Proust’s Muse The Countess Greffulhe: Beyond the Madeleine to La Mode

Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe, put the belle in Belle Epoque. Born in 1860 to poor but aristocratic parents, she became an extraordinary fashion icon of the 20th Century when she married the extraordinarily wealthy (but indifferent) Count Henri Greffulhe. Preferring to look “bizarre” rather than “banal,” she only commissioned her robes from the great couturiers of the time including Worth, Soinard, Poiret, Lanvin, Fortuny, who would allow her input into the design process.
Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay

Marcel Proust was so in awe of her beauty and presence that she became the inspiration for the fictional counterparts of the Duchesse de Guermantes, as well as the Princesse de Guermantes from his great seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time” aka “Remembrance of Things Past.” As the queen of society she represented a perfect blending of aristocratic and artistic elegance; according to Dr. Steele, someone like Daphne Guinness would be close to a modern day version of Countess Greffuhle.

Lily dress created by House of Worth circa 1896

As I arrived at yesterday morning’s press preview for “Proust’s Muse The Countess Greffulhe” (now through January 7, 2017) at the Museum of FIT, I was greeted by a particularly ebullient Valerie Steele, who termed the exhibition “a real labor of love” that had run “way over budget.” As Dr. Steele explained, it all started several years ago in Paris at a Christian Dior show when she ran into Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, the repository of all things Countess Greffuhle.

House of Worth Tea Gown circa 1897

“From the moment that Olivier Saillard told me that he was planning an exhibition, I was determined that people in New York City would also have the opportunity to see masterpieces such as the “Lily Dress,” to appreciate the life of a legendary fashion icon, and to understand how Proust helps us interpret the ‘mute language of clothes.'” Steele was involved in that exhibition writing for the catalogue and Saillard will be attending this exhibition for the October 20 fashion symposium at FIT.

As you enter the anteroom of the exhibition, there are several photographs of the Countess (you would think her impossibly tiny waist was photoshopped!) and her family as well as a video of her twirling around in a gown. Steele is quick to point out photos of some of the benefactors of her largesse as she was also a great philanthropist and pioneering fundraiser for the arts and sciences.

Charles Frederick Worth garden-party dress circa 1894

These include supporting Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, the composer Gabriel Faure, Scientist Marie Curie and oddly for someone of the aristocracy, Armed Forces Officer Alfred Dreyfus. Here you will find a photo of her at the opera with the quote “I don’t think that there is any pleasure in the world comparable to that of a woman who feels that she is being looked at by everybody…How can you live when one can no longer provoke this great anonymous caress, after having known and tasted it.” Interestingly, despite her narcissism, she would have hated the paparazzi — although Proust often asked her for a photo she would never oblige as she believed photos weren’t to be given to “outsiders.”

Felix day dress circa 1895

The mirrors are used to great effect in the main exhibition room — the famous Lily dress is positioned perfectly before a mirror while two gowns that were too fragile to put on mannequins are displayed in custom built cases with mirrors strategically hung, allowing one to view the garment from another angle. As a young woman, The Countess preferred pinks, mauves and lilacs as seen in the Soinard day dress and the Worth garden party dress which she wore at her uncle’s (Count Robert de Montesquiou) party where she first met Marcel Proust (then freelancing as a social writer), who later dubbed his character Odette, the mysterious “lady in pink.”

Charles Frederick Worth cape & House of Worth Byzantine gown 1904

She also favored the color green to set off her auburn hair, as evidenced in a House of Worth tea gown and a Felix day dress of green shot silk taffeta. Long before Andy Warhol made his quip, Countess Greffuhle was the queen of the 15-minute dramatic appearance — perhaps after that she wanted to let loose her corset?

Oriental inspired gown

Later fashions were inspired by the wave of “Orientalism” (not a politically incorrect word in those days) which was ushered in by the Ballet Russes and other eastern influences. Also on display is the House of Worth gold “Byzantine Gown” which she wore in a photo opportunity at the top of the stairs, upstaging her daughter on her wedding day. Next to this showstopper, a cape from Bukhara which she had transformed by the House of Worth, is displayed.

In her later years (she lived until 1952, age 92) The Countess primarily dressed in black and cream, and of course, the silhouettes had changed dramatically to more modern day proportions. Her style remained flawless as illustrated by a Jeanne Lanvin “brick effect” coat with fur trim. Dr. Steele pointed out that between the wars, female designers were all the rage although Chanel and Schiaparelli were unlikely candidates since they would have insisted that things be made their way.

Jean Shafiroff & Ike Ude at evening reception
Photo: Lieba Nesis

Accessories were quite important to The Countess as evidenced by a display case of various hats, elbow length embroidered, embellished and poufy topped gloves, red brocade Lagel-Meier shoes (all the shoes remind me of those of the now shuttered Peter Fox who made my wedding shoes) and decorative painted fans of ivory and tortoiseshell. Unfortunately, the Bird of Paradise chapeau had to remain in Paris, as Steele admits, there’s a limit to what you can get through customs.

Lucia Hwong Gordon, Lauren Roberts, Yaz Hernandez, Amy Fine Collins,
Valerie Steele, and Dennis Basso at the evening reception
Photo: Lieba Nesis

As members of the press along with Laure de Gramont the great great granddaughter of The Countess,  and others who had flown in from France marveled at how these special frocks had remained so well preserved through time and careful conservation, Dr. Steele mentioned that this is the only fashion collection that has been recorded in literature.  “Fashion is central to time and art in Proust and Countess Greffulhe was a big inspiration.” The exhibition also serves as a reminder of “the individual wearer as a corrective against the idea that it’s all the designer.”

Kyla Malbon and Victor de Souza at the evening reception
Photo: Lieba Nesis

Perhaps it’s best summed up by Proust’s “Countess inspired character” Princesse de Guermantes. “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me,” she says. To which another character replies, “Never fear, my dear, so long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.”

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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