September 23, 2016–January 7, 2017
Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Museum at FIT
The Museum at FIT presents Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe, featuring extraordinary fashions from the legendary wardrobe of Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952). A famous beauty celebrated for her “aristocratic and artistic elegance,” the countess was a fashion icon comparable to Daphne Guinness today.
Proust’s Muse is based on La Mode retrouvée: Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffulhe, an exhibition organized in Paris by Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, which is the repository of the countess’s wardrobe. Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, has organized the exhibition in New York in collaboration with Saillard. She also contributed an essay, “The Aristocrat as a Work of Art,” to the French catalog.
“The Countess Greffulhe believed in the artistic significance of fashion,” says Steele. “And although she patronized the greatest couturiers of her time, her style was very much her own. Today, when fashion is increasingly regarded as an art form, her attitude is especially relevant.” When Marcel Proust wrote his novel, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), the Countess Greffulhe inspired his immortal character, Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes, of whom he wrote, “Each of her dresses seemed like… the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.”
On display will be the countess’s famous “Lily Dress” (circa 1896), attributed to the House of Worth and photographed by Paul Nadar. Both the design of the dress and the staging of the photograph owed much to the countess’s ideas. The dress’s princess line, for example, was atypical for the time, but was very flattering to her tall, slender figure. The motif of lilies refers to a verse in her honor, composed by the dandy-poet Robert de Montesquiou, who served as the main inspiration for another of Proust’s characters, the Baron de Charlus.
In her correspondence with Montesquiou, Élisabeth Greffulhe confessed, “I don’t think there is any pleasure in the world comparable to that of a woman who feels she is being looked at by everybody, and has joy and energy transmitted to her.” Her fascination with photography, also documented in the exhibition, was related to her desire to fix the image of beauty.
Another highlight of the exhibition is an exotic emerald green and blue robe d’intérieur (1897), which epitomizes the countess’s audacious style. She loved to wear green, which complemented her auburn hair.
One of the countess’s most famous gowns was the “Byzantine” dress” (1904), a gold lamé, pearl-encrusted, fur-trimmed robe de cérémonie, that she wore to her daughter’s wedding. It is said that people in the crowd exclaimed, “My God, is that the mother of the bride?” Although labeled Worth, it was probably created for the countess by the young Paul Poiret.
A pioneering fund-raiser, the countess was a major supporter of the Ballets Russes and in the years prior to the First World War her fashions also gravitated toward avant-garde Orientalist styles. When Proust describes the exotic Fortuny gowns of his fictional Duchess de Guermantes, evoking “that Venice loaded with the gorgeous East,” he was clearly inspired by the Countess Greffulhe.
During the 1930s, an era of great female designers, she favored sophisticated evening dresses by couturières such as Louiseboulanger, Nina Ricci, and Jeanne Lanvin. (The Countess Greffulhe also raised funds to support the great female scientist, Marie Curie.)
In addition to the 28 garments on display, there will be a dozen accessories—shoes, hats, fans, gloves, and stockings—including a pair of red velvet high-heeled shoes that evoke one of the most famous scenes in Proust’s novel. A selection of photographs will depict the Countess Greffulhe and important contemporaries, including Robert de Montesquiou and Marcel Proust. Finally, there will also be an ensemble inspired by the Countess Greffulhe and created by the contemporary fashion designer, Rick Owens.
Steele and Saillard will hold a conversation on October 11 at 6 pm in the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre at FIT. There will also be a symposium at the same venue on October 20, featuring more than a dozen speakers, including Laure Hillerin, the countess’s biographer, Françoise Tetart-Vittu, art and fashion historian; and Philippe Thiebaut, curator and scientific advisor at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA). Subjects to be discussed will include fashion and literature, fashion in Impressionist art, and fashion, sex and gender. These and other public programs are, as always, free to the public. There is a catalog in French published by the Palais Galliera, La Mode retrouvée, with essays by Saillard, Steele, and others. An English-language brochure by Steele will be available in the gallery.
Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe is the first of several exhibitions focusing on French fashion to be held at The Museum at FIT. It will be followed by Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968 (February–April, 2017), curated by Colleen Hill, and Paris, Capital of Fashion (September 2019–January 2020), curated by Valerie Steele.
Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council with additional support from The Coby Foundation, Ltd.
This exhibition was developed by the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musées.
Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday, noon–8 pm; Saturday, 10 am–5 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, and legal holidays.
Admission is free.