“Paris Haute Couture,” from the Musée Galliera, offers a handpicked bouquet of history’s most stunning fashion. Not only can it be yours—it’s absolutely free. That’s because, like every exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville, the landmark tribute to Paris fashion is open to anyone. Its 100 dresses were chosen from more than 20,000, and the whole show is being sponsored by Swarovski. The Austrian crystals have lent their luster to haute couture since 1895.
For curator Olivier Saillard, chief of the city’s fashion museum, this lavish exposition is an elegant triumph. It’s thanks to the munificence of the Galliera’s holdings that it is digestible as well as comprehensive. Because Paris fashion has always been defined by luxury, visiting such a major show might feel like gorging on bonbons. Instead, it’s a disciplined pleasure, which benefits from sleek scenography. Many of its pieces are being shown in matching pairs or trios—linked by either a common silhouette or technique.
Some of these juxtapositions generate wonderful poetry, such as that of a slinky black smoking from Jean-Paul Gaultier paired with a 1900 widow’s mourning dress by Doucet. Others, like two huge coats from Paul Poiret and John Galliano, demonstrate an almost eerie continuity. Not only is the whole show an object lesson in Paris fashion. It also pays wonderful tribute to the longevity of couture.
Saillard says he is delighted with each and every piece and happy to “offer Parisians a heritage other Parisians created.” He points out some favorites: bias-cut champagne satin by Madeleine Vionnet, an airy peach ball gown by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior and a Callot Soeurs robe that has never before been shown in public. “Haute couture is something that’s so exclusively Parisian . . . born here, nursed here, always going forward but carrying years of experience.”
From Balenciaga to Dior and Chanel, the visitor can revel in gems from the most famous names. The real treats however, are like precious relics created by legends whose doors have long been shut. This is your chance to see the finesse and imagination of Vionnet, Paquin, Doucet, Carven, Molyneux, Schiaparelli, Lucile, Bruyère, Callot Soeurs, Philippe et Gaston, Lucien Lelong, Jacques Fath, Jeanne Lanvin, Jacques Heim—and many more. The oldest gown in the show comes from the first couturier, Worth. It is a striking green and black tea gown, made in 1895 for the Countess Elisabeth Greffuhle. Greffuhle was a muse to no less than Marcel Proust, who made her the model for his Duchesse de Guermantes.
As Saillard has to concede, Worth—the founder of haute couture—was in fact an Englishman. “But that’s something I actually love. Because it’s always been a strength that Paris fashion is open to foreigners.” Saillard is in fact planning a whole new exhibit on this—it will take place in two years at the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration.
For now, though, his (literally) sparkling show does credit to his source; these are the kinds of rarities you wouldn’t want to miss.
The show is on view until July 6, 2013.
“Paris Haute Couture”
Hôtel de Ville
Editor’s note: For trendy boutiques and stock stores (discount designer stores), try out our trip of the canal Saint-Martin.