1. Suzy Menkes
  2. Suzy Menkes

Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

When Classic Is Cool: Three Centuries Of Fashion

Suzy tours an exhibition in Paris, where 300 years of the art of dress are displayed in their social context

29 Мая 2016

19th-century cotton organdy crinoline, 1868-1872

We are so used to seeing “contrast-and-compare” fashion exhibitions, with face-offs of different styles, decades and designers, that it is a surprise to find a display of clothes that goes from A to Z. Or more accurately, from 18th-century gowns to the 21st-century’s “anything goes”.

An Art Nouveau robe based on the craze for Japonisme

“Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Style (1715-2016)” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (until 14th August) is a deliberate attempt to show clothes from grand gowns and pretty childrenswear to today’s mixed-gender wardrobes. The organisers claim that the selections from the museum’s 150,000-strong collection take the fashion story “fast forward”, but there is no attempt to juxtapose the different styles and ages. It is a history lesson – albeit an attractive one.

A Christian Lacroix Haute Couture evening dress in damask and pleated taffeta, Autumn/Winter 1992-93

 The exhibition opens with an orgy of gorgeousness (sumptuously embroidered frock coats, even for little boys) marking the end of Louis XIV’s reign — the subject of an award-winning new film on the “Sun King”, The Death of Louis XIV, which received a Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival. (ф) By the time women enter the display, the rigid rules of etiquette had already softened, introducing the robe galante — a fitted bodice and full skirt worn over a circular pannier. That hoop garment is also on display as a general introduction to fashion’s hidden architecture.

An installation of mid-century couture including Dior, left

Curator Pamela Golbin, from the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in the Louvre, has brought back the historic settings, which most museums today have abandoned in favour of a white background. By using objects from this decorative arts museum, from gilded frames to carved wood panels and scenic wallpaper, there is not only an opportunity to view its treasures, but also to see the clothes in a social context. This concept carries on past the French Revolutionary period to the moment when the Directoire and First Empire clothes are deliberately shown against an outdoor background, as though society had come up for air.

An 18th-century hand-embroidered waistcoat

The fascination of the earlier pieces is to see the workmanship involved. For example, there are close-up displays of intensely embroidered waistcoats, invented under Louis XV’s reign to fill the front-gap of frock coats. Similarly, a display of fans shows the intricacies of the decoration and the exoticism of 18th-century chinoiserie, which included motifs of monkeys as decoration. The show does have a purpose: a celebration of 30 years of the fashion collection as an entity in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, hence a joint foreword in the excellent accompanying book by Olivier Gabet, the current Director of the museum, and Pierre Bergé, who inaugurated the fashion exhibitions with the subject of Yves Saint Laurent back in 1986.


An evening gown by the Victor Gueritte salon from 1865. A portrait of Empress Eugenie, the Empress Consort of Napoleon III, hangs in the background

An aristocratic child’s jacket from the 18th century

An 18th-century "robe volante" (floating robe) and gentleman’s frock coat with matching turban

The sheer volume of historic clothes is impressive. The Neo-Classical period of the second Empire produces fancy dressing gowns to celebrate “the art of living” and day dresses of a sweet lightness in pale colours. Then the show moves inexorably onwards to those crinolines, with visions of what was needed underneath to keep fabrics in place. I found the cut-out dolls in those clothes more appealing than what women were once wearing. There is something original throughout these early rooms to lighten the history lesson: a collaboration with dancers from the Opéra de Paris under choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a former star of the New York City ballet who is also the designer of the exhibition.

An installation of 20th-century evening gowns at the Fashion Forward exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris

The fairy-like effect of these video projections adds a fresh and poetic dimension to the displays. I admired this imaginative concept for seeing the clothes both on display and in a more abstract vision. Then comes the 20th-century part of the exhibition and immediately the mood swings towards a 21st-century idea of display: white plastic “waves” filling the nave of the museum and offering clothes that are juxtaposed, not so much in the time frame but rather with a face-off between different designers. 


Embroidered jackets for men and boys from the Louis XIV era

A display of antique fans reference the monkey motif that features in much chinoiserie of the period

Ensembles from the First Empire

An installation of antique dolls dressed in paper crinolines

19th century gowns with tiered bustles


Embroidered jackets for men and boys from the Louis XIV era

A display of antique fans reference the monkey motif that features in much chinoiserie of the period

Ensembles from the First Empire

An installation of antique dolls dressed in paper crinolines

19th century gowns with tiered bustles

How hard it must have been to decide who should be included and how much space should be given to each designer. In fact, it seems a bit of a curatorial cop out, as it is just a case of “everyone goes”. It is also a visual shock to move away from Fortuny pleats against a chinoiserie background, or Paul Iribe’s drawings beside Paul Poiret dresses, to the visual cacophony of each designer vying for attention.

A Pierre Balmain gala ensemble from 1952, featuring a metallic cape and tulle dress embroidered with rhinestones and sequins

The journey up and down the undulating white curves is another history lesson — but an exhausting one. Dior is singled out for attention, but some choices from that period seem more about a red, black and cream colour conjunction than a theme linked by design. There is an overkill of evening gowns from the early part of the century, but it is perhaps inevitable that fancy gowns are less worn than everyday clothes and are therefore more likely to be offered to museums.

The Elsa Schiaparelli Haute Couture "Beijing" silk dress, Autumn/Winter 1938-39, featuring her signature shocking pink

Regardless of the type of clothing, however, there seemed to be no effort to pronounce that Cristóbal Balenciaga’s taffeta gown from 1954 was more visually innovative than Pierre Balmain’s technical achievement of a synthetic jersey cape. The same is true in the book, although the important clothes are boldly photographed and the designers discussed. As the show moves on, it seems like a bit of everything. Madame Grès’ long dress from 1976, Saint Laurent’s “Picasso” outfit from 1979 and Claude Montana’s leather dress from 1979. What links them apart from the dates? And are they really the finest examples of that decade?

Wax fashion dolls from the early 1900s by French couturier Lafitte Désirat

On the show swoops, from Hussein Chalayan through Christian Lacroix, Comme des Garçons and Helmut Lang. The contemporary designers seemed to be thrown together with no reason. Fast fashion indeed. But the curating does come right up to now, by including a 2016 outfit from Vetements, the anti-fashion brand that is raising some fashion heat.

There is also an outfit designed by Karl Lagerfeld for H&M in 2004 — a ground-breaking collaboration, which introduced the high-low development of 21st-century fashion. The result of that was a genuine change of fashion pace and must have sewn a seed that has led to the fashion-conscious H&M sponsoring this Fashion Forward show.

Yet over all, I found the past – the selection and the way that it was presented – more alluring than the here and now.

A installation of contemporary clothing featuring a hooded red jersey sweatshirt and skirt by Vetements, centre
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