Monday, August 29, 2011

Grace & Favour-The World of Madame de Pompadour

I had planned to be in France this September, but unfortunately my plans fell through.  I was to escort a group on a tour devoted to the French Decorative Arts, visiting a number of chateaux including Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles.  I had been eagerly anticipating the costume event at Versailles which is looking at the influence of the Rococo on fashion designers today.  I understand that throughout the Grand Trianon period pieces are mixed with interpretations by some of today's top designers.  Ah well, c'est la vie!
Pater, portrait of Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, circa 1745
So, instead, I dedicate this blog to the most influential woman of the Rococo period, a great patroness of  all the arts, Jeanne-Antoinette Lenormant d'Etiolles, nee Poissson, otherwise known to history as Madame de Pompadour.  If their was ever one individual who embodies a particular place and time, it is she.  Born in 1721, the daughter of a financier who had to flee France due to his black market activities, she was introduced to King Louis XV at a masked ball in 1745 at the palace of Versailles.  This ball was a celebration for the wedding of the Dauphin, Louis Ferdinand.  The only son of the King, who unfortunately would not live to take the throne himself.  But, he would father the ill fated Louis XVI.
In the image above, we see the 23 year old, captured as Diana, goddess of the hunt.  This is the costume that she was wearing when she met Louis XV.  He and the gentlemen of the bedchamber came as a forest of yew trees.  By latter accounts, she spent the evening weaving throughout the grouping of men trying to figure out which one was the king.  She truly was on the hunt. It may seem strange by todays standards, but in 18th century France, the concept of mistress was an occupation worth pursuing.  The stakes and the competition were particularly high when the object of your attention was the king.
Pompadour chose a rather clever subject for her costume.  Dressed as a classical goddess, it allowed her the freedom to show off her physical charms in a way that might not otherwise have been acceptable.  Portrayed above by Pater, presumably in her masque costume, she is dressed in chemise, leopard skin and a drapery, (actually the goddesses cape) implying a classical context.  The grey blue, a colour associated with the french crown, may have been an artistic license at this time, since the conquest was now complete.  Pater chooses to allow the subject to dominate the canvas.  The viewer is allowed to explore the figure of this woman as it is revealed through the classical draperies.  Her thighs are well delineated but the drapery provides a degree of modesty across her lap.  The chemise slips seductively from her shoulders and threatens to reveal her bosom except for the cord of her cape which grips it to her chest.  Notice how little the distinction between the tones of her flesh and the white crisp linen chemise.  This is intentional and plays on the fashionable desire for a porcelain like skin. Contemporaries would comment on her neck and arms and hands.  All beautifully offered up here for the first time.  This will be just one of the many portraits painted and exhibited of the Marquise over her life time.

Chateau de Bellevue

The king quickly became enamored of her and in the same year installed her in her own private apartments at Versailles.  They were located above his own, and reached through a secret staircase which allowed them as much privacy as was possible.  In 1745, Madame de Pompadour commenced her reign as "maitresse en titre", and she would eventually become a titled noblewoman in July of 1749, when presented with an estate of her own, the Chateau de Bellevue and the title of Marquise.  In September, she was officially presented to the court as his "favorite".  By 1752, her physical relationship with the king would cease and she would be made a lady in waiting to the queen.  Her influence at court continued and she is reported to have recruited young ladies for the king's pleasure.  In 1756 she encouraged the foundation for the patronage of the Sevres porcelain factory and she was duly honoured with the dedication of a new colour in her name, Pompadour Pink.

Rococo panelling for the salon at Bellevue.

The Marquise took an enormous interest in all of the arts and quickly set the fashions of the day.  The panelling above, (boiseries) made of oak would be painted by Christopher Huet in the fashion for Chinoisserie.  These small and intimate rooms, allowed for all types of fantasy in their decoration and exotic themes from the Orient and Turkey could be seen in textiles, carved details and porcelains.  Notice the console table is considered by the architect to be part of the panelling.  This was very typical and the tables height was defined by the height of the dado rail.  The excesses of Rococo decoration are already lessening and a straighter more classical line can be seen in the door and wall panels.  The cartouche shapes, as seen below, from earlier interiors such as the Hotel de Soubise, are being replaced.  Madame de Pompadour was a great patron of the excavations at Pompeii and along with her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, did much to pave the way for the Neo-Classical period of Louis XVI.

