Wednesday, April 3, 2013

That Certain French Style...

No matter where you are in Paris, it's not hard to pick out the real French people -- something about the way they stand on a street corner, exchanging phone numbers, with the handbag carried, just so, the scarf draped, just so.

This older woman, stepping out of the bus, has her fur hat placed on her head, just so, making her fairly ordinary wool coat and sensible shoes suddenly become an elegant ensemble.

I was thinking about this when I was in the BHV the other day, how the most attractive outfits, even the most casual, are almost always the most simple, how the use of colors pulls everything together, just so!

I'd had a glimpse of this when we were in Avignon. I went over the Rhône one afternoon to visit Fort Saint-André, a medieval fort at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Part of the fort was a 12th century Benedictine abbey, and part of the abbey (restored over the centuries) was the Abbot's small palace. In 1916, the French painter, Gustave Fayet bought the decaying palace for a young painter, Elsa Koeberlé, who undertook massive renovations of the house and the gardens. I went there to walk around the gardens, but arriving "au bon moment", as they say, I found I was able to tag along on a tour of the house itself.

Along with all the restoration work she undertook, Elsa Koeberlé apparently also fell in love with clothes designed by the Parisian couturier, Paul Poiret, who reigned at the top of the Haute Couture world in the early 1900s. One of his signature achievements was the abolishment of the corset, thereby liberating the female body!

Not only did we tour through many rooms, lavishly furnished, but we were also taken to the top floor, where there was a whole museum dedicated to Monsieur Poiret and his sublime creations. They were all remarkably well preserved, the colors true, and the workmanship outstanding. What also struck me was that, even back then, the basic lines are very simple.

With all these thoughts running through my mind -- as I tried to tie my own scarf, just so -- imagine my delight when posters for this show began appearing throughout the city. As soon as I could, I headed down to the Hôtel de Ville exhibition space to take a look.

One of the first displays was a book of Paul Poiret designs! With their pronounced bustles, these clearly pre-date the gowns I saw at the Fort St.-André Abbey.

 Lucien LeLong's pattern books, however, with sample fabrics attached, took you right into the 1920s.

The whole notion of "haute couture" has been a distinctly Parisian discipline since the 17th century. In the 19th century, "maisons de couture" established themselves, most notably the 'House of Worth'. Charles Frederick Worth was actually born in England, but moved to Paris in 1846, set up shop on the rue de la Paix, and made an indelible mark on the French fashion industry.

Worth's exquisite silk evening gowns were highly sought after, the ultimate in elegance and simplicity. The House of Worth remained successful under several of Worth's descendants, until the 1950s, when C.F. Worth's great-grandson, Jean-Charles, retired. Les Perfumes Worth continued as a separate company. I used to love the fragrance Je Reviens!

Before I got busted for taking snapshots, I managed to snag a few photos in the exhibition, including these two adorable afternoon dresses from the 1930s from Martial and Armand Jean Dessès...

Givenchy (on the left) from 1954 (think Audrey Hepburn!), with a Dior evening dress from the 1940s behind it...

and a Jacques Heim cocktail dress from 1951 in dark grey wool, with a hot pink midriff.

Some of the displays showed how a good design never goes out of style. The suit on the left is Thierry Mugler from 1998, the one on the right is from 1951, designed by the house of Carven!

And even within the same house of fashion, some things never get old -- on the left Chanel from 1960, on the right, Chanel from 1995! This simple style of suit was launched by Chanel in the mid-50s, putting the new-look trend out of fashion and bringing us into the 1960s.

In the second half of the 20th century, "prêt à porter" (ready-made clothing) began to take over from haute couture, and gowns like these by Jacques Fath and Marcelle Dormoy disappeared. By 1967, the number of "maisons du couture" had shrunk from 106 to just 19. Today, there are barely a dozen.

But, luckily, there's always the new generation to keep us stylish. This little 13-month-old Brooklynite came on her first visit to Paris last week. Check out those polka-dot "plus-fours", the purple tights and the green shoes...

...not to mention the snazzy shades, as she and her parents bundled themselves up in sunny, but still very cold Paris!!

In spite of the weather, Clio was definitely ready for the Easter Bunny in her pretty smocked frock!

À bientôt!


  1. My mother had a Chanel very much like the white one. She would wait a year and buy them in one of NYC's department stores when they ended up in the basement and on sale at a very reduced price. She wore it for years to work at Dalva Brothers

  2. Oh loving the dresses!!! Sorry for late response and not being available when you visited much love