The Moment: I’ve been in Paris this week working on features for our upcoming September issue and, during a break between shoots, I found time to visit Pamela Golbin’s exceptional new survey covering 300 years of fashion that recently opened at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Walking through the galleries that begin with the endlessly fascinating court attire of the 18th century and end with a stunning display of designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, in such a condensed manner, is somewhat like watching the evolution of style through a time lapse filter.
And what stands out, after roughly 200 years of comparatively slow shifts of panniers and crinolines, emphasizing variously the back, the hips, or the bosom, is the moment in which fashion really changed from stiff formality to something that can be described as modern. In this exhibition, which focuses almost entirely on the history of fashion as seen through the lens of designers in France, that shift happens rather suddenly in the early 20th century, when we are introduced to the decidedly liberating dresses of Paul Poiret, the magnificent silk satins of the Callot Soeurs, and the technical advances in pleating made by Mariano Fortuny beginning in 1910.
It is from this point forward that visitors to the exhibition begin to see dresses that look appealing to modern tastes, much as they may have been seen as shocking in their own times. Perhaps the greatest strength of this exhibition is that Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at the museum, focused on designs and designers from each decade that most clearly pushed fashion forward in their respective eras.
In some cases, the results may not be most representative of what people actually wore, yet stand out as most symbolically important pieces to fashion. A shocking pink cape from Elsa Schiaparelli’s fall 1938 collection, Christian Dior’s bar jackets from the 1940s, and Paco Rabanne’s spring 1968 mini dress made of squares of aluminum – all touchstones of fashion history – look even more spectacular when contextualized on such a brief arc of history.
Why It’s a Wow: The exhibition, “Fashion Forward: Three Centuries of Fashion,” celebrates the 30th anniversary of the museum’s fashion collection, and includes 300 important items from its holdings. Bringing this history to life is a sometimes surprisingly clever installation, with artistic direction by the dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. This is seen most clearly in the final exhibit, which displays fashions from the 1940s to present day in one installation in an enormous sunlit gallery of winding white staircases, resulting in several amusing back-to-back juxtapositions that were likely intentional. For example, a bright pink couture design by Cristóbal Balenciaga, a silk satin pearl embroidered bolero and dress from spring 1943, stands next to a sweatshirt and skirt from the fall 2016 collection of Vetements, the hyper-cool streetwear label headed by Demna Gvasalia, who took over the legacy of Balenciaga as its new creative director this year.
There are many delights to see throughout – from the inclusion of a men’s coat designed for a pet monkey in the 18th century, which reflects the fashion for exoticism and chinoiseries, to a 1952 ball gown and matching gold metallic cape by Pierre Balmain that serves as a reminder that Balmain was flashy long before Olivier Rousteing got there.
Learn More: “Fashion Forward: Three Centuries of Fashion” runs through August 14 at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris. If you can’t make it to France this summer, you can still enjoy detailed imagery of the collection online.