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In a Dead Faint

photo: musee galleria

The Musée Galliera in the 16th arrondissement.

Paris Journal – No 47

by Laurel Avery

Paris:– Saturday, 3. July 2004:– Antique clothing from almost any time before World War I possessed a beauty that I don't find in contemporary fashions. In the days before western women took a larger command of their lives and the world around them, there was an appreciation for a curvy female form that seems to have disappeared somewhere amongst the striving for equality with men.

I'm sorry, but no matter how well you dress up a good looking man, there's just no comparison with a woman who knows how to wear clothing that accentuates her curves in a flattering – but 'classy!' – way. Why women feel they have to look like men to compete in a world full of them isphoto: shoes puces beyond me. There's no reason why a woman can't do business or command a country while wearing a gorgeous, shape flattering dress.

Happily, there are two exhibits running right now featuring clothing from the 18th century to the present that pay tribute to the decoration of the ultimate art form – the human body.

'Ouverture pour Inventaire,' at the Musée Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris is an exhibit covering three centuries of fashion. There is no particular theme, and the items are not organized either chronologically or by subject. It's rather as though someone invited you into their home and threw open their closet doors, revealing racks of dresses situated amongst the 'skinny' jeans that have not been worn in 20 years, and the odd shoe poking out here and there. If anything, the show is organized by designer, the French being obsessed with labels.

One of the things I find most frustrating when shopping for clothing in Paris at any of the larger department stores is that, unlike in the U.S. where if you're looking for a dress you look in the 'misses' dress section where all your choices will be collected in one place, regardless of who created it, you step into a 'grand magasin' like Galeries Lafayette and find that all the clothes are grouped by designer.

So if I'm looking for any item of clothing by Calvin Klein, for example, I'm in luck and head right for the Calvin Klein department. However, a couple of months ago I was looking for a nice terrycloth bathrobe, preferably in a sage green color. It doesn't matter to me who designed it. It's just a bathrobe. But it took me three hours just to go through all the departments, only to find that no designer found sage green to be in style this spring.

Despite the lack of structure to the Musée Galliera show, the pieces they have on exhibit are exquisite examples of the time periods they represent. Though, of the 90,000 items of clothing and accessories the museum has in its possession, only about 200 of them are on display. Of course, exposure to light and dust is harmful to delicate antique clothing and they want to keep the damage to a minimum, but I would have liked to have seen a more comprehensive range of their collection.

There are some fine examples of mid-19th century bustles, one of which was called a 'queue d'ecrevisse' or 'shrimp tail.' It is literally shaped like a shrimp or lobster tail and was meant to be tied around your waist so that your rear end would achieve a shelf–like form. It seems odd to me that at any time in history women would have wanted to make their bottoms look larger than they were, but those Victorians could be an odd lot. Nevertheless, under an elaborately sewn and embroidered gown, the end result is fabulously attractive.

One of the best parts of the exhibit was the selection of 14 pairs of 19th and early 20th century boots. Now that was the golden age of bootmaking, as far as I'm concerned. None of these ridiculous spike heels and pointy toes that are ubiquitous in every shoe store today. They generally possessedphoto: corset de paris what was called a 'bobbin' heel, which has a beautiful sexy s–curve to it, while being sturdy enough so a woman could wear them all day without breaking her neck when walking on cobblestone streets or wasting all her money on a podiatrist.

The second exhibition I attended was my favorite. 'Dessous & Corsets' features – as can be gathered from the name – ladies' corsets and underthings from 1820 to 1970. It was the most stunning collection of antique corsets I have ever seen gathered in one place.

I have loved corsets ever since buying my first antique white cotton and lace one at the age of seventeen. I still have it, though have long since been unable to fit into it. One of the most amazing things about the corsets on exhibit is their size. One of them would be hard put to fit around my thigh, let alone my waist! It's no wonder some women were always fainting with the lack of adequate space for their lungs to take in any air due to the overtightening of their corsets. It sure made for a beautiful silhouette though. Who needs oxygen anyway?

Each of the pieces on exhibit is a work of art, featuring a range of fabrics, colors, patterns and styles. The way they are presented, on a wire cage form suspended from the ceiling, allows the visitor to see both back and front, along with the interior and exterior. It was nice to be able to get up close to them, which one often cannot in most museum exhibitions.

As soon as I got home I pulled out my sewing machine and started looking through my antique clothing patterns. One of the great things about living in Paris as an artist is that I can wear whatever I want.

So if one day you're visiting Paris and find a woman wearing Belle Epoque clothing in a dead faint, it's probably me. Just loosen my corset.

Ouverture pour Inventaire – on view until Sunday, 8. August. Daily except Monday, from 10:00 to 18:00. At the Musée Galliera,photo: illumination, laurel avery 10. Avenue Pierre–1er–de–Serbie, Paris 16. Métro: Iéna or Alma–Marceau. InfoTel.: 01 56 52 86 00.

Dessous & Corsets – on view until Sunday, 11. July. Daily except Monday, from 12:00 to 19:00, on Friday until 22:00. At the Viaduc des Arts, 55–57. Avenue Daumesnil, Paris 12. Métro: Gare de Lyon.

Laurel's Show – see the art at the left and Laurel Avery's other contemporary paintings and classic illuminations from Saturday, 10 July until Friday, 6 August. Be Ed's guest and attend the vernissage on Saturday, 10. July at 18:00. At La Galerie Art et Culture, 4. Place de l'Eglise, 32600 Saint–Marcel, near Argenton in the Creuse.

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2004

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