Published: November 26, 2002
By Karla Klein Albertson
NEW YORK CITY — Collectors weary of the endless television analysis accorded to what Halle Berry or Nicole Kidman wore at the Oscars may be comforted by the thought that this concern for celebrity costume has been time honored for centuries, most notably dating back more than 100 years to the Belle Epoque. “Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris,” on view in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology through January 25, illuminates the era when styles set by actresses and courtesans first became the sought-after dress of “nice girls” as well.
Readers familiar with those ubiquitous photos of Jennifer Lopez’s back side will recognize the famous turn-of-the-century silhouette with an hourglass waist and — in the Victorian’s case — an artificially enhanced derriere. John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Madame X sums up the ultrafemininity of evening dress in this era, although women are well aware that the classic 36-24-36 proportions are rarely achieved without considerable engineering around the middle.
Stereotyping women into either good and bad based purely on dress is as old as time, dating back to ancient cultures where prostitutes wore distinctive garments as advertisement. High school girls of today, perhaps among the most fashion conscious of all humans, still draw the line when they dismiss a classmate who has gone too far. What began during the Belle Epoque era was the urge on occasion to blur that line a bit — to dress like Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, or in modern terms, Madonna for a day.
Director and Chief Curator Valerie Steele was the driving force behind FIT’s “Femme Fatale,” which deals with her favorite themes of why we dress as we do and how that affects human existence. The costume historian is the author of many books including Paris Fashion: A Cultural History (a Berg Publishers book available in paperback for $19.50 through the NYU Press), Fashion and Eroticism and Fashion, Sex & Power. She also edits a new journal from Berg called Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.
Steele explains how the celebrity connection began: “Sarah Bernhardt was a huge international celebrity, so everyone would go to the theater and copy what she wore. There was a lot of publicity about her fashions. Attitudes changed from regarding the actress as a notorious woman to viewing her as a celebrity. Fashion magazines started interviewing actresses about their opinions — who is your favorite couturier or jeweler or even corsetmaker?” The French actress who toured the Continent, England and the United States during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries was noted for her emotional acting and unconventional lifestyle, still hallmarks of stardom in our own day.
The exhibition includes more than 50 ensembles and displays of accessories and lingerie that are drawn from FIT’s permanent collection or loaned by other institutions, including the Museum of the City of New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All illustrate the new form-fitting silhouette that replaced the concealing hoop skirt of the Civil War era. “You certainly get the very dramatically sexy silhouette,” Steele points out. “In some respects, fashion doesn’t change very much over the course of the Nineteenth Century, in as much as it’s always based on a long skirt and a corseted bodice. On the other hand, within that basic schema, the skirt can be relatively full or narrow. In the case of the Civil War crinoline, it swelled out about as far as it could go through inflationary competition.
“Then when it started shrinking, it became essentially quite tight across the front, to the point where people at the time felt women looked like animated statues covered in wax because of the very form-fitting dress,” she continues.
“At the same time, the corset lengthened, becoming what it called a cuirass corset, so instead of being just a short hourglass, it becomes a long hourglass and more dramatically curvy. It emphasizes what the anthropologists call ‘the waist-hip differential’ — one of the prime physical characteristics of femininity. Part of this change is simply fashion’s ‘pendulum effect,’ swinging from the full skirt to a narrow one. And partly it’s due to technological advances: you had new processes for steam-molding corsets, so you could get them to fit much more exactly over the body,” says Steele.
Several important themes emerge from the exhibits on display, such as the development of the modern concept that you must change into an appropriate costume for each occasion. It was no longer sufficient to put on a dress when you arose in the morning. Fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazar, which began publication in 1867, illustrated distinct style for morning, afternoon and evening, when more bare skin was allowed on view. Readers were also sold on the idea of suitable garments for bathing, cycling, tennis and riding. One of Steele’s favorite costumes in the exhibition is the elegant equestrian ensemble in wool for side-saddle rider with top hat, jacket and skirt.
As the title suggests, all the clothes in “Femme Fatale” are French, and the rising influence of Paris on international style is another well-supported theme. Americans had a taste of this trend in the early Nineteenth Century when the high-waisted French Empire look had set the pace. The 1816 portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, now in the Diplomatic Receptions Rooms in Washington, D.C., shows the President’s wife dressed in a gown that rivals the latest creations seen in Paris and St Petersburg.
By the end of the century, Parisian style was no longer set by clever private dressmakers but by couturier houses such as Worth, Doucet, Paquin and Poiret, whose names were recognized throughout the western world. “I was always interested in why Paris was for so long the capital of fashion,” muses Steele. “From this period in the Belle Epoque, Parisian fashion really takes off and becomes modern haute couture as we know it. In the show, we have many dresses by Worth as well as Doucet, houses which had both courtesans and actresses among their clientele.”
She continues, “This was the period when couture developed from being a small-scale craft to being big business and high art. Earlier you certainly had dressmakers with very good reputations, but not until you get to Worth do you have firms with an international reputation. They really organized the business — they had certain people who specialized in sleeves, for example. They were able to apply aspects of modern industry to high fashion, which was still promoted as being an art form.”
Although the fashion showings at the turn-of-the-century did not yet take place on runways to music, important firms did employ mannequins who would show clothes off in the privacy of the salon to clients. The fact that the industry took flight first in Paris may be attributed to the fact that French writers and artists regarded fashion as an important aesthetic topic that contributed to the national culture as a whole. In early America, too much attention to what you wore was often equated with the sin of vanity. Even Thoreau said, “Beware of any occasion that requires new clothes,” an opinion that was the exact opposite of the admiration for good fashion expressed by French poets Baudelaire and Mallarme.
Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) elevated the idea of fashionable attire for young American women of this period through his series of “Gibson Girl” drawings. The type was always pretty, rather sporty and very well-dressed. Steele also points out, “She’s forever marrying effete aristocratic men who are not nearly as vital as she is. This is a period when the sexy and dramatic styles spread from Moulin Rouge courtesans and actresses to all kinds of respectable women. We have dresses in the show that belonged to Vanderbilts and Astors, and of course the ‘Gibson Girl’ is sort of the young fictional version of that type of woman. People assume that women were oppressed and covered with clothes from neck to ankle. We may not want to dress this way today, but women at the time chose these clothes and had good reason for doing so.”
The exhibition ends with a dress by Poiret from 1918. By this time, the need for women to be more physically active and the rejection of the corset by young women led to an entirely new fashion profile, according to the curator: “Even before the First World War, you were already seeing a change from the corset to the brassiere and experiments with trousers in the form of harem pants. A new look was emerging that moved away from the femme fatale and toward what would be called ‘the vamp’ in the 1920s — less curves and more of a straight, young up-and-down figure with more emphasis on the legs.”
A Femme Fatale Symposium on January 24-25, at the end of the exhibition, will offer a series of lectures by well-known scholars discussing fashion’s influence on the formation of the “modern woman” and the sexual politics of fashion in the late Nineteenth Century. Among them, Hollis Clayson, professor of art history at Northwestern, will speak on “Vulgarians in Paris: Prostitutes and American Women on the Town” and historian Deborah Davis will talk about her forthcoming book, Straples:; Madame X and the Scandal that Shocked Belle Epoque Paris.
The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is located on Seventh Avenue at 27th Street in Manhattan. For symposium information and reservations, call 212-217-5958.
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