Published: January 22, 2002
HARTFORD, CONN. – “The Art of French Fashion,” on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art from March 16 through August 18, features 20 examples of sartorial innovation and fine workmanship from the legendary couture houses of Worth, Lanvin, Patou, Vionnet and others.
“The French fashion arts, supported by extraordinary artisans creating laces, trims, embroideries and accessories, attained premier status by the Eighteenth Century,” said Carol Dean Krute, curator of costume and textiles at the Wadsworth Atheneum. “Thriving colonial America looked to France for sumptuous styles and luxurious fabrics.”
The oldest garments on view in “The Art of French Fashion,” for a man and a woman, date to the 1760s. His is a suit of tan velvet; hers is a style known as an “open robe” with matching petticoat, made of silk brocade with a chinoiserie design of flowering tree branches.
The Revolutionary Wars on both sides of the Atlantic interrupted the import of French fashion to America and diminished its influence for nearly 100 years. The next wave of Franco-mania began in 1867, with the end of the American Civil War and the opening of the International Exhibition in Paris. Nouveau riche American heiresses and wives of tycoons craved the latest styles produced by the Parisian masters of haute couture.
One novel style was the princess-line. Instead of a horizontal seam at the waistline joining bodice and skirt, the vertical panels of a princess-line dress are uninterrupted from neck and shoulder to hem. An early example in the exhibition was made in 1867 by Enout & Cie, Paris, of bright blue silk grosgrain adorned with chenille fringe of the same color.
The most famous and influential couturier in Paris was the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825-95). Due to their shared language, American clients confidently ordered special occasion frocks and gowns from Worth while relishing his establishment’s exclusivity, for Worth dressed the crowned heads of Europe.
Two fin de siecle creations by Worth are featured – a light blue silk evening dress and a heavily embroidered bright green and white silk satin dress with a long train once worn by Countess Bekendorff, wife of the Russian ambassador to the court of St James.
Another master dressmaker was Worth’s contemporary Jacques Doucet (1853-1929). A red-and-black-striped silk day dress with a jeweled stomacher, designed by Doucet circa 1896, will be on view.
At the turn of the century, a second generation of French Fashion designers emerged, with as many women as men opening their own houses. Jeanne Lanvin, Mme. Paquin, and the Callot Soeurs were soon followed by Madeleine Vionnet and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The male designers Lucien LeLong and Jean Patou opened their respective establishments in 1914, but closed immediately as they were called to war. It was left to the women designers to preserve the French fashion arts. Determined to keep their tradition alive by keeping artisans employed, the couturiers won the support of the textile industry and subsidies from the French government.
French fashion flourished during the Art Deco period, the last era represented in this exhibition. Although the tubular garconne style was popular during this time, Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) offered a full-skirted silhouette, while Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) introduced her revolutionary bias-cuts that accentuated feminine contours. Lanvin is represented by a black evening dress from 1925 made of silk, taffeta and net, adorned with large roses embroidered in green and silver. It is sleeveless, with a wide, oval neckline, drop-waist and gathered skirt accentuated by a large French blue ribbon at the hip. A highlight is a Vionnet silk charmeuse wedding dress from 1928 that slips over the head, the only fastenings being the self-buttoned sleeves.
“It took another world war to tear a hole in the fabric of French fashion,” said Krute. “The Art of French Fashion” also explores the transformation of jewelry styles, from Victorian to Art Nouveau to Art Deco, with examples on display in 20 cabinet drawers. Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was the first to use costume jewelry to compliment his couture collections. However, when Chanel opened her own jewelry shop in 1924, she promoted costume jewelry to the fashion arts.
According to Krute, “Chanel broke all the rules by producing jewelry for sporting wear, long chains of colored stones, masses of faux pearls, and frankly fake copies of her own ‘real’ jewels.”
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm and on the first Thursday of most months until 8 pm. For information, 860-278-2670 .
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