Empire of the crinolines

Galliera crinolines

Galliera crinolines

The Empire in question is the Second Empire, the reign (1852-1870) of Napoléon III and Eugénie. This exhibition at the Palais Galliéra, the City of Paris’s fashion museum, gives us a glimpse at a brilliant, vital, corrupt, prosperous, and ultimately disastrous era of French history.

As noted in a prior post, Eugénie admired and wished to emulate Marie-Antoinette. The influence of the 18th century can be easily traced in dresses copying the late Queen’s favorite colors and fabrics, or in fans inspired by Boucher’s paintings. Yet many things had changed since Marie-Antoinette’s time, a century earlier. On many a ball gown, priceless hand-made lace is sewn next to its cheap machine-made counterpart. Artificial dyes have appeared, ushering new, vibrant colors into fashions. For a couple of hours I was transported into the world of Emile Zola‘s extraordinary novels: Au Bonheur des Dames, Nana or La Curée.

The 19th century is also a time of practicality: the skirt is often detachable from the bodice, or rather bodices. For several bodices were often cut to match a skirt: one neck-high to make a day dress, one lower cut for a dinner gown, and one entirely baring the shoulders for a ball or opera gown. All with a single skirt!

The visitor can admire dresses, shawls, shoes and trinkets that used to belong to Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting, but also to the novelist George Sand and Madame Gachet, wife of Doctor Gachet of Van Gogh fame. My favorite artifacts were the poupées de mode (fashion dolls) with their porcelain heads and leather bodies. Like modern Barbie dolls, they represented miniature adult women, and came with a full set of clothes for all occasions.

Or maybe I should choose the bridal or First Communion sets (prayer book, notebook and coin purse) of exquisitely carved ivory or mother-of-pearl, still in their original cases lined with silk and velvet.

The notices that accompany the 300 artifacts are simple, informative, well lit, easy to locate, accessible in every regard. This exhibit is also mercifully free of the mobs that attend (I should say attack) blockbuster shows. A delight for anyone interested in the history of fashion, the Second Empire, Eugénie, or simply gazing at beautiful objects from times past.

Until April 26, 2009 at the Palais Galliéra

Eugenie and her ladies 1855 Winterhalter

Eugenie and her ladies 1855 by Winterhalter

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