Between 1750-57, the Marquise would oversee and collect the magnificent furnishings for Bellevue.  In 1750, the dealer Duvaux would charge the Marquise for the night table below.  Veneered in tulipwood, the delicate table contains marquetry of naturalistic flowers sprayed across it's surface.  The bronze gilt mounts both protect the delicate veneers and outline the form itself.  Note the fluid line where the leg joins into the apron.  This is a typical feature of Rococo furniture.  Sabot feet of bronze, again for protection, lend a feminine air to the piece.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.
F. Boucher
An artist who was a particular favorite of Jeanne's was Francois Boucher.  It is reported that he painted her likeness 32 times!  Showing at the Royal Academy, the Marquise would have been more recognizable to the Parisians than the queen herself.  Images of women dressing, being undress or at their dressing tables abound at this time.
Here, wearing a combing robe or sack to protect her gown from hairs and powder, Boucher gives us this intimate portrait of the woman and courtesan.  Once again, her complexion competes with the whiteness of the linen and lace garment itself.  The pink ties and ribbons at her breast, bring out the warmth of the flesh which otherwise would read as cold as stone.  Holding the brush to apply blush to her cheeks, her toilette becomes an art form of its own.  Apart from the back rail of the chair, nothing else of the room is revealed, focusing the viewer's attention on the subject at hand.

In her publication, "Dress in 18th Century Europe", Aileen Ribeiro states that the ideal face was of regularity and proportion in an oval form with a small straight nose, slightly rosy cheeks and lips and white complexion.  The face is the chief seat of beauty.  White paint or lead were used as a foundation to correct the imperfections of the complexion.  The effect was to create the look of an enameled surface.  Grey hair powder and rouge were necessary to highlight the desired skin tone.  Red lead, mixed with vermilion was painted onto the cheeks, the desire for naturalness was not the aim.  Rouge was used to emphasize the eyes and indicate an amorous fury.  It seems that this style of makeup was typical of french fashion and was copied throughout Europe.  In Russia they even went so far as to dye their teeth black to make them look "japanned".  A term for lacquer.

Mechanical table, 1760, Metropolitan Museum
Above, Madame de Pompadours dressing table.  Possibly made for Bellevue, it may appear in an image by J. Chauvet of her with her daughter, Alexandrine.  The coat of arms of the Marquise appears in the marquetry of the top along with her other interests; painting, music, architecture and gardening.  The table top slides back to reveal compartments for cosmetics and powders.  A mirror pops up to be utilized for the "art" of the toilette.  This process, along with dressing, could take several hours to complete.

Fragonard's image of Venus at her Toilette, illustrates beautifully the theatre of dressing in the 18th century.  His indebtedness to Ruebens is apparent in the dreamy and wispy brush strokes and colour palette. Venus reclines, in draperies not unlike a chemise, as her hair is being dressed by one of her attendants.  Notice that her likeness and profile are more to the 18th century ideal of beauty than the classical. Ladies amuse her with music or gossip to relieve the tediousness of dressing.  Starting at her feet, a lady would have lotions massaged into her skin.  Here, her hair is being dressed earlier than would  normally be the case.  The familiarity of the actions would be instantly recognized by the 18th century viewer.

F. Boucher, 1759
At the height of her influence, and just a few years before her death, Boucher once again gives us an image of Grace and Favour.  A particular favorite of mine, and discussed constantly with my students, it now hangs in the Wallace collection in London.  A small composition, a cabinet piece really.  The viewer is offered a rare sight of Madame de Pompadour standing.  The setting is in a lush garden, the likes of which, we only see in Rococo painting.  The green foliage is the perfect foil for the peachy pink silk taffeta of the gown.  No light source is apparent within the image itself.  It is as if she is divine and illuminates the world around her.  The terrace may very well be the one located off her private apartments at Versailles, by this time she has sold the king back her Chateau de Bellevue.  The Versailles planter on the right suggests this location.  The Marquise stands as a great pyramid of silk and lace flounces revealing just the slightest glimpse of her foot (the erogenous zone of the period).  She leans back, offering herself to the viewer in a moment of royal ease and in doing so draws our attention to the sculpture of Venus and Cupid, along with the roses, an allusion to herself as the goddess of love.  The lap dog has been used symbolically for centuries to represent "fidelity".  (Appropriate, considering her relationship with the king.  She is known to have been able to keep a secret.  A personal trait he must have prized.)  On her wrists, two multi strand pearl bracelets, given to her by the king.  They appear often in her portraits and must have been some of her favorite jewels.

