Fashion & Beauty

Clothes Encounters of the Historical Kind

FRENCH AND FASHION are two words that belong together, n’est-ce pas? Through the beginning of next year, two off-the-beaten-path institutions are featuring two very different but compatible exhibits homing in on those very words. And the timing couldn’t be better for those who have a New York City visit in their holiday plans. (Psst! The crowds at these shows will be quite a bit less dense than those at Rockefeller Center. You know why that tree is so big? So you can actually see it despite the 4 million people standing between it and you.) —

The Museum at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, has put together a selection of garments, men’s and women’s, to nail down the premise, disputed by few, that Paris has long been where it’s at when it comes to fashion. Voluminous court dresses from the 1760s share the exhibition space with more modern frocks, such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s infamous “Conical Bustier” dress. (Though from what we’ve learned elsewhere, dress at the Court of Versailles was almost as sexualized as the offerings of the provocative Monsieur G.) There’s even a mockup of the Hall of Mirrors that makes a fitting backdrop to the glitter of the ancien régime.

Part of the exhibit shows how the French couture guided the cutters and manufacturers in the States . . . until it didn’t, as American designers began to come into their own. But one undercurrent of the show—one that should ring a loud bell in today’s anti-immigrant climate—is that Paris remained on top, and in many ways still does, thanks to relatively large doses of foreign talent on the shores of the Seine.

Although 18th- and 19th-century Paris was already known as the fashion capital, with an army of artisans creating clothing for individual clients, the beginning of the couture “system” was triggered by the British-born dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth, who opened the House of Worth in Paris in 1858 and presented a “collection” of his ideas rather than the personalized one-on-one presentations of other couture dressmakers. In more modern times, Patrick Kelly, the young African American designer with a flair for well-designed whimsy in his short career, launched himself in Paris. Karl Lagerfeld, the freelance designer who remade so many brands, was German-born. Azzedine Alaïa was the son of a Tunisian farmer. That most French of French designers, Yves Saint Laurent, was born in Algeria, when it was still a French colony. In the 1980s, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and other Japanese designers felt they had to show in Paris in order to be part of the fashion conversation.

At FIT, I had the good fortune to fall in with a guided tour being given for a school group. Having a narrative arc was a help for a show with a whole bunch of details clamoring for notice.

The exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center has a more specific focus: the shift in French fashion at home during World War I. Here the clothing is less “aspirational” and more down-to-earth. And here fashion is a moving target, shifting with the needs of  women who swung into action to stand in for men gone off to fight. The period was a transitional one for women’s clothing (and women’s rights) and not without controversy. No-nonsense skirt suits and uniforms offended some of society’s notion of what women should wear, and the exhibit embraces postcards, caricatures and fashion magazines that “highlight the tension between fashionable dress, traditional gender norms, and wartime imperatives.”

The French government’s efforts to keep the fashion industry alive while bending to the needs of the hour are illustrated, along with examples of clothing from two women leading fashion houses during this period, Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel, the latter way ahead of the pack in promoting more relaxed styles for women of all classes.

In some ways, the Bard exhibit is the more interesting because it explores more overtly the interplay between “real” women and the fashion world. Both exhibits live up to their scholarly aspirations with detailed catalogues, Paris, Capital of Fashion by Valerie Steele, the well-known director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, and French Fashion, Women, and the First World War by scholars Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian.

—Nancy McKeon

Paris, Capital of Fashion, through January 4, 2020; The Museum at FIT, Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, New York, New York 10001;; closed Sundays and Mondays; open Tuesday-Friday noon-8pm, Saturdays 10am-5pm. Through January 4, 2020. Free admission.

French Fashion, Women, and the First World War, through January 5, 2020; Bard Graduate Center Gallery, 18 West 86th Street, New York, New York 10024; 212-501-3023;; open Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11am-5pm; Wednesday and Thursday 11am-8pm; closed Mondays; admission $5 to $7.


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2 thoughts on “Clothes Encounters of the Historical Kind

  1. Nancy G says:

    Going to NYC for our traditional pre-Xmas long weekend early December. Both of these exhibits are now on the list to see. Thanks for the heads up.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      great plan! and, as i say, they’re sure to be less crowded and probably more interesting than the usual holiday fare (though i know i’m going to miss Lord & Taylor’s Christmas windows. not as edgy as Barneys’ nor as glam as Bergdorf’s, they used to feed my sentimental streak).

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