In our digital age the power of the image has taken on a performative role and it's often the norm for fashion designers to create extreme garments that constrict and modify the body. Yet, it could be argued, this is nothing new since, even in the Renaissance, the elites favoured body-constricting pieces that straightened, stiffened, rigidified and limited the movements. An exhibition currently on at The Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode (International Centre of Lace and Fashion) in Calais, France, explores the correspondence between grandeur, extravangance and excess in historical costumes and in contemporary fashion.
Co-curated by Shazia Boucher and Isabelle Paresys “Plein les yeux! Le spectacle de la mode” (A feast for the eyes! Spectacular fashions) explores how fashion modified and altered the natural silhouette of the body, the posture and the gestures of the wearer as early as the 16th century.
The main theme of the exhibition is illustrated through historical pieces, film costumes from movies such as Patrice Chéreau's La Reine Margot (Queen Margot, 1994), items of haute couture, paintings, documentary pieces from several art museum collections, and movie extracts.
The exhibition is divided into five sections with the first three - "Ruff Party", "Garments of Light", and "Caged Bodies" - exploring the power of ruffs and collars, luxurious gold and silver embroidered outfits, voluminous extensions and tight corsets.
The "Costumery" section features instead a space where visitors can understand why certain fashions truly pushed the body beyond its natural limits through replicas of accessories and costumes from the 16th to the 20th century made with the help of the students at La Source, College of Textile Creation, Performing Arts and Art Trades in Nogent-sur-Marne.
The final section, "A Fashion Show", rounds off the exhibition presenting garments from couture collections by contemporary creators including Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Hubert Barrère and On Aura Tout Vu.
Can you tell us more about the genesis of this exhibition?
Shazia Boucher: The exhibition was actually going to take place in 2012, the year of the London Olympic Games, to connect the idea of performance in sports and in the artistic fields to fashion. Fashion can be a real challenge: it is a bodily performance for the person who has to wear the pieces that transform the body, and a performance of skills by the artisans who are going to create these pieces. We start from the Renaissance because that's really the period when the elite started to wear these spectacularly voluminous body extentions and when splendid and dazzling fabrics decorated with gold embroideries, pearls, and lace, became fashionable.
Why do clothes and accessories become key elements to create a powerful figure during the Renaissance?
Shazia Boucher: In the Renaissance period man takes centre stage, he becomes the main focus in all domains of creativity, from architecture and painting to clothing. Differentiating oneself through the magnificence of clothing became important from then. New notions concerning elegance and social manners started being codified in books such as Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtesan) by Baldassarre Castiglione who explained to the gentleman how he should act to keep his social position. These new models started travelling all over Europe and the same representations arrived in different countries explaining how aristocratic figures should place themselves and how the clothing contributed to one's attitude.
Was it difficult to select the pieces that had to go in?
Shazia Boucher: It is very difficult to show clothing from the Renaissance because there are very few examples remaining in museums. There are more pieces from the 17th century, but mainly from the northern European countries. There are lace and textiles parts from this period but there are not many outfits and costumes, so the whole difficulty was presenting this period without the actual pieces. This is why the introductory part that focuses on the ruff conceived as a spectacular body extension, features loans of lace for cuffs and ruffs and collars dating from the 17th century from the Royal Museum of Art and History of Brussels, plus a very rare piece from the Musée national de la Renaissance in Ecouen.
Moralists called the ruff a vain piece of attire, yet this item is considered as a symbol of those times, why was the ruff so emblematic?
