «Sous l'Empire des Crinolines», follows the sartorial trends of Paris under the Empress Eugénie during the Second Empire from dressmaking, to hairstyles, to accessories, to makeup through a beautiful display of dresses, prints and photographs.

The Palais Galliera itself is a beautiful building, one of the only
museums in Paris to have been built explicitly for the purpose of housing a collection of art. Impressive colonnade columns envelope the Renaissance palace, befitting a home for such a regal collection. The fashion itself was phenomenal ; the incredible attention to detail and exuberance on even the most ordinary day dresses from the period can today only be found in haute couture pieces. In the opening gallery, designed to imitate a ballroom scene, there was an absolutely incredible barrel muff made entirely of peacock feathers on display, which perfectly illustrated the lavish style of the era. The exotic pattern and the vivid colors juxtaposed on the soft feathers created an extravagant and intensely striking piece. Fans were hand painted on silk taffeta with a carved ivory handle. Handkerchiefs were monogrammed on delicate ecru linen. The elaborate beading and embroidery on the ball gowns were exquisite. Above all, I fell head over heels in love with the absolutely beautiful hand-made Chantilly lace, which was used extensively in the period both as an embellishment on dresses and on its own as a shawl.

The menswear complemented and contrasted the delicate dresses, with strong shoulders and straight lines. Usually with military overtones, the jackets were impeccably tailored but still elaborately detailed.
The sheer size and complexity of the ball gowns had me wondering on more than one occasion about the colossal trade off between practicality and aesthetics. Between the tightly-laced corsets and the skirts which span well over a standard door frame, I can only imagine how trying even the most simple actions such as sitting down must have been, much less the complicated practice of answering nature's call. Despite the immense scale of the skirts, it was also incredible to note how petite all the clothing and accessories were, especially the tiny little shoes.

What stood out most to me about this exhibition was its ability to track the incredible developments in Paris during the time period using the unexpected medium of immaculate day dresses, elaborate ball gowns, impeccable accessories and exquisite jewelry pieces. A
dvances in technology and the increased use of steel made it possible to perfect the crinoline, taking it from being a small petticoat made from horsehair to a steel hooped structure which could support the weight of the heavy fabrics which were so « à la mode ». The industrial
revolution introduced the use of machines in textiles and needlework, allowing vast quantities of elegant Chantilly lace to be produced faster and cheaper than ever before. The modernization of transportation inspired ranges of accessories for leisure travel, reflecting on the increasing wealth and prosperity of society. Changes in market forces founded the commercial fashion industry with the introduction of the grands magasins and haute couture, firmly establishing Paris as the fashion capital of the world in time for the World’s Fairs of 1855 and 1867. The aesthetically and visually stimulating representation made for a unique and refreshing crash course of Paris' transition into modernity.

The influence of the crinoline-era fashions can still be seen on the runways
today, though reinvented to give it a modern feel. It seems incredible to me that the same styles and constructions can be updated over and over again such that the details on the buttons of my jacket may have been inspired by the clasp on a 19th century bolero. As beautiful as the exhibition was, I left the Palais feeling a little melancholic about the meager attention to detail and informality of prêt-à-porter retail fashion today. But then again, I guess I should just be grateful I don't have to wear a crinoline of up to six feet in diameter and an 18" corset on a daily basis...

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