Quiz time: what is this object? A pendant? A brooch? An extraordinarily large single earring? A hair pin?
It is an epaulette – one of a pair of jet-beaded shoulder adornments. Late nineteenth century dressmakers knew a thing or two about adornment, despite the rather sober and modest reputation of the age. When it came to creating treasure-dresses with jewels and beading, there were no limits to their ingenuity.
On 7 November, Paris’s Palais Galliera will open a new exhibition to show case some of the most outstanding examples of this genre and from the first half of the twentieth century. La mode retrouvée, les robes-trésors de la Comtesse Greffulhe offers a glimpse of the glittering contents of the wardrobe of the woman immortalised by Proust as the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. This exhibition promises to tap straight into the vein of fashion romanticism. It also casts an interesting light on a character who clearly understood the power of personal image in publicising good causes and whose life spanned a revolutionary period in fashion (1860-1952) .
The Duchess was a patron of the arts and science and, as the acknowledged leader of Paris society, she used her position to raise funds for her chosen causes and to support political campaigns. She understood the power of personal image and used her rare public appearances to reinforce a near-mythical status. Her wardrobe is therefore an haute couture dream and Paris’s Palais Galliera is now offering us the opportunity to come face-to-face with fifty models from some of the greatest couturiers of the time – Worth, Fortuny, Babani, and Lanvin. We are promised clouds of tulle, gauze, chiffon and feathers; kimono jackets and velvet coats; oriental patterns, gold and silver. As a pure shot of fashion escapism it would be unmissable but with literary and social interest it is a unique insight into a world of privilege, luxury, activism and patronage.
We have until 20 March 2016 to see it at its exquisite home at the Palais Galliera in Paris (which I highly recommend). Then later in 2016 it will move to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
In the meantime if, like me you need some Galliera gorgeousness before your next visit, its curator, Olivier Saillard is about to publish a new book celebrating its amazing archive. The Impossible Wardrobe accompanies the groundbreaking three-year performance collaboration between the Galliera and actress, Tilda Swinton. Three unique performances in the Palais Galliera are recorded in three volumes. In The Impossible Wardrobe of 2012, the actress walks down a runway with a selection of historically and culturally significant garments from the past 200 years. In Eternity Dress of 2013, a garment is tailor-made in front of a live audience. In Cloakroom of 2014, Ms Swinton examines the special relationship between an item of clothing and its owner.
The Impossible Wardrobe is published on 10 November by Rizzoli (well, who else?).
La mode retrouvée, les robes-trésors de la Comtesse Greffulhe opens at Palais Galliera on 7 November 2015, running until 20 March 2016. See their website for more information.