How To Dress The Guermantes Way: “Proust’s Muse” at FIT
Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe at the Museum at FIT
September 23, 2016 to January 7, 2017
Seventh Avenue at 27 Street
New York, 212 217 4558
On November 14th, 1904, a wedding took place in Paris at the neoclassical church of La Madeleine of peerless elegance, and public brouhaha. With the trappings of a royal wedding, including specially commissioned music and a veritable who’s-who guest list, the marriage was that of Armand de Gramont, duc de Guiche and Elaine Greffulhe. As reported by the press, however, it was not the bride’s outfit but that of her mother, Elisabeth, that drew the oohs and ahs: an embroidered Byzantine gown in beige lamé with incrustations of pearl, silver thread and paillettes, and a fur-trimmed train. The creation of couturier Frédéric Worth, this dress is featured in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s exhibition, “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe.” A fashionable aristocrat, the countess was immortalized as Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust’s novel A la recherche du temps perdu, hence the show’s title. The show comes from the Paris fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, where it was titled “La mode retrouvée.”
The sumptuous, sometimes surprisingly modern clothes and accessories dating from the 1890s to the 1930s on display here by designers such as Worth, Vitaldi Babani, Paul Poiret, Mario Fortuny, Jeanne Lanvin and Maggy Rouff certainly make one want to know more about their noble wearer whose intimate circle Proust managed to enter, in part through his friendship with Armand de Gramont. Although the depth of his relationship with the Greffulhes has been questioned, a recent biography of the countess by Laure Hillerin includes correspondence confirming a certain friendliness though perhaps not the intimacy projected by Proust in his novel.
Opening on the heels of “Manus x Machina, Fashion in an Age of Technology” at the Metropolitan Museum, an extravaganza of female high fashion for the most part since World War II, the FIT show features clothes that rival in fabric, handwork, and imagination those recently on view at the Met, done without today’s technological advantages. Worth’s Byzantine gown described above, but also his Lily Dress (1896), an evening dress in black velvet with applications of ivory silk in the form of lilies, embroidered pearls and sequins, and his tea-gown of dark blue velvet cut outs on green satin ground (circa 1897) are cases in point.
Born and raised in a Belgian aristocratic family that was relatively poor but highly cultured and connected to nobility in several countries, Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay married the fabulously rich real estate magnate, Henry Greffulhe, and soon was siphoning the attention of some of the most powerful men of her time with her famous musical laughter, her tiny waist, her ineffable personality and, of course, her wardrobe. The glittering evening cape by Worth on view at FIT, with a patterns of large abstracted gold flower motifs, worn at a charity event she chaired in support of wounded Russian soldiers in 1904, was based on a gift from Tsar Nicolas II during his visit to Paris in 1896.
Thanks to her high-placed connections, the countess served as a go-between in foreign affairs and national politics, subsidized scientists including Marie Curie and Edouard Branly, and patronized contemporary music, art, and of course haute couture. The organist at her daughter’s wedding was no less than Gabriel Fauré from whom she commissioned an original piece for the occasion. She raised funds for Serge Diaghilev and supported the Ballets Russes. But it is with the show of French decorative arts organized in London by Elisabeth with the sculptor August Rodin in July 1914, that her secret political ambition came to the fore. Hoping for peace to continue, she invited royalty and diplomats from all over Europe who were soon to be on enemy sides.
Her stunning white dress (unfortunately not in the exhibition) symbolized her preference for international coexistence. Proust, who had his own agenda in selecting the colors and styles of his muse’s attire, depicts Oriane in her box at the Opera in the same white dress (according to Hillerin) with a white headpiece “part flower,” “part feather… alive and amorous… running down her forehead and cheeks.” The color white is often said to be the color of women looking for love, and Oriane, like Elisabeth, suffered an unfaithful husband. Both women seem to have handled their situation with irony and wit.
As the muse outlived the novelist by almost three decades, the exhibition includes couture that Proust could not have seen. Even so, it is replete with dresses, but also accessories that readers of Proust may recognize. The captions that accompany the presentations of the objects brilliantly document such connections as does the presentation itself by Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at FIT. Bathed in the metaphorical darkness of oblivion, some of the clothes on mannequins shine in a blaze of light coming from above, while others manifest a ghostly presence by reproducing on mirrors their horizontal positioning. The countess liked to be photographed in front of mirrors.
One accessory on view at FIT will be particularly meaningful to Proustians: a pair of red shoes by Lagel-Meier dated 1905. The shoes appear in the last moments of The Guermantes Way when Charles Swann has just told Oriane and her husband that he has only a few months left to live. While Oriane refuses to engage in conversation with Swann over his devastating news because she and her husband Henry are already late for a dinner party, they nonetheless delay their departure when Henry discovers, as Oriane is climbing into their carriage, that she is wearing black shoes with her red dress. Throwing a fit, he sends for red shoes for his wife, explaining to Swann and to the narrator, how unbecoming black shoes would be with a red dress. Proust’s critique of the selfishness, self indulgence and superficiality of the Guermantes, and of aristocracy in general peaks in this passage.
Dark green hues and black were the favorite colors of the real countess in her mature days, while pastels like those seen in 18th century French paintings by Fragonard and Boucher in particular had been her choice for evening dress early in her marriage. Around the time of the Ballets Russes, her clothes, though lacking the bold colors worn by the dancers, adopted an Orientalist look. A loose fitting kimono evening coat (1912) by Babani, and a quasi- geometric short vest (1912) by Mario Fortuny strike a more relaxed “modernist” note in her wardrobe.No more tight corset to accentuate her tiny waist. A black Jeanne Lanvin coat with the motif of a brick wall imprinted on it from 1936 hints at René Magritte paintings in which brick walls are featured and oddly pierced.
For those who would like to know what the Countess Greffulhe looked like, the show includes a number of photographs of her, by famous fashion photographers, among them the German-born Otto, and Paul Nadar (son of the famous Nadar). With her frizzy light brown hair piled high, pouting lips, fine nose and sad dreamy eyes, the photos of her as a young bride do not look like the Oriane Proust describes in the church at Combray, tall, blond, with a pointed nose, red cheeks and piercing eyes. But then the countess grew from awkward and unhappy young bride to alluring self-assured beauty thanks to help from her childhood friend and close relative Robert de Montesquiou (a model for Charlus in Proust’s novel). The show also includes short movie clips of her.
The widowed countess lived through the Second World War, always aloof and always elegantly turned out, though close to financial ruin. Forced to allow a German commandant to occupy her country estate, she used her charm to get him to help feed her beloved greyhounds. Like her creation by Proust, Elisabeth seems to have enjoyed being looked at and photographed though only in poses of her own choosing. She could have hardly suspected that she would lose control of her self-image to the upstart Proust, whose novel she claimed to have never read.