Special Exhibitions Gallery
September 6, 2019 – January 4, 2020
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Listen to the Paris podcast series with original commentary about the exhibition from Dr. Valerie Steele.
Paris is widely regarded as “the most glamorous and competitive of the world’s fashion
capitals” (to quote The New Yorker). But how and why did Paris acquire this reputation? The history of Paris fashion
is usually presented, simplistically, as a genealogy of genius, dominated by “the
great designers,” “kings,” or “dictators of fashion.” Paris, Capital of Fashion was the first exhibition to explore the cultural construction of Paris as the capital
Curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, it featured approximately
100 objects, dating from the 18th century to the present. The exhibition was accompanied
by a scholarly book, Paris, Capital of Fashion
(Bloomsbury, 2019), edited by Steele, who is also the author of Paris Fashion: A Cultural History
Robe à la française, 1755-1760, France. The Museum at FIT, P82.27.1
Christian Dior (John Galliano), dress, fall/winter 2000-2001 haute couture. Photograph
© Guy Marineau.
Paris, Capital of Fashion opened with an introductory gallery that places Paris within a global context, presenting
it in dialogue with other fashion capitals, especially New York. By presenting an
original couture suit by Chanel together with a virtually identical licensed copy
sold by Orbach’s department store, for example, the exhibition demonstrated how the
idea of Paris fashion “works” across fashion cultures, appealing to elite American
women and making money for American manufacturers and retailers..
Entering the main gallery, visitors were immersed in the mythic glamour of Paris fashion
as the exhibition traced a trajectory from royal splendor at Versailles to the spectacle
of haute couture today. An 18th-century robe à la française was juxtaposed with a haute couture creation for Christian Dior, which was inspired
by Marie Antoinette. Clothing and accessories were drawn from museums in Europe, Britain,
and North America, as well as from couture archives and private collections.
The development of the haute couture transformed women’s fashion from an artisanal
craft into big business and high art. In the late 19th century, Charles Frederick
Worth praised his American clients, saying they had “the faces, the figures, and the
francs.” Among his dresses on display is the famous “Electric Light Dress” worn by
New York’s Mrs.Cornelius Vanderbilt II. After World War II, the haute couture entered
a new golden age from 1947 to 1957 and, by the 1980s, the haute couture was recognized
as part of the unique patrimony of France.
Gabrielle Chanel, evening cape, 1927, France. The Museum at FIT, 96.69.15
Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert, cocktail dress, 1952, USA. The Museum at FIT, 2013.19.1
Christian Dior (Stephen Jones), top hat, fall 2000, France. The Museum at FIT, 2003.70.1
In today’s era of globalization, foreign designers often choose to show their collections
in Paris, home to luxury conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering. In a world with many
fashion cities, Paris defends its title of world capital of fashion by producing and
maintaining the aura of Paris fashion.
(L) Suit by Gabrielle Chanel, 1966, France.
(R) Licensed copy of a Chanel day suit, c. 1967, USA.
In conjunction with the exhibition, The Museum at FIT published Paris-related content to its Fashion Culture podcast.
Episodes featured past Fashion Culture programs exploring Paris designers and historical
events, as well as original commentary about the exhibition from Dr. Valerie Steele.
The publication, Paris, Capital of Fashion
(Bloomsbury), was edited by Valerie Steele with additional contributions by Christopher
Breward, Grazia dʼAnnunzio, Antonia Finnane, David Gilbert, Sophie Kurkdjian, and
Agnès Rocamora. The book was released in September 2019.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Paris, Capital of Fashion
, The Museum at FIT held a symposium on October 18, 2019. Confirmed symposium speakers
included all of the contributors to the catalog, among others.
Paris, Capital of Fashion has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum
at FIT, The Coby Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts, with the
support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and the National
Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts
grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov. Additional support
was provided by Chargeurs Philanthropies and Chargeurs Creative Collection. Live captioning
of the symposium is provided, in part, by a grant from NYSCA/Theatre Development Fund’s TAP
Plus. We also thank the Château de Versailles, Art Graphique & Patrimoine, and EPV/Thomas
Garnier for providing photographs of the Hall of Mirrors, including a photogrammetric survey
of the vaulted ceiling.