Shazia Boucher: The heyday of the ruff and the big big collar is the end of the 16th century, and it coincides with the beginning of the production of lace. The ruff was a very luxurious item not just because it was made with materials such as lace and gold and silver threads, but because it took many hours to produce it, so it was a very technical article. It would take up to 10 metres of fine linen to make one and it had to be regularly cleaned and prepared. In its heydays when it had a very large dimension, the ruff was a very uncomfortable item, it made everything very difficult, even moving your head or eating, people would hold their heads stiff and upright, reflecting the postures of the era’s social elite, so wearing this article was a physical performance for those people, but there was something else about it. The piece also isolated the face of the wearer, showcasing it, and the face was considered to reflect a person's soul in those times. There are two examples of ruffs in the public collections in Europe, one is in Ecoen and the other in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but they are two different types, one type is called "confusion" because the pleating in the ruff is very loose, it's not starched or stiffened; the other one is a "col à rebato", a collar with a metallic support so that it can stand up behind the head, and it's like a fan collar very similar to the one donned by Isabelle Adjani in La Reine Margot.
In your opinion, why human beings keep on modifying their bodies wearing constricting garments?
Shazia Boucher: To be unsatisfied with oneself is something that has always characterised the human spirit. In the early days this was criticised because it was as if man was trying to replace God, playing around and changing his natural body. In the exhibition we wanted to illustrate the theatrical relationship between the body and fashion and the fact that the idea of fashion creating a new body is very old. In our modern day society we think that contemporary fashion designers are creating very extravagant fashions that nobody can really wear, but even the extremely high heels young models wear on catwalk runways existed in the Renaissance, they were called chopines.
What do the paintings included in the exhibition tell us about fashion?
Shazia Boucher: Most of our knowledge of clothing from this period comes from the paintings, so we also wanted to show a portrait of a marriage from the Museum of Fine Art in Lille, and a painting from Belgium showing a young aristocratic family, because it's interesting to see how this notion of submitting your body to these encaging types of clothing started from a very young age. Children were also inculcated into this type of demeanour and the young boys in the painting on display are wearing a dress, as it was the fashion for boys until they were 6-7, and little collars as well. This painting show that aristocratic people accepted such constraints because they were educated to do so from a very young age.
You have seen the garments from a privileged point of view, from the inside out, what fascinates you the most, their construction or their elaborate decorations?
Shazia Boucher: The students at "La Source", College of Textile Creation, Performing Arts and Art Trades in Nogent-sur-Marne, did a lot of research and, following original patterns, recreated costumes and items from those times. What's so intriguing about these garments is the fact that they were beautifully made outside and inside, and they also featured special paddings to keep people warm because there was no heating in the castles. I think that's what we have lost today - a genuine passion and love for details.
The exhibition also features movie costumes and haute couture garments: what's the main difference between them?
Shazia Boucher: In cinema or in theatre the final effect is important. For example, a black dress in a black and white film is often in reality dark blue because the film will pick its colour much better and there are always specific techniques or materials like plastic instead of fabrics that costume designers use to try and get the effect across. This is even more true in theatrical costumes: in this case costumes are even more exaggerated because they are employed on a stage in a theatrical room where there are a lot of people, some of them sitting very far from the scene, so everything must be as clear and as visual as possible for a large public.
Do you feel that directors favour historically correct costumes?
Shazia Boucher: In the first part of the 21st century directors were really interested in portraying something that was historically correct; now I think what's important is that it can be realistic for the public to think that the scene they are watching may be happening at the end of the 16th century, but the costumes are not necessarily historically exact in the details. So, quite often, costume designers take a lot of liberties to reach the final effect. For example, the dress in the marriage scene in La Reine Margot is very close in its silhouette and shape to the Italian Renaissance dresses from the end of the 16th century, but the interlaced motifs that are on it are screen-printed because it was obviously impossible to recreate the dress using the same techniques and materials that were popular at the time. Besides, costume designer Moidele Bickel wanted to have a dress that could be comfortable for the actress to wear, so she opted for a lighter material. The Renaissance dress worn by Isabelle Adjani in the film is also historically incorrect for the period because the collar didn't exist then, but became fashionable only 25 years later, yet the main point in the film was using the collar to give the character a very distinctive attitude. Margot the head of the Catholics also wears a very ornate red and silver dress while her future husband, the king of the Protestants wears a black costume, even though, in a historically correct portrayal, he would have worn a costume as elaborate as Margot's. In the film the difference between the sobriety and the glamour of the two characters is supposed to hint at the opposition between Protestants and Catholics that led to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre a few weeks after the wedding.
