John Galliano, a student of history unlike any other designer of his generation, has imagined runway collections from French Revolution-era street scenes, Napoleon-era cartoons and the life of Pocahontas. His globetrotting research trips are legendary, taking him from the teahouses of Japan to the ruins of Egypt. But who would have thought that when he wanted to see some of the world's finest examples of European clothing from the Age of Enlightenment to World War I, he would find them in Los Angeles?
In April of last year, Galliano, who designs 32 collections each year between his namesake label and Christian Dior, visited the dim, closet-like space that is the costume and textiles department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He spent two hours marveling over delicate gold embroidery and accordion-pleated sleeves, instructing a cadre of assistants to snap photos from different angles.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Fashioning Fashion": An article in the Aug. 29 Image section about the upcoming "Fashioning Fashion" exhibition at the Lynda and Stewart Exhibition Pavilion misspelled the last name of donors Michael and Ellen Michelson as Michaelson. —
Researchers, costume designers -- and the public -- soon will be able to view some of what he saw when the museum's $54-million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion opens Oct. 2 with "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail 1700-1915." The exhibition, one of three opening in the new space designed by Renzo Piano, is the most comprehensive of any European costume exhibition in the museum's history.
And yet what will be on display is just a fraction of a major acquisition spearheaded in 2007 by museum Director Michael Govan, costume and textile department curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker, and donors Michael and Ellen Michaelson and Suzanne Saperstein. Amassed over 50 years by two European collectors, the total collection is "museum-changing," according to Takeda, and will feed exhibitions for years to come.
The tumultuous period represented in "Fashioning Fashion" is similar to our own. The Old World was being rocked by the forces of revolution, global trade expansion and technical advances. Fashion went from being a form of handcraft enjoyed by the aristocracy to an industry of mass production.
Most of the pieces shown here are one of a kind and would have been owned by the wealthy, including a spectacular bejeweled and feathered turban made by French designer Paul Poiret for his wife, Denise, to wear at their Arabian-themed "Thousand and Second Night" party in 1911. And the red-white-and-blue embroidered French Revolutionary-era vest that Galliano writes about in his preface to the exhibition catalog.
"You can spend hours studying this vest," he says of the piece, which has a butterfly with clipped wings embroidered on the lapel. A precursor to the slogan T-shirt, the vest seems to play to both sides of the political conflict, with embroidered phrases that read, "The habit does not make the monk" and "Shame upon him who thinks evil of it."
In this exhibition, the delight is in the details -- in the precision of stripes on an 1850 man's tartan vest that line up just so, and the charm of an embroidered silver bird that perches just below the knee on a women's red stocking that dates from 1700-1725.
To give some context, the curators begin with a visual timeline, using all-white ensembles to show how dramatically the women's silhouette changed, from accentuating the hips with rectangular-shaped panniers that could stretch to 6 feet wide during the 1760s and '70s, to pushing up the bust in the Neoclassical Empire styles of Napoleon's court in the early 1800s, to pushing out the bum with bustles that molded the torso into an S-shaped curve in the 1880s.
Later, we get to see the foundation garments that achieved body modification in the age before plastic surgery, including a collapsible bustle, a leather corset that predated Vivienne Westwood's by nearly a century and a pair of "Moulin Rouge"-era fetish boots that lace all the way up the leg and could easily be mistaken for Christian Louboutin's Fifre boots from last fall. The bellwether of modernity is a delicate flower-appliquéd cotton brassiere designed in 1915 by Poiret, who gave women permission to ditch their corsets for his diaphanous dresses.
The men are the eye candy, at least in the timeline, dressed like peacocks in the 18th and 19th centuries in elaborately quilted and embroidered waistcoats and breeches made of colorful velvets, silks and lace, only to end up in 1911 in the businessman's sober gray suit-and-tie that has remained largely unchanged for the past century. (Curiously, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a bit of an Armani moment, seen on an 1840s single-breasted thigh-length coat with ease through the sleeves, paired with loose-fitting trousers.)
Other thematic sections highlight textiles and trim -- the bling that the upper classes relied on to communicate wealth before logos. Indeed, the fabric, not the design, was the most expensive part of high fashion in the 18th century. Trade routes brought new silks and dyes from the Far East, and different colors and patterns were trendy from one season to the next. Textiles were so treasured, in fact, that they were passed down or repurposed into other garments.
"Globalism then meant exotic," Takeda says. "Now, it's about getting something cheaper from China."
"And everything looks the same," Spilker adds.
Trimmings were sold by weight and were so valuable that they could be transferred from one garment to another. A golden-hued silk dress from the 1760s is "frosted" with pure silver lace. Even more impressive is an 1845 black satin gown with an expansive train covered in gilt copper thread, which belonged to Queen Maria II of Portugal. It was handcrafted using a technique called "satin stitch," meaning that much of the thread lies hidden from view. The queen was so rich, it seemed, she could afford to decorate the inside of her clothes.
But the days of the royals were numbered. Revolution was spreading across Europe in 1848, and excess was out. "It was wartime," Spilker says. "You were supposed to look like a citizen because it was an uprising of the common people."
Fashion adapted by switching the emphasis "from surface to structure."
"The way to show you were wealthy was by how well your clothes fit," Spilker says. The art of tailoring is another theme of the exhibition, showcased on a man's cinnamon-colored wool tailcoat from Scotland, circa 1845, pad-stitched inside for a smooth finish, with sleeves sculpted to fit into the arm's eye, and M-shaped notches marking the transition between the drape of the shawl collar and the sharpness of the wide lapels. The piece isn't so much designed as engineered.
Eventually, mechanized production put Savile Row-type tailoring within reach of the public too. But it also put many artisans out of work, as spinning, weaving, printing, embroidering and sewing could be done more quickly and cheaply in factories. The end result is today's culture of fast fashion. Now that clothing is so inexpensive it's practically disposable, you have to wonder if fabric and fit will ever have the same currency again.
The exhibition runs through March 6.