In 1665, Louis XIV’s finance minister supposedly quipped that as a national moneymaker, fashion was to France what the gold mines of Peru were to Spain. Three and a half centuries later, that hasn’t changed. “Paris, Capital of Fashion,” a new exhibition running from Sept. 6 to Jan. 4 at The Museum at FIT, New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, shows how Paris has stayed ahead of its couture rivals. The show includes some 100 objects, from a silk whalebone corset made around 1750 to an “electric light” dress complete with bulb to a Christian Dior outfit once owned by Marlene Dietrich.
Many exhibitions devoted to fashion history approach it as a procession of great designers and fashion houses. But Valerie Steele, who directs FIT’s museum and curated the exhibition, says that she is taking a different approach, asking how Paris stayed ahead of its fashion rivals. French court fashion first became influential in the 17th and 18th centuries, from the reign of the “Sun King” Louis XIV to the Revolution. Who wore what in the mirrored halls of the royal palace at Versailles was an important part of the courtiers’ competition for power. A painted fan from 1680-90 memorializes those days, opening to reveal a wide-angle view of Versailles and its vast gardens.
Modern designers have often returned to that era as a touchstone. For the fall/winter 1987-88 season, Karl Lagerfeld, working for Chanel, designed an embroidered red silk satin bustier as part of an ensemble he named “The Enchanted Island,” after a six-day party given by Louis XIV at Versailles in 1664 that included theater and horse-racing. For the 2000-01 season, John Galliano at Christian Dior created a dress that echoed Versailles’ corseted bodices and hoop skirts. The exhibition also features “The Apollo of Versailles” (1938-39), a black cape with metallic embroidery by the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
In the 19th century, the British-born designer Charles Frederick Worth came to dominate Parisian fashion. Worth turned couture “from a small-scale craft into big business,” Ms. Steele writes in the exhibition’s catalog. Paris fashion houses set their sights on American consumers, who overcame their initial hesitancy about French fashion and began to visit Paris regularly to buy clothing from Worth and other designers.
Several pieces by Worth are included in the show, such as the “electric light” dress he created for Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II. In 1883, just as electric lighting was beginning to spread, the wife of the Gilded Age magnate went to a glittering New York ball in this costume made of yellow satin, tulle, a midnight-blue velvet underskirt and beads in lightning-bolt and starburst motifs. Batteries hidden in the dress powered a torch that the wearer could carry.
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Ms. Steele points out that Paris’s fashion industry stayed vibrant by hiring outsiders to shake things up. Azzedine Alaïa, the son of a Tunisian wheat farmer, ended up dressing Grace Jones, Tina Turner and Madonna. He is represented in the show by a 1991 black wool suit and leopard-print ponyskin boots. Yves Saint Laurent, whose 1972 dark green silk taffeta gown is on view, was born in what was then the French colony of Algeria.
In 1973, American designers challenged the supremacy of the French in what became known as the Battle of Versailles—a gala to raise money for the restoration of the palace, in which American and French designers unofficially competed. The simple styles and lively models featured in the Americans’ shows compared well with the lavish but tacky French presentations, Ms. Steele writes. Yet Paris has continued to enjoy greater media attention than any other capital. Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo drew the spotlight in the 1980s, but “the most advanced Japanese designers abandoned Tokyo in favor of showing their collections in Paris,” Ms. Steele adds.
The most serious threat to Parisian couture may have come from Nazi Germany, which tried to force the entire industry to move to Berlin and Vienna after conquering France in 1940. Parisian couturier Lucien Lelong had the nerve to tell the Nazis that, deprived of the atmosphere of Paris, fashion’s creative types would perform poorly. Lelong helped to save Parisian fashion in another way, too, says Ms. Steele. He hired an unknown designer named Christian Dior, whose 1947 New Look collection gave the industry a decade-long boost. The exhibition includes a 1951 Dior two-piece dress of gold printed silk gauze that echoes aspects of the New Look.
Paris has long cultivated its own glamour, promoting the idea that Parisian women always know how to dress—an attitude that persists in some popular Instagram accounts. An accessory on view near the end of the exhibition sums up the city’s power to reinvent itself: a vinyl Louis Vuitton tote bag created in 2017 by the artist Jeff Koons that bears an image of the Mona Lisa, the treasure of Paris’s Louvre museum.
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