As I mentioned, the Paris Haute Couture exhibition was the highlight of my recent cross-channel jaunt. It had been recommended to me by all sorts of people, my boss and my sewing class buddy for starters, so I knew it was a must-see. So much so we went straight there from the Eurostar, skipping a lunch time stop-off - now that's devotion to fashion!
It's a free exhibition using the collection from Musee Galliera, which is currently closed for renovation but due to reopen later this year. Talk about "Magic Names of Fashion", this exhibition had them all: Dior, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, Vionnet, Lanvin, Poiret, Balmain and so on.
The exhibition begins with a little background to the mysterious world of haute couture, including the strict definition of what it means to be "couture". It also makes a striking point about the shrinking of this industry: there were 106 houses in Paris in 1946 (you have to have your fashion house in Paris as one of the criteria of being "couture"), compared to less than ten today. It ran through some of the process of design and making (subsequently repeated in the Kenzo visit), and showcased the incredible skills of some of the specialists whose work was or is used as part of couture, producing deluxe embroidery, lavish feathers and astonishing pleating,
You descend down into the main hall to see the clothes, starting with an ensemble by Charles Frederick Worth. "Haute Couture started with an Englishman" reads the inscription on the first case (in French, of course). From there on in, the presentation is no longer chronological with ensembles grouped together to make links between decades or designs.
I really enjoyed the presentation of the exhibits. The majority of the clothes were in glass cases, see-through on all four sides and virtually flat on the floor, enabling you to properly look over every inch of the garment. Text was on the floor of each case so - for once - I didn't feel I was spending more time reading the labels than looking at the objects.
Although it was possible to look at each object in the round, as the objects were placed in long rows, it was often a while before you could work your way back round to the other side of the case, and this made for many surprises - a front or back that wasn't finished the way I'd expected, which then shifted my thoughts on the whole ensemble. Some objects were deliberately placed together in a case to draw links between the two, but the whole arrangement of the glass cases, as these wonderful photos from Dazed Digital illustrate, allowed for constant comparison, and the delight of spotting something enticing from across the room.
Carven, Esperanto jacket, 1951. Musée Galliera, photographed by Katerina Jebb. Reproduced in Paris Haute Couture.
As I worked my way through the exhibition, I gained lots of pleasure from this sense of anticipation. I also enjoyed the light touch with which several items were referenced throughout the exhibition. You first see the Esperanto jacket by Carven as a sketch, and then in reference to the horsehair embellishment. It was then one of the final pieces I saw on display.
It became obvious when designers were referencing each other, or the history of fashion, such as a dramatic Galliano for Dior evening ensemble, clearly harking back to Poiret's opulence. And it really helped crystallise the idea of each designers unique DNA, helping identify their style and what make them masters of their art.
Vionnet, evening gown, c.1931. Musée Galliera, photographed by Katerina Jebb. Reproduced in Paris Haute Couture.
The exhibition was packed full of pieces that still appear show-stopping (literally) today and it was fun to speculate on the original impact of, for example, Schiaparelli's black gloves with huge false gold nails attached, or her lantern bag. Or the stunning Madeline Vionnet dress pictured. After seeing all the 1920s dresses which were weighed down with beading and embroidery, this beautifully constructed slip of a thing was a breath of fresh air. Imagine the woman who walked into a party wearing this dress and who would put all the other elaborately dressed women in the shade. No wonder the 41 Vionnet dresses exhibited by Diana Vreeland in her Inventive Paris Clothes show made such an impression.
This dress was also in dramatic contrast to the contemporary couture pieces, that appeared to dripping with jewels or overly lavish embroidery and were far more fantastical than many of the earlier pieces displayed. I wondered if this was because they have to make the craftsmanship so much more evident now, both to justify their price tag and their existence. It's something curator Anne Zazzo picks up in the accompanying book to the exhibition: brands have focused "the spotlight on these highly skilled artistic metiers, and they have subsequently become an essential element in the marketing strategy for couture ... Preserving an artisanal heritage that is unique in the world is also an economic strategy for expanding the French luxury sector aboard, especially in Asia."
It was also interesting to see the very familiar names like Dior, and styles, like the "New Look", alongside names who were less familiar but whose creations were no less fabulous, like Jacques Heim, or Agnès, both of which have stunning little black dresses in the book. Perhaps this is the by-product of the agenda inherent in past exhibitions, like Inventive Clothes, though this selection of non-household names was no less deliberate according to this interview with curator Olivier Saillard.
Jeanne Lanvin, Concerto evening gown, winter 1934-5. Musée Galliera, photographed by Katerina Jebb. Reproduced in Paris Haute Couture.
I also wondered if the curators deliberately selected clothes that chimed with the fashions of today. There were a lot of dresses with ombre colouring, an Yves Saint Laurent skirt covered with roses which looked as if it could have come straight out of Raf Simons for Dior, if it only had been made in a more subdued colour scheme. And there's this astonishing dress from Lanvin in the 1930s, with a futuristic, armour-like neckline I can easily picture on the red carpet.
I'm not lucky enough to own the book - I was loaned it by my kind boss - but it's an impressive tome in its own right, featuring many more photographs by Katerina Jebb of pieces that didn't make it into the show. Unlike the show, it's organised chronologically but with charming small essays on all the details that contribute to couture, such as labels, perfumes, flowers and mannequins.
Interestingly, given the reason for my visit to Paris, it also references the last Les Journées Particulières: its celebration of the world of the artisan, and its contribution to the idea of luxury.
But what I found particularly thought provoking was Olivier Saillard's explanation as to why he felt couture remained so appealing. He made a link between these objects, which demonstrate such extreme skill and luxury, with something we might make ourselves. Due to society's massive production, a "makeshift garment, even if ineptly cut out on the kitchen table, suddenly acquires an appeal that cannot be round in a store window ... Whether lavishly embroidered in famous ateliers or pieced together with stitches at home, these garments – exemplars of perfection or exercises in humility – are not readily forgotten."