Countess Greffulhe: muse to Proust

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New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology is currently showing items from the Countess Greffulhe’s incredible wardrobe, on loan from Paris’s Musee Galliera.  I went, wondering what relevance these nineteenth century gowns could have on twenty-first century fashion but I came away deeply inspired, and particularly by the power of the sleeve.

Much has been written about the Countess as the inspiration for Proust’s character, the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but in fact her wardrobe spans a wider period leading up to the Second World War.  During her life she not only commissioned gowns from the leading couturiers of Paris, she actively collaborated with designers like Worth, Fortuny and Poiret in the design process.  She particularly championed female designers during the 1930s – Jeanne Lanvin, Louiseboulanger and Nina Ricci and the FIT has some beautiful examples of these on show.

But back to the sleeve.  The Countess’s nineteenth century Worth gowns all drew dramatic impact from their leg-o-mutton sleeves – a long sleeve, tapering from a dramatically inflated shoulder down to a tight wrist (see below for a similar Worth gown).  Sleeves like this will flatter the waist and the neck, slenderising and drawing the eye.  Highly fashionable during the Belle Epoque around the turn of the twentieth century, they fell out of favour in the 1920s as fashion moved to more minimalist shapes.

 

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Richly embroidered velvet coat, later nineteenth century, Worth from the collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris 

The Countess clearly appreciated the leg-o-mutton sleeve and it features on almost all of the earlier gowns.  She even defied trends of the 1930s to use them in a show-stopper of a gown commissioned from Maggy Rouff and this one just stopped me in my tracks.

 

It was constructed in the simplest, unembellished black silk velvet, with a high neck, fitted bodice and a straight, full length skirt.  Its full dramatic impact came from the leg-o-mutton sleeves.  As a design it was timeless, in fact it recalled some of today’s designers, like Victor and Rolf and Oscar de la Renta, that have made similarly dramatic use of this type of sleeve.

Maggy Rouff (1876-1971) learnt her skills as a couturier working with her mother at the house of Drecoll.  She founded her own house in 1929 and quickly established a reputation for producing exquisite evening wear.  This was often cut on the bias, orientalist in influence and owed its dramatic power to cut and sculptural elements rather than embellishment.  Seeing the gown on display at FIT, it seems a tragedy that Rouff is not better known today.  Perhaps that is because her house did not survive long after her own retirement in 1948, closing in 1956.   Whatever the reason, it would be wonderful if one of the major fashion museums would devote a show to this designer who was clearly influential in her time as well as being one of the pioneering female designers of the early twentieth century.

The best exhibitions, of fashion or anything else, leave one mulling new ideas and thoughts for days after seeing them.  This one does just that and for me, it was not only a reminder of the dramatic potential of a sleeve, but also a clear demonstration of the value of knowing what suits you and defining your own look.

If you are in New York, see this show before it closes on 7 January 2017- as usual with M Saillard’s and Ms Steele’s exhibitions it is thought-provoking, inspiring and beautifully displayed.  And, M Saillard, Ms Steele, if you see this, please give us a Maggy Rouff show to remind us all of the dramatic flair of this overlooked female designer.

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