Above: The sack back gown was the somewhat standard form of the day.  In this example, the textile is beginning to develop the more linear qualities associated with the transition from the organic plant forms of the Rococo with the stripes of the Neo-Classical period.

Below:  It is said that the new warp printed silks which created a blurred line in the design, were favoured by Pompadour herself.

Circa 1760, Metropolitan Museum
Kyoto Collection
Silk Brocade, Chinoisserie motif
F.H. Drouais, 1763-4
Madame de Pompadour's last sitting was for a portrait by Drouais.  Begun in 1763, her illnesses would not allow the artist to finish it from life.  Relying on his preparatory drawings, it was finished posthumously in 1764.  Pompadour died at Versailles of pulmonary congestion.  The portrait is at once familiar and final.  Seated in her boudoir at Versailles, Drouais has surrounded her with props to summarize her life. A large silk drapery, the final curtain if you like, is of Pompadour rose.  It's heavy Baroque folds provide a final flourish.  A cabinet in the background refers to her as a woman of letters.  (She actually interceded on the behalf of Diderot with Louis XV, who found his publication of the encyclopedia dangerous).  The volumes contained in the japanned case can attest to her education, certainly in the classics.  She sits at a tambour frame, she was a gifted embroiderer.  A work table, with porcelain mounts and in the latest Neo-classic taste, is at the ready and reminds us of her interest in the Sevres venture.  Leaning against the work table is a folio, the type associated with architectural drawings.  She was instrumental in the design of the Petit Trianon and what is today, the Place de la Concorde.  Her love of music, she was a gifted player of several instruments, is to be recorded in the viola on the floor.  She is dressed in the fashionable painted silks of the time.  Drouais has captured the last vestiges of the Rococo in the scrolling details of the fabulous lace flounce at the hem of her garment.  In her face, we see an older, middle aged woman.  Now 43, her face is a little fuller, her chin doubled.  She has become a matron.  A light, like a halo, shines around her face and any distractions from the decor have been eliminated.  

To say that Pompadour was influential in her day is an understatement.  Much of what we recognize as the best of Rococo art and design would not have been possible without her considerable patronage and support.  Not only did she impact the age in which she lived, but she laid the ground work for the succeeding styles of Louis XVI and the Empire.  French Rococo, while derided by many an art historian, has enjoyed numerous revivals in the past 200 years and will doubtless continue to be associated with all that is "Grace and Favour".

Monday, August 22, 2011

Another Recreation-1878

As usual the process begins with research.  As I have mentioned before, fashion plates, photographs and actual specimens are all considered for various elements of design.  I cannot stress enough to the beginning re-creator to do their homework.  It will make the difference between a successful reproduction and a costume that looks like it was made for Halloween.  Many excellent books have been written on the subject of costume over the past 2 decades and they are also an invaluable resource.

Although the details in fashion plates of the period may be exaggerated, with careful study, the silhouette and construction details, such as, seam placement can be defined.  This is of particular importance if you are in the habit of drafting your own patterns as I am.  I never rely on the colourations of these plates for my fabric choices, I would much rather rely on extant garments.  If you are lucky enough to have access to the garment itself, take your colour from the inside or seam allowances.  This will give you the truest read.  Remember that to our eyes today, some of these colour combinations seem garish, but under the influence of gas or candle light they would have read somewhat differently.  You may have to make a judgement call here, depending on your desire for authenticity.  Electric light which was beginning to make itself seen in the best drawing rooms of the 1880's was considered at the time to be hard and unflattering.  Certain colours were cautioned against by the fashion commentators of the day.  From the fashion plate, the contrast of light and shadow and the desired drape of fabrics can also be discerned.

I find the period photograph to be of great help in the realization of what was actually worn.  How large are the actual decorative elements such as, flounces, cuffs, collars and other applied decoration as we see here.  Are the trains seen on these two dresses in keeping with what the fashion plates have been showing?  Certainly, the bulk of material is there.  Notice the bustle does not read as large in these actual dresses as it does in the fashion plate.

