FIT’s Valerie Steele Transports Audience with Revised “Paris Fashion” Book

 “Paris Fashion: A Cultural History”
All photos Laurel Marcus
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“I think I keep revising this book as an excuse to keep going back to Paris,” said Museum of FIT director Valerie Steele. Last night at the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre at FIT, she presented to a full house of the fashion obsessed an in-depth look at the new edition of her “Paris Fashion: A Cultural History” (originally published in 1988), followed by a book signing. The revised and expanded work explores the reasons Paris is considered the capital of fashion.

So what has made Paris the center of fashion for the last 300 years? Steele remarks that it has to do with the “depth and sophistication of performers and spectators. Their culture made it special.” Under Louis XIV in the 17th century, France became the most wealthy nation as well as the capital of fashion. “Fashion will be to France, what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain,” is the way Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister in 1665, described it.

Valerie’s presentation to audience at Katie Murphy Amphitheatre at FIT

“Fashion emerged from the court; the 18th century style of clothing was an elaborate style born from an aristocratic culture of novelty” said Steele. A “modiste” or minister of fashion attended to Marie Antoinette who would make house calls (everyone else had to go to the modiste) with different trimmings to apply to a dress in order to change it up.

There was a bit of a division between Paris and London — Paris was known as “the wicked city of Paris” or “Licentious Paris” as seen in an illustration from the book. The panel on the left shows the original gown along with an eye-popping amount of cleavage (literally a nipple is showing); on the right is how the gown has been modified with a slightly raised neckline which was mocked as “English Prudery.” “They made up for it with the bench,” quipped Steele, of the right panel’s use of an Empire style bench portraying bare-chested women ornamenting the base of the piece of furniture.

Book signing

In the 18th century, London became the capital of men’s fashion while Paris remained the sine qua non of women’s. Whereas in France there was nothing effeminate about an aristocratic gentlemen wearing a pink jacket with embroidered flowers, England featured the “Natural Man” fashion for upper class men or more of a dark suited look. In 1791 the Count of Mirabeau wore a dark wool suit which was considered a “highly political statement” and “the future of menswear,” explained Steele.

Marie Antoinette appeared in a “neoclassical” dress for a portrait stunning and perturbing many as the lightness of the fabric appeared to be underwear. The advent of the “sans culottes” (translated to mean “without knee pants”) came one of many French revolutions. Long pants were previously the apparel of the under classes however freedom to wear whatever you wanted was dawning with the new age. “It was considered counter revolutionary to force anyone to wear anything that they didn’t want to wear — questions of dress lay at the heart of the French Revolution,” said the curator.

During the Great Revolution of 1789, novelist Balzac advocated dressing for the way you want to become (yes, that’s today’s “dress for success”) to help you rise in society. Baudelaire, one of the first philosophers said of their modern fashion that anyone could aspire to this look of “modern beauty” known as La Parisienne.  Emmeline Raymond, editor of La Mode Illustrée (1867) is credited with saying “In Paris half of the female population lives off fashion and the other half lives for fashion.” Fun fact: did you know that in Monet’s time you could rent a dress? “Rent the Runway is not a new idea,” Steele joked.

By the second half of the 19th century, Charles Frederick Worth had established himself in business as the rise of haute couture dawned. Worth particularly liked American women who he said had “the faces, the figures and the francs,” for his creations. At this time came a retail revolution with readymade clothing appearing in department stores. “Milliners had previously paved the way before designers such as Worth, by putting their labels on hats, much like an artist signs his paintings,” said Steele.

“Paris theatre was a stage where performers such as Sarah Bernhardt modeled the latest fashions as did the audience. Fashion was an important manifestation of society and culture unlike in America where Henry David Thoreau warned to ‘beware of any enterprises that require new clothes.'”

Steele spoke of Poiret who claimed to have abolished the corset in favor of the brassiere although it was not true. “Women claimed they weren’t wearing corsets but they were,” she said showing a photo of an obviously corseted wasp-waisted woman. The 1920’s were also the age of the woman designer including Chanel and Schiaparelli however the Nazi occupation (1935-45) nearly destroyed French fashion. In 1947 Dior introduced the New Look saying that coming out of war women should look like flowers not soldiers.

The end of the 1950’s brought a “Youthquake which undercut the whole idea of couture.” Steele spoke of how Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent adapted the youth movement with couture versions of modern dressing including the space age dress and the trouser suit. The birth of American Ready-to-Wear came alive in 1973 with the Battle of Versailles in which the fashions of Stephen Burrows and Halston seemed “younger and fresher than their French counterparts also due to their use of African American models.”

The 1980’s brought designers such as Christian Lacroix. “At that point fashion was really fashionable. By the early 90’s we were asking Is couture dead? By 1997 John Galliano at Dior revived it as did McQueen and Givenchy.  Tokyo became a fashion center but Rei Kawakubo shows in Paris. From Moscow to Mumbai — all have fashion weeks. Didier Grumbach (formerly President of the Fédération Française) now says fashion is a global phenomenon. However, Paris is at least the first among equals,” she added.

Steele answered a few questions including one on the role of museums — “they play a big role since many big fashion houses are collaborating with museums on their own shows.  Fashion today is more widely recognized as an art form — although the French have always thought of it as such.” Her favorite exhibitions include the Charles James show at the Brooklyn Museum (“I wanted to tell the guard to turn around so I could steal a dress.”) Her favorite at FIT: the Daphne Guinness Gothic show in 2011.

Steele mentioned that she tends to be influenced by whatever designer she has worked with last. Right now she is working on a Fall 2018 show around the color pink particularly Rei Kawakubo’s use of pink in her punk 2001 collection.

How to show a museum that you have curator potential?  “Do things alone such as making up an online exhibition or write a book. Don’t wait for them to come to you with ideas.” And with that Ms. Steele ascended to her seat at the table, pen in hand to sign her new and improved tome.

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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