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Fashion
July 13, 2016

Tracing 300 Years of French Fashion in Paris

Text by Radha Kapoor Sharma

From flying gowns and beach pyjamas to how the first designer label and fashion show came to be conceptualised… We give you the low-down on a Parisian exhibition that chronicles the milestones

Thirty years ago in 1986, Jack Lang, France’s Minister of Culture, conferred on French fashion its letters de noblesse by inaugurating the Musée de la Mode et du Textile within the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The State thereby gave a heritage status to fashion, which is so inextricably linked with the French art of living.

It is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this unique fashion moment and to pay homage to this collective adventure, that Paris, the world’s fashion capital, has raised the curtain on the exhibition Fashion Forward, Trois siècles de mode (Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Fashion).

Around 300 pieces have been carefully selected from the museum’s vast collection of around 1,50,000 exhibits, from regular glass display cases and reserve stocks, and exhibited in the impressive Nave section of the museum. These represent articles of men’s, women’s and children’s attire as well as accessories such as footwear, fans, gloves, parasols, stoles, purses, etc. A walk through the exhibition takes us on a journey through time, with the defining moments of fashion history captured via an aesthetic, chronological frieze of costumes, gowns and finery from the early 18th century down to the most eclectic, contemporary creations. The year 1715, the starting point of the exhibition, marked a turning point in fashion history. It was the year of Louis XIV’s death and the beginning of the Regency period, with a clear shift in the way of dressing at the Court of France.

We discover flying gowns, robes à la française, justaucorps, stomachers, pagoda sleeves and leg-of-mutton sleeves, whalebone stays, hoops, crinoline cages, corsets and more. Sumptuous satins, soft muslins, rich taffetas, embroidered silks all evoke the grandeur of aristocratic life and bring to the present the romance of other times, other ages. Here, fashion is in a dialogue with the decorative arts. Period furniture, drawings, 18th-century woodwork, panoramic wallpaper, etc are all skilfully used to conjure up the ambience of that time and invite the visitor in.

Fashion also reflects the changing lifestyles and attitudes of society. With the emancipation of women in the early 20th century, but particularly in the 1920s and ’30s, as more women entered the workforce, the corset was relegated to the past, hemlines rose and beach pyjamas for women — the forerunner of the ladies’ trouser — made an appearance till eventually the unisex trend was born in the 1970s. Men’s clothing also evolved from the highly ornate suits worn by dandies to the more practical ones sported by men today. It is fascinating to observe the evolution in the cut of clothes over the three centuries depicted here.

The history of fashion is also the story of the stylists, dressmakers and seamstresses behind each creation. In 1857, Charles Frederick Worth, dressmaker to Empress Eugenie, began to sign his creations just the way an artist would. And thus was born the concept of a designer label, a brand. The dressmaker’s creativity was unleashed as he was no longer just executing his client’s orders but actually deciding on what look to give her. He was also the first to introduce the concept of seasonal collections as well as fashion shows with models.

And what better way to culminate this voyage of discovery than through a magnificent immobile fashion show that showcases the unique creations of the great names of haute couture? Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Paco Rabanne, Jean Paul Gaultier and more. This contemporary section of the exhibition, which includes more exhibits than all the other rooms put together, has exploited the high volumes of the Nave by using curving white staircases to create the illusion of movement, of a veritable catwalk glimmering with the effervescent, eclectic creations of a myriad designers. A delightful feast for the eyes! It is a grand finale to an exhibition that pays homage to French savoir faire and honours the men and women who, through their creative expression, bring refinement, beauty, colour as well as eccentricity into many lives.

Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Fashion (1715-2016) is on display at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris until August 14, 2016

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