Artists, such as Tissot paid attention to the dress and manners of fashionable society at this time and his work makes another great resource for colours and details.  Don't ignore furnishing fabrics or wallpapers either. Generally, what was happening in home decor was reflected in fashion.

Obviously, the best source of information for you is the extant garment.  The internet is a readily available source for this material, but as usual, a word of caution.  Many posts can be wrongly attributed and like any editor, you must be prepared to cross reference these posts against a recognizable published source.  With enough study on the subject, you will be able to easily catch the errors yourself.

In the two dresses here, you will be able to see later, how I have begun to develop my reasoning for the materials and colour palette that I chose.  As the 1870's were coming to a close, for a short period of time the bustle was reduced to a small pad, wire frame or just extra ruffles on the back of the petticoat for support.  Blue, which had been such a dominant shade in the early part of the decade, softened to an ice or teal as we begin to move into the 1880's.  Stronger and earthier colours will develop throughout the '80's.

The long cuirass bodice which had made itself known as early as 1874-76 was lengthening into a polonaise shape which, along with the new princess line, was creating a slimmer more form revealing silhouette than had been seen earlier. Borrowing from history and men's wear, vests and cut away's similar to the 18th century could be seen as well.

My Version of an 1878 Visiting Dress

Harper's Bazaar, 1878
I chose to create in velvet, the colour of "mouse" and taupe silk.  The vest, also of silk, is in a damask of robin's egg blue and taupe.  Unfortunately the photographs do not represent the true colour of the silks.  The fish tail train is trimmed with a knife pleated edge under two layers of ruched flounces.  A balyeuse of antique valenciences lace lines the train.  

The front view reveals the jacket bodice and vest.  While it appears to be two seperate pieces, it is in fact, one.  Chinese knotted cord buttons, 20 in all, close the long vest and a brown frog the velvet jacket.  On the cuffs antique buttons of the period on antique lace cuffs I found in a flea market.  The hem of the skirt front is finished in tabs which reveals a taupe silk kick pleat.  Above, embroidered floral sprays.  The pattern for this style of bodice came from a very useful publication, "Fashion of the Gilded Age" by Frances Grimble.  I would consider this the definitive resource for patterns of the 1877-1882 period.

Another piece of antique lace has been used to create a jabot.  More borrowing from the wardrobe of the 18th century gentleman.  I also like to hunt through costume jewelry to find period appropriate pins to further enhance the illusion.

Ambitions:  I saw a production of the Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival yesterday.  Beautiful costumes of the Rococo period in France.  I am itching now to create a French Sack back gown, but first, I must finish my Edwardian Tea Gown.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hepburn & Givenchy-A Dynamic Duo

An Enduring Relationship
Holly Golightly & Cat
Collections:  In my last post I talked about the influence Balenciaga has had on the work of contemporary designers such as, Ralph Rucci.  The Spanish master has also influenced the work of his contemporaries, such as Hubert de Givenchy.  With the anniversary of the film, "Breakfast At Tiffany's" and in keeping with the theme of the "Little Black Dress", I couldn't help but address the relationship between the actress and the designer.  As one blogger put it, 

"Audrey is the queen of the little black dress."

Givenchy began his career in 1946 after completing his education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.  Working first for Jacques Fath, he then moved to the house of Lucien Lelong where he worked with fellow assistants Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior before moving on to a working relationship with Elsa Schiaparelli!  An illustrious beginning to any career.  In 1952, he opened his own premises across the street from Balenciaga, who he admitted was his mentor and inspiration, at Parc Monceau.  Strapped for cash for his first fashion show, he chose to create his line in cotton.  Consisting of blouses and skirts, emphasizing comfort, he was an instant hit.  Elle magazine honored him by featuring a cotton blouse from his first collection on their front cover.  Playing on the newly developed concept of the "boutique", his collection played on spontaneity and individualism.  It would be the forerunner of pret-a-porter.

He first met Audrey Hepburn when she was in Paris shopping for pieces to supplement her wardrobe for the film, "Sabrina".  He later admitted that he was actually expecting Katharine Hephurn, he had never heard of Audrey.  Audrey became both an inspiration and ambassador for him.  Eventually he would design all of Hepburn's fashion apparel for seven other films between 1954 and 1966.  His work often contributed to the plots, illustrating the change from a simple girl to a woman of the world or vice versa.  Audrey would also pose for film and fashion photographs in Givenchy's models furthering his public personae.  She even acted as his mannequin at a fashion show for the benefit of war victims, organized by the firm, Gerzon, in Amsterdam.  The designer was often her choice for the clothes in her private life.  Their association would last some 40 years and numerous films later.

