Monday, 11 April 2011

Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion

This time last year I was very busy working in preparation on the exhibition in Milan and the publication of the exhibition catalogue. As the English edition has been released recently I wanted to share a few backstage stories which occurred during this time.

After photographing 'Juliette' for the catalogue I was undressing the mannequin and Cristina and I were commenting that the gloves were too big. Cristina had chosen cut steel jewellery  and we discussed which pieces to use. As I was taking off the gloves I felt something in the fingers of the glove. Low and behold, two early cut steel buttons fell out which matched the jewellery. The gloves had never been used before and it was a very spooky moment. Cristina and I commented that we thought 'Juliette' had approved of the choice of cut steel jewellery!

From the beginning of the project in 2007 I really liked  the fact that Martin and Cristina had given each dress a name. Whilst the team were setting up on site for the exhibition, we referred to each dress mannequin by it's name as if they were characters in a production. This also helped greatly as the team was international and our common language were the names given to each mannequin.

In my experience, the reaction of visitors when they see clothes from the distant past is 'did people really wear that?' etc etc.  As the dresses in this collection are from a period where the body was not padded, panniered and stayed  you can see a real persons shape and you can relate to the shape too. Many of the dresses are a 'normal' size not a below zero! I began to gain a sense of the original wearer by seeing their natural form reflected in the cut of the clothes.  Martin pointed out one example with the men's breeches. You could see where the owner rode horseback from the cut of the leg and development of particular muscles.

Through studying the clothing over a long period of time I realised many dresses had a story to tell by the evidence left in the garment itself. You could see when a dress had been altered on the waistline as the 'Empire line' fluctuated at various stages but the excess fabric was left inside. 'Louise' one of the trained dresses had a tear on the edge of the train where someone had obviously stood on the back or it had got caught. This dress in particular was a rare survivor as despite the damage to the train, it was not cut off and shortened when they went out of fashion around 1806.

Many of the clothes in the exhibition had a family provenance. One memorable story was of 'Blanche' which is the wedding dress in the collection. It was worn in 1805 for the marriage and then after in 1811. During those six years the wearer had a few children but still kept her very slim shape as there was no sign of any alteration in the dress!

 Historic clothes can not only tell the story of the history and development of fashion but on many levels they reveal information about the original wearer and create a bridge to the past unlike other pieces of historical art or museum objects.

Monday, 4 April 2011