In your opinion, which contemporary fashion designer included in the exhibition has any links with film or theatre costumes?
Shazia Boucher: Thierry Mugler has very strong ties with the world of theatre because he was a dancer for the Rhin Opera before he became a fashion designer and also designed costumes for theatre productions, such as the Macbeth that was produced by Comédie Française for the opening of the Festival d'Avignon in 1985. The exhibition includes the costume he designed for Lady Macbeth and all the preliminary drawings, and some of the drawings reflect his creativity as a fashion designer. They are very angular, very striking, geometrical like his creations for fashion, so you can clearly see his influence as a fashion designer reappearing in the costumes he designed for this Elizabethan period drama. We also have two pieces by Christian Lacroix and one of the pieces is a dress that he made for the launching of the perfume C'est la vie, at the beginning of the '90s. The dress is very close in its structure to the grand pannier dresses of the 18th century that were favoured at the Royal Court. There is a reproduction just behind the dress in the exhibition of a potrait of Catherine II of Russia dressed in the French fashion of the 18th century that allows visitors to spot the correspondences between Lacroix's dress and her costume. Fashion designers today know their fashion history but at the same time don't try to reproduce just one, they just choose very freely to mix together in the collective imagination different historical periods during which costumes were really spectacular.
In which ways is the theme of the "performance" tackled in the "Costumery" section?
Shazia Boucher: We really wanted people to put themselves in the place of these elites, so we worked with a school training costume designers. The students recreated replicas of early 17th century costumes, whole ensembles for a woman, a man, a young boy and a young girl. They made all the underclothing, the stays, the corsages, and even the socks and some of the pieces can be worn by the visitors. We wanted to illustrate how complicated it was wearing these pieces and how you couldn't dress yourself by yourself, but you needed help to get dressed. It actually takes up to 45 minutes to don the whole ensemble for a woman with two people dressing you. We actually helped my co-curator getting into and out one of the costumes and it was tricky. Once you get on the pieces you immediately realise that your posture has been dramatically altered, but also the notion of the space around you immediately changes, and this is a great way to tackle the physical performance behind the dress code of those times.
"Plein les yeux! Le spectacle de la mode", The Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode,135 quai du Commerce, 62100 Calais, France, until 28th April 2013.
All images courtesy of The Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode, Calais, France
1 - Ruff mounted on brass structure / ECL1886c, 17th century. Ecouen, Musée national de la Renaissance © RMN-Grand Palais / René-Gabriel Ojéda.
2 - Garment fitting at the Lycée des Métiers des Arts, du spectacle et de la création textile "La Source", Nogent-sur-Marne, "DMA Costumier Réalisateur", "DTMS Habillage" and "Chapellerie Mode et Spectacle" Departments
3 - Ollivier Henry, embroidery detail, costume "Infante", 2005. Photo Ollivier Henry
4 - Ollivier Henry, "Grand habit" costume inspired to an 18th century dress, 2011. Photo Ollivier Henry
5 - Guy Laroche, dress and a skirt with lace frame, Autumn/Winter 1994-1995 Collection © CIDM / photo Florian Kleinefenn
6 - Chanel, Haute Couture Collection, Autumn-Winter 1991
7 - On Aura Tout Vu, "Fishing for Compliments" Collection, Autumn/Winter 2010-11 © OATV / photo Guillaume Roujas
8- Thierry Mugler, costume for Lady Macbeth, for La Tragédie de Macbeth de William Shakespeare, Festival d’Avignon, 1985 © Coll. CNCS / Comédie- Française; photo CNCS / Pascal François
9 - Garment fitting at the college Lycée des Métiers des Arts, du spectacle et de la création textile "La Source", Nogent-sur-Marne, "DMA Costumier Réalisateur", "DTMS Habillage" and "Chapellerie Mode et Spectacle" Departments
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