Sabrina, 1954
Funny Face, 1956
Love in the Afternoon, 1956
Breakfast At Tiffany's, 1961
Charade, 1963
How to Steal a Million, 1966
Two for the Road, 1966

"The dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dress."
Hubert de Givenchy

Fashion Sketch for "Sabrina"
Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina, 1954

The much copied black cocktail dress.
Hubert de Givenchy would provide these two iconic dresses for the film.

Love In the Afternoon, 1956

Breakfast At Tiffany's, 1961

Yellow Wool Coat, Charade, 1963
Givenchy sketch for coat above

Two for the Road, 1966

How to Steal a Million, 1966

Audrey was the first star to endorse a perfume

December 8, 2009.  Hepburn collection displayed for auction
Now part of the collection of the Municpal Museum of The Hague in the Netherlands, this cocktail dress and coat employ the favorite colour of two of Givenchy's contemporaries;  Schiaparelli and Balenciaga.  In 1954, Givenchy was to come into contact with Balenciaga and from him he learned the importance to design of good proportions.  Balenciaga maintained that the current emphasis on the waist was often at the sacrifice of proportion.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Chado Ralph Rucci

Collections:  With the current interest over the past couple of years in the work of Cristobal Balenciaga, I thought that it would be worthwhile to discuss his influence on a contemporary designer of note. One of the best kept secrets on the couturier scene is the American Ralph Rucci.  I discovered him in 2007 when I visited the museum at F.I.T. in Manhattan.  Prior to this show I was totally unaware of this man's work, as I am sure, many people are.  What made the venue particularly appropriate is that he studied here in the late 1970's and I am sure that the Fashion Institute was proud to showcase pieces from his collections.  Influenced by designers, Balenciaga, Madame Gres, Charles James and Halston, his clothes were both structured and deconstructed with an eye for exacting detail and craftsmanship.  An artist, his gowns had a collage like quality, encrusted with applied textures and painterly effects.  Like Charles James, his collections evolve over seasons and ignore trends and fads remaining true to his own visions and personal style.  From the influences of Balenciaga, he sculpts and molds cloth creating new forms and techniques, reinterpreting the female form and pushing himself to discover new solutions to tailoring problems.

Charles James, Clover Dress, 
Rucci fashion Sketch
Rucci gown
Rucci, 2003 haute couture collection
Detail of knotted bodice

While Charles James relied heavily on an under structure that limited the wearer's mobility, often making it impossible to sit down, Rucci relies on exacting cut and tailoring to allow the body movement while retaining the garments silhouette.  This manipulation of the fabric is what ties his work to that of Balenciaga. The knotted jersey dress above is indebted to the influence of Madame Gres and the use of bias cutting that she favored.  Rucci does not shy away from hides or furs either and incorporates both freely in his work.

Recollections:  "If Dior is the Watteau of dressmaking-full of nuances, chic, delicate and timely-then Balenciaga is fashion's Picasso.  For like that painter, underneath all of his experiments with the modern, Balenciaga has a deep respect for tradition and a pure classic line."  Cecil Beaton

If Beaton were alive today, he would have to re-address this quote and make mention of Chado Ralph Rucci.
Balenciaga Tweed Suit

In his tailored garments, Rucci has developed an open seam, garment inserts, and at times a mosaic of piecing, a technique that is highly distinctive to his work.  Often the garment appears to be made up of cloth "tesserae" linked together with threads or 'brides" as seen in traditional lace making or faggoting inserts.  These details create a surface embellishment and construction detail in one, giving the garment an architectural nature of its own.
Balenciaga, flamenco influences

Rucci-similar influences
These construction characteristics married to Asian influences in necklines and drapes free Rucci from being merely a copyist of Balenciaga to a designer in his own right.
Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball, "I Love Lucy"
Aspirations:  Would Ethel and Lucy aspire to a suit by Chado Ralph Rucci?  Most certainly.
Luckily a publication of his work exists.  "Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness"  ISBN 978-0-300-12278-7