The Countess Greffulhe
Museum @ FIT
Closes January 7, 2017
The term “Fashion Icon” gets flung around in our times. Celebrities whose images flood social media are deemed “iconic” even though their style is derivative, achieved only through the help of a well-paid stylist. We are now in a time of transition. Our national fashion icon, Michelle Obama, is stepping out of the spotlight and the nation is wondering who can replace her.
With those thoughts in mind, a visit to Proust’s Muse: The Countess Greffulhe reminds us what a real fashion leader can be. Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay was indeed a beauty with auburn hair a fine figure, and the money to engage the best couturiers to design for her, but what made her memorable was her personal style. She was determined that her gowns would be distinctive, so participated in the creation of her dresses to insure her dress would be memorable. It was said that she would rather appear “bizarre,” instead of “banal.” Proust wrote, “Each of her dresses seemed like. . .. the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.” She inspired this intensely sensitive author, who based several of his characters on her persona. For both of them fashion “was a mark of individuality, an emotional language, and a form of art.”
The first galley of this exhibit, originally on display at the Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode, establishes who the Countess was through photographs and rare film clips. There are pictures of the Countess herself posing for the photographer Paul Nader and of Proust, but we are also reminded that she was a leader of her time in more than fashion. There are pictures of Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes, the composer Gabriel Fauré, the scientist Marie Curie, and, the most controversial of all, Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, focus of an anti-Semitic political scandal that roiled France for more than a decade. The Countess supported him too—a stand that placed her against many leaders of French society.
De Greffulhe’s unique taste over the decades of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is on view in the main gallery. Elisabeth married Count Henry Greffulhe on 1878 when she was 18. Even then her taste was elegant, as can be seen by an exquisite black lace bodice from 1884-5. It was worn over a colored dress, so the intricacy of the lace and jet bead trim would stand out. Color was obviously important to the new bride as can be seen by a pink silk satin day dress embroidered with brown floral motifs from the late 1880s and an 1894 garden party dress from Worth, a confection of pink silk crepe Mousseline over silk satin printed with orchids. Next to this gown is a pleated silk taffeta dressing gown in another favorite, green, a color that highlighted her auburn hair.
This was a demanding customer. She insisted designers showed her their best and then, often ordered them to make something different. The result could be the green tea gown with a large navy cut velvet print reminiscent of the pomegranate figured fabrics of the Renaissance.
This was also a figure who managed to lead fashion through changing times as can be seen on the next platform which shows the new silhouette of the early twentieth century. One standout is a long column of a gown covered with the metallic embroidery inspired by the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
The Countess loved “the gaze of others.” Nowhere else in the exhibit is this more evident than an evening cloak made from a Russian court robe and the dress she wore to her daughter’s wedding. The cloak or khalat from present-day Uzbekistan, encrusted with gold embroidery, was presented to the Countess by Czar Nicholas II. Jean-Philippe Worth converted the robe to a long opera cloak which she wore to great acclaim at the state visit by the Russians.
There has probably never been a mother-of-the-bride dress like 1904’s “Byzantine Gown” of bronze colored silk taffeta covered with silver and gold embroidered and sparking with sequins. At the bottom is a wide band of fur, originally sable. We are told the Countess timed her entrance perfectly, pausing just long enough at the top of the church stairs to give the crowd a full view. Apparently, the strategy worked. The press barely mentioned the bride, lavishing praise on the mother’s dress!
The 1930s were a period when couturieres flourished in Paris. Designers like louiseboulanger, Jeanne Lanvin, and Maggy Rouff emerged and contributed to the Countess’ wardrobe. By this time, she was older, but still exercised her great sense of what in the new decade would complement her. By this time, the Countess had abandoned pink, feeling it was too youthful. Most of the garments from the 1930s are black, including an amusing coat with a Surrealist influence. The fabric looks like black bricks, trimmed with a lush black fur pockets and cuffs.
But, the Countess still loved green. This love shows up in flowing robes inspired by the Ballet Russes covered with Orientalist embroidery.
The gowns are stunning, but the accessories wall shows the Countess’ attention to detail. For a sense of mystery, there are fans replete with delicate paintings, lace, and sticks of mother-of-pearl and stockings embroidered with silk flowers. A proper lady in society had to have gloves. The Countess inherited a long pair from the Age of Napoleon, delicate ivory trimmed with gold sequins, but she had the latest as well. Her black satin evening gloves from the 1930s came from Caroline Reboux. They have remarkable puffs that extend from the wrist to the elbows. She was never without a hat, a list for a trip specifically laid out the need for at least 6 hats in different colors. Most moving, is a small hat from the 1940s when France was at war. It is an “Occupation Hat,” made of braided cellophane straw and ribbon worn when her townhouse had no heat and she lived in her servants’ quarters. Style under adversity.
The most famous, enduring example of Countess’ style is Worth’s “Lily Dress,” which occupies center stage. Black velvet covered with appliques of ivory silk lilies and leaves that run the length of the dress and train, it is a gown whose pearls and sequins would sparkle in the lights of a Belle Époque ball. It is cut with a long princess line which flattered the Countess’ figure. A wide ivory silk berth collar would have drawn attention to her face. The Countess clearly knew the power of this dress. She was photographed twice in it by Paul Nader in front of a full-length mirror. She was clearly aware of her uncle, the dandy Robert de Montesquiou’s words— “A photography is a mirror that remembers.”
In one of his novels, her admirer Proust wrote the words that sum up this unique woman. A character based on the countess says, “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me.” Another character answers, “Never fear, my dear, so long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.” Sixty-four years after her death in 1952, we’re still staring in awe.
Nadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews
Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »