Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, exposition “Fashion Forward: 3 Centuries of Fashion (1715-2016),” 2016. Photo: Luc Boegly
Early into a preview of “Fashion Forward: 3 Centuries of Fashion,” the new exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, lead curator of the exhibit, Pamela Golbin, is explaining how a men’s hunting coat ornamented with metal embroidery circa 1690 would have been the period equivalent of today’s luxe sportswear. By the same token, she compares a robe volante in silk lampas covered with Persian-inspired patterning from around 1725 with the comfy clothes we might slip into for an evening at home—despite the fact it appears more sumptuous than today’s black-tie fare.
Very little of what we wear today, in other words, exists with no relation to the past. Indeed, the exhibition’s starting point rewinds 300 years, for it was during the lustrous reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV that French fashion codes and coherence began to take shape.
And shape as it relates to shifting silhouettes registers among the show’s major takeaways, as the selection of 300 clothing pieces in addition to decorative objects and toys bears witness to trends like a time-lapse anthology of fashion’s greatest hits.
Be it a suit made from monkey in the mid-1700s, Dior’s revolutionary Bar jacket from 1947, Junya Watanabe’s toile de Jouy dress with padded hips from 2003, or the airbrush-effect suit by Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton from last Spring, the “chronological frieze” will prove as captivating for fashion neophytes as couture connoisseurs.
The dazzling impact is partly owing to the scenography: This is the first time that a fashion exhibition has been mounted in the museum’s grande nave and, accordingly, the modern era reveals itself as a series of mirrored staircases that evoke Gabrielle Chanel’s salon at 31 Rue Cambon. None of the clothes appear behind glass, so while they may be farther than arm’s reach, their preciousness feels enhanced because they’re so exposed. Because the show also coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Musée des Arts de la Mode (one of the departments of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs), it benefits from a bounty of accessories such as Pandora dolls, snuff boxes portraying women’s hairstyles and necklines, and enlarged illustrations by Paul Iribe of Paul Poiret’s designs. Wallpaper from Zuber highlighting Paris monuments situates the grouping of post-Revolution dresses, whereas screens from Jean-Michel Frank that belonged to the writer François Mauriac help divide the birth of designer fashion, so that Schiaparelli’s fuchsia cape does not overwhelm a dramatic, North African–inspired silk lamé cape designed by Jeanne Lanvin that coincided with advertisements in Vogue promoting luxurious travel adventures through Morocco.
While the show, sponsored by H&M, plays out neatly through time, Golbin points out how there is constant echoing through the ages. “It’s nice to see how things permeate decade to decade, back and forth,” she says, noting how her main objective was to contextualize such emblematic pieces without loading them with historical, never mind physical, weight. To wit, an evening jacket from Jacques Doucet in inky black velour and jade embroidery created for Belle Époque dancer Cléo de Mérode that weighs nearly 15 kilograms) or the striped robe à transformation from the Second Empire that conjures up women painted en plein air by Claude Monet and Eugène Boudin. And to think that precisely one century later, Paco Rabanne conceived a minidress composed of metal discs.
Meanwhile, Golbin enlisted Tony Award–winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to imbue the faceless mannequins with countless natural gestures so that each vignette appears unaffectedly animated. He also oversaw short videos featuring dancers from the Opéra de Paris who bring life to various eras and key designs.
Of course, the notion of key is relative, given how each piece contributes some element to the canon of fashion; Mariano Fortuny’s precise pleating is no more or less consequential than Helmut Lang’s minimalist sheath. It is to Golbin’s credit that no hierarchy is assigned, nor is the show meant to assert institutional legitimacy to more recent designs.
“I never think of that aspect,” she says. “I think it is important to give a more open vision of what’s going on today, from ready-to-wear to couture.”
Hence the hoodie and long skirt from the most recent Vetements collections among the final looks. Golbin explains her reasoning: “What they showed last season was important; what will happen next season, I haven’t the slightest clue.” Which perhaps explains why the exhibition ends with a mirror, reflecting the entire gallery of contemporary design. No matter what fashion’s future holds, the only certainty is that we’ll always be looking back.
“Fashion Forward: 3 Centuries of Fashion” is now open and continues until August 14 at Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Comme des Garçons, Robe, printemps-été 2015 © Jean Tholance, Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, collection Mode et Textile; Mariano Fortuny, Robe du soir Delphos, 1910-1915, satin de soie plissé, perles en verre de Murano, Collection Ufac; Elsa Schiaparelli, Cape « Phoebus », Haute couture hiver 1938, drap de laine, velours de soie, broderies © Jean Tholance, Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, collection UFAC. (Photo: © Jean Tholance, Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, collection Mode et Textile)