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Paris, Capital of Fashion: A Kaleidoscopic Journey

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Two dim rooms in the basement of a glossy New York building unveil a journey through the origins of high fashion. Mannequins in vintage Dior, 17th century couture, and pinstriped 60s Saint Laurent suits loom silently above. Many of the pieces are from the private collection of Hamish Bowles—European editor of American Vogue—and others seem to have convened magically out of the museum archive, together forming an extensive retrospective on the origins of high fashion.

Entitled “Paris, Capital of Fashion,” the recent exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) traces the cultural and socioeconomic impact of haute couture, from the court of Versailles to the modern-day Fashion Week. The exhibition ran from September 2019 to January 2020, a symbolic parallel as we move into a new decade. Yet Paris, Capital of Fashiondoesn’t just span decades: the exhibition covers centuries of fashion history, using a kaleidoscopic range of pieces to demonstrate the multinational journey of luxury and haute couture.

Curated by Dr. Steele, director of the Museum at FIT, the two-room display describes itself as “the first exhibition to explore the cultural construction of Paris as the capital of fashion.” Rather than, for example, revolving around France’s most famous designers, Steele focuses on the way in which Paris has become a capital within the globalized fashion world, thus also including many pieces by international designers from various eras.

In the main room, historic court gowns and early haute couture pieces show how fashion already became significant as a political, economic, and social market in the 17th and 18thcenturies. In a podcast relating to the exhibition, Dr. Steele quotes Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert, who is supposed to have said, “Fashion will be for France what the gold mines of Peru are for Spain.” Culturally, too, the sartorial taste of Versailles played a large role in influencing what styles would be desirable for other courts across Europe.

Moving into the nineteenth and early twentieth century with the rise of department stores, big American companies such as Lord & Taylor or Orbach would then pay to make licensed copies of Dior and Chanel dresses. And even today, designers from other countries often decide to showcase their work at Paris Fashion Week given the event’s prestige and high anticipation. Across these time periods, however, Steele portrays fashion as a vital economic market and even sometimes as a political tool, as a more recent exhibition in the upstairs gallery of FIT shows. This idea—the pragmatic business behind collaborations between French designers and department stores, or Charles Frederick Worth’s rapport with American clients—juxtaposes with the sheer beauty and astounding handwork of the pieces in the gallery.

In fact, “Juxtaposition” is perhaps the best word for the exhibition, which featured side-by-sides of designers carrying on the legacy of historic brands—a Lagerfeld little black dress next to one by Coco Chanel, for example—or games of spot-the-reference in modern day collections, such as the placement of John Galliano’s rococo creation for Dior next to an original 18th century dress from the court of Versailles.

“In the exhibition, we have a kind of arcade which shows 18th-century fashions next to some of their modern examples of haute couture,” Steele comments. Allusions to the origins of haute couture and the eminence of the Versailles court even pervade designers’ interplay with baroque menswear, as seen in whimsically adapted womenswear pieces by Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Nicholas Ghesquière.

More generally, many of the juxtaposed pieces sparked a conversation between old and new. In one example, a glittering Balmain mini-dress from 2013 designed by Olivier Rousteing faced a gown created in the postwar years, when Pierre Balmain first founded his eponymous couture house.

Then and Now: Balmain in 2013 and 1954

These juxtaposed pieces weren’t just dedicated to Paris, however, as other corners celebrated the more global aspect of fashion. A 1994 Versace evening dress stood next to one of Rei Kawakubo’s many avant-garde creations for Comme des Garçons from the 1980s. Similarly Alexander Wang’s eponymous brand played off a tartan Isaac Mizrahi evening dress, with both designers serving as examples of couturiers from immigrant families who now stand at the forefront of New York’s fashion scene. The dialogue between Versailles and the courts of Europe has now expanded into a transatlantic round table which still takes place today, as marked by the one-month marathon of Fashion Week showcases in New York, London, Milan, and Paris.

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Lagerfeld for Chanel and Chloé, McQueen for Givenchy, and even Worth in 19thcentury Paris: Although there were many French designers in the exhibition, there were even more international figures who have since led the way in creating a city which serves not just France but also the world as an international capital of fashion.

From left to right: Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé; Nicolas Ghesquiére for Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy; Alexander Wang and Isaac Mizrahi

Marie-Louise James

Fashion Week & Exhibitions Director

Cambridge University Fashion and Luxury Business

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