Monday, April 13, 2009

Vive le Luxe!

It is not the expected Paul Poiret or Charles Fredrick Worth gown that opens the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s latest costume collection, “Shopping in Paris: 1850-1925”, but a 1995 Jean-Paul Gaultier lace trumpet dress with an Eiffel Tower print.

An odd choice, certainly, and I spent a large part of my visit on Friday wondering how fashion’s bad-boy, who once sent live turkeys in the mail to critical editors, ends up front-lining a collection of delicate silk gowns trimmed with antique lace and pearls.

This could just be another case of stupid Americans completely misunderstanding the many complex facets of la mode. I mean have you ever seen an American successfully and properly tie a scarf? C’est ridicule!

But instead, I think that the Gaultier stands for something other than simply modernity; it is a symbol of the endurance and the resilience of American overindulgence. And the exhibit manages to save itself from falling into the pathetic American trap of French emulation, by sticking to a subject that every American, from every race, creed, social class, or time period is more than familiar with: shopping.

Ah yes, the true American way; if we can’t actually have the class, glamour, slenderness or that irresistible je ne sais quoi that everything French automatically possesses, then we’ll just have to buy it.

Obviously, that’s a philosophy that’s working out well for us.

If, however, you are interested in a trip down a memory-lane filled with beautiful excesses and fantastically impractical and expensive fashions that will tickle your Seven Jeans-clad bottom, then this exhibit is probably the next best thing to Gossip Girl.

And Gaultier is only the beginning. Silk, lace, tulle, sequins, crystals, fur and pearls pepper what has to be every 5-year old girls dream come true. My favorites, out of the exquisite collection, had to be a House of Worth 1912 green velvet Opera Coat, and a silver 1926 Yteb lamé flapper dress with orange underlay that was as slinky and as dangerously sexy as a shark in mating season.

There are also some interesting tidbits about the designers themselves; Worth, for example, had almost a warehouse set up for producing his supposedly one-of-a-kind creations, which actually were rather poorly made despite their steep price ($300-500 for one, in unconverted 1900 currency).

The worst I can say about the collection is that it’s a bit small. Unlike those exhibitions at the Costume Institute at the Met, or the Museum at FIT, the Philadelphia museum only has a small space. There are no Chanel pieces either, a noticeable absence in a room filled with the biggest names in France during the turn of the century. We can see that fashion changed from 1850 to 1925, but the catalyst herself for that change is missing.

Still maybe that’s part of the point; our vision of French fashion is just as limited as that of those who actually wore the clothes. This isn’t France we’re seeing; it’s Americans’ vision of France. It may seem glamorous, but, ultimately, it’s just a sad imitation of the real thing.

Evening Dress, Designed by Charles Frederick Worth (English, active Paris, 1825 – 1895). Made in Paris, France, c. 1886-87. Silk satin, faille, and brocade with lace and rhinestones. Bodice Waist: 20 inches, Bodice Center Back Length: 13 1/2 inches, Skirt Center Front Length: 38 3/8 inches, Skirt Bottom Circumference: 157 1/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Owen Biddle, 1978

Afternoon Dress and Hat, Designed by Paul Poiret (French, 1879 – 1944). Made in France, 1923. (Dress) Silk crepe de chine and velvet with silk and metallic thread embroidery; (hat) silk with leather appliqué and metallic thread embroidery. Center Back Length: 48 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Vera White, 1951