Panier à coudes articulé, vers 1770, et corps à baleines, vers 1740–1760 © Patricia Canino
I am often in Paris for work, taking the Eurostar there and back in a day. Sometimes I am lucky enough to have an hour or two spare when I have finished meetings, and then I always head to Les Arts Décoratifs, part of the Musée du Louvre. It’s sensible because, so long as I avoid its excellent design shop and bookstore, then I avoid the lure of the rue Saint-Honore and its lovely shops, and go home lighter only by the 9.5 euros entrance ticket.
The museum holds works from the collections of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs itself, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, and the Musée de la Publicité, both of whose of collected works are too fragile to be put on permanent display, so they are presented as temporary exhibitions.
Les Arts Decoratifs is often overlooked in favour of its flashier parent next door, all I M Pei pyramid and tourist throngs searching for the Mona Lisa, and so the lines are short and the galleries mercifully uncrowded. You can usually be in and out of its special exhibitions in an hour, although they always deserve longer. There is a traditional museum-like exhibition hall, where I saw the Van Cleef & Arpels, l’Art de la Haute Joaillerie show last year, and a modern dedicated fashion space, where delicate pieces of clothing can be shown away from damaging daylight.
Over the years I have caught numerous wonderful shows, including L’Art de l’Automobile, Chef d’Oeuvres de la Collection Ralph Lauren, and the Hussein Chalayan retrospective and, two weeks ago, in Paris for the day, I slipped in to visit La Mecanique des Dessous, une Histoire Indiscrete de la Silhouette, which examines the role of underwear — and underpinnings, in costume history.
The show notes describe it perfectly:
“This exhibition explores the ‘underworld’ of female and male undergarments such as the fly, the pannier, the corset, the crinoline, the bustle, the pouf, the stomach belt, the bra and other vestimentary devices fashioning the body by means of whalebones, hoops and cushions according to the changing dictates of fashion.
Modelling the body sometimes to extremes, these “mechanical garments” enabled the wearer to artificially attain the ideal of beauty of the time. This exploration is full of surprising discoveries since, contrary to common belief, these artifices were by no means a 19th-century speciality. Recourse to these concealed architectures has been constant since at least since the 14th century until the present day. Illustrating the diversity of artifices and their mechanics with museum pieces rarely shown to the public, this exhibition – the first of its kind – takes us ‘backstage’, into another, behind-the-scenes history of clothing and fashion.”
The show also includes ravishing examples of 18th and 19th century dresses, so we can see the desired effect of the often brutal looking corsetry. There are also pieces from designers including Alexander McQueen, to show how corsetry is used today.
I really cannot recommend it highly enough: the sheer breadth of exhibits have been placed in both their historical and social context, and it works on every level, from the mass of fascinated schoolchildren taking notes, through random onlookers, to costume history buffs like myself. There is also a room half way through where visitors can try on various corsets and panniers.
If you can read French there is a really excellent series of essays around the exhibition on the museum’s website here. (Prospective Anglophone visitors will be glad to hear that the exhibition’s notes and signage is all bilingual French and English.)
Do exit out the back into the gardens of the Louvre…
Les Arts Décoratifs
107, rue de Rivoli
a mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette
5 July–24 November 2013