Friday, March 25, 2016

Not Just a Pretty Face

A recent exhibition at the Palais Galliera focused mainly on the breathtaking wardrobe of the Comtesse Greffulhe, about whom I knew nothing. I could barely even pronounce her name. But after an hour or more of wandering through the galleries -- admiring an array of clothes like none I've ever seen -- I also discovered that Marie Anatole Louise Élizabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, was a woman who had a considerable influence on a lot more than just "style".

Born in 1860 into a wealthy, aristocratic family, and educated in the arts and history and literature, Élizabeth de Caraman-Chimay married an
immensely wealthy Belgian banker, Henri, Count Greffulhe, in 1881. By all accounts, he was an unfaithful and boorish man. They had one daughter, Elaine. Élizabeth's striking beauty and status launched her into Paris Society. Attendance at her salons on the rue d'Astorg from the period of the Belle Epoque through the Roaring Twenties was eagerly sought by all who wished to be seen and acknowledged. This pastel by Paul-César Helleu from 1891 gives a glimpse at her elegance and presence.

And her wardrobe led her to be an undisputed leader of fashion. One of her favorite designers, the House of Worth, created this "tea gown" in 1897 from dark blue cut voided velvet on green satin. The bright green set off her mass of auburn hair, and led Marcel Proust to immortalize her as one of his muses for the character of the  Duchess of Guermantes in his À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. He wrote a fan letter about Élizabeth to her cousin, the poet Robert de Montesquiou:

"There is no single part of her to be found in any other woman or anywhere else for that matter. The entire mystery of her beauty is in the glow, above all in the enigma of her eyes. I have never seen a woman as beautiful as she is." 

Her admirers stretched way beyond the borders of Paris. Visiting France in 1896, Tsar Nicholas II presented the Comtesse with a ceremonial coat, a "khalat" from Bukhara. Élizabeth immediately had the coat altered into an evening cape by Jean-Philippe Worth, and created a sensation when she first wore it.

Seeing this sepia-tinted photo of the Comtesse wearing the cape gives it (and her) a stature that a wooden mannequin cannot!

Another fabulous gown from the late 1890s, this Worth evening gown ("La Robe aux Lis") is made from black velvet, ivory silk appliqués in the form of lilies embroidered with beads and metal sequins. Élizabeth loved it so much she used a photo of her wearing it for her "carte d'identité"!

The actual photo of her is by Paul Nadar. Her cousin, Robert de Montesquiou wrote:

"Like a beautiful silver lily with black pistil eyes 
You flower, deep and lilywhite..."
Elizabeth's marriage was not a happy one. Her husband was more than content to show her off at the opera or at the Longchamp races, or the Princesse de Sagan's masked balls, but merely to boost his own standing. Her slim figure, the brightness of her dark eyes fascinated all those around them.  The novelist Octave Feuillet described her: 

“As delicate as amber, more intelligent than she was delicate, with the deep glistening eyes of a sprite, and the laugh of a shepherdess” 

Mostly, the Comte Greffulhe spent his time hunting or with his many mistresses. Their only child, a daughter Elaine, is seen here with her mother in another Paul Nadar photograph from 1886.

Probably the most famous gown the Comtesse ever wore was at her daughter's wedding to the Duke of Gramont in 1904. Again, the designer is Worth. Known as the "Byzantine" dress, it is sewn from lamé taffeta, silk and gold yarn, silk tulle with sequin appliqué. An ever-fascinated press wrote rapturous words about this gown, with barely a mention of the bride's dress. Continuing that trend at the exhibition, this display took centre stage!

Outside of the "Salon" scene, though, Élizabeth hungered for something more meaningful for her life. She had always loved music and painting, and later, photography. She had a genuine desire to be useful to society, and in 1889 channeled this wish into organizing a big concert to raise money for the Philanthropic Society. Handel's "Messiah" at the Trocadero in 1889 raised Fr 25,000, and set Élizabeth on her path as a concert entrpreneur, under the guise of "charity work", which was what ladies of that time were "allowed" to do!

Her fashion triumphs did not diminish, but her energies became more and more directed at supporting the arts and especially music and musicians. Her strong network of artistic friendships culminated with the formation of La Société des Grands Auditions Musicales de France, whose goal was to reintroduce old works by forgotten composers, and to sponsor young contemporary musicians.

For the next twenty years, the Comtesse devoted her money and her energies to this goal. She actively supported Diaghilev in the early beginnings of his Ballets Russe concerts in France. She organized productions of Wagner's Tristan and Twilight of the Gods. She programmed Mahler's Second Symphony, and brought Richard Strauss to Paris to conduct Salome. At the same time, she continued to ride the top of the fashion world. This silk taffeta robe d'intérieur  from 1912 is by Maison Vitaldi Babani who specialized in silks and art objects from the Far East.

At her villa in Dieppe, Élizabeth invited friends and leading figures in the arts world, as well as diplomats and politicians. Lord Lytton, the English ambassador came, the future President of France, Paul Deschanel, was a frequent visitor. Gabriel Fauré was an early visitor. At the time he was an unknown organist at l'Église Madeleine. Later, he would dedicate his work Pavane to the Comtesse. 

La Comtesse Greffulhe never feared putting her dainty foot into the world of politics.  A strong supporter of Captain Dreyfuss and Leon Blum, she fought for social progress and the rights of woman. Her love of science led her to help Marie Curie finance the Institute of Radium, which later became the Institut Curie.

All of this stirring information, and much more, could be found at the exhibition, in written texts, in documents displayed under glass, in a substantial catalog. Not as immediately arresting, of course, as the ongoing array of one stunning designer item of clothing after another! By 1936, the Comtesse had expanded her couturier stable to include Jeanne Lanvin in this striking coat, with its black satin brick pattern, fur cuffs and edging and corozo nut buttons. Exquisite!

And this 1937 Nina Ricci evening gown in cream and black twill and silk chiffon, with ostrich feathers. The epitome of elegance. And la Comtesse never ceased to be elegant. Her figure remained slender, her waist tiny for her entire life.

Élizabeth Caraman-Chimay, Comtesse Greffulhe died in August 1952, at the age of ninety-two. She had lived through two Republics and two World Wars, and was the acknowledged leader of French society for half a century. The gowns, dresses, coats, fans and shoes on display really took your breath away in their beauty, and in their preservation. But, in the end, it was by reading the "fine print" that you caught a glimpse of who the Comtesse Greffulhe really was, and learned all that she accomplished. I was so happy to have found out!

À bientôt!

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