Here is the second installment of the Fashion and Museums post; this article was about an exhibition of French wedding dresses, dating from 19th century to present, held in Bait Fransa, the Omani-French Museum, in old Muscat. The wedding dresses were on loan from Galliera, the City of Paris Fashion Museum - next time I am in Paris, forget Louvre/Eiffel Tower/Champs Elysees, this is where I am headed...!
The exhibition intrigued me at so many levels; a wedding dress happens to be one of the most significant dresses a woman will wear in her life-time and the exhibition celebrates how brides have chosen to dress themselves for this all-important day over the centuries. For me, my perception of the wedding dresses was also influenced by the fact that I primarily identify wedding dresses with red, pink, and fuchsia as these are usually the colors of a typical wedding dress that a bride would wear in Rajasthan, the part of India I am from**; it demonstrates how my cultural conditioning had shaped my visual association with the phrase, 'wedding dress', for instance. While the majority of the wedding dresses are white (there are also additional dresses which were worn in different ceremonies marking the wedding day and therefore, in different colors), the recent decades have nevertheless witnessed fashion designers challenging the traditional white wedding dress paradigm; for example, there was a black-embellished melon-hued 1996 Christian Lacroix dress on display which testifies to that trend.
Wedding dress, Christian Lacroix, 1996
Apart from the dresses themselves, I also appreciated the amount of attention and thought invested in making the exhibition a thoroughly interactive experience through literary quotes, audio-visual presentations, and assorted objects loosely related to the exhibition - you weren't looking at just the wedding dresses, you found yourself being immersed in the period in which they were created and appreciating the influence the prevailing social and cultural trends had upon the fashion at the time.
This article was originally published in Weekend Review, Gulf News:
On loan from Galliera, City of Paris Fashion Museum, in conjunction with French Embassy and the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, City of Paris and Paris Musee, the 35 wedding dresses [at the exhibition] not only enable insight into the evolution of French wedding fashion but also take into account and provide an illuminating commentary on simultaneously occurring social changes, such as invention of cinema and advent of the designer figure, that contributed towards the metamorphosis of the wedding dress. Featuring creations of France’s iconic fashion designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Christian Dior, the exhibition also artfully weaves in a multitude of historical objects and visual layers such as doll’s clothing, quotations from French literary writers, cinema reels, and wax-flower hair adornments to create an interesting tapestry of experience for the visitor.
The genesis of the exhibition occurred with the French Embassy’s desire to commemorate Oman’s 40th anniversary of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s reign through the medium of fashion, one of France’s greatest cultural exports; it was thus decided that wedding dresses would feature as the theme for the very nature of weddings and wedding dresses conjures up an atmosphere of gaiety and celebration.
“While the exhibition itself took a month and half to set up, preparations began in May; the exhibition curator from Galliera, Anne Zazzo came down to Oman then, following which we saw the building and had discussions as to how we would accordingly present the exhibition,” Filip Keunen, the exhibition art director, told Weekend Review.
Considering that the exhibition’s very title refers to a specific period of time, as in 200 years, the exhibition therefore greatly plays with the concept of time, in terms of both the presentation as well using the architecture of the Bait Fransa building itself. An one hundred and sixty year old two-storey house, containing a confluence of Arab and Indian architectural styles, Zazzo and Keunen were intent that that the eleven rooms in Bait Fransa played an important role in the exhibition, revealing it to be a house of discoveries. “The marriage between the pieces and the space/place was extremely significant,” says Keunen. “We were playing with all kinds of notion of time, as in the chronological presentation of the dresses and the historical context of the building along with including items that contributed towards changing the perception of time itself,” Keunen says. The ground floor is thus largely dedicated to dresses from 19th to early twentieth century while upstairs contains wedding haute couture fashion dated from 1970 onwards.
One of the striking aspects about the exhibition is that the wedding dresses do not exist in isolation; while the dresses are crucial narratives in themselves, as in the actual dresses and fashion that dictated their appearance, the team also diligently incorporated them into being part of a greater social narrative occurring over time as well. The decision to do so was also in alignment with the exhibition’s vision of toying around with time. The specifically named rooms such as the Cinema room indicates the impact moving images had upon the world, what with allowing a moment to be relived, rather than being frozen in time, through the inclusion of a Brothers Lumiere film reel. Another room is dedicated to documenting the pictorial representation of wedding dresses over the last two centuries, etchings graduating into print and twentieth century glossy magazines; one also glimpses a doll that used to be a marketing and advertorial tool, the designers dressing the doll in their designs and sending them to potential customers. The room reveals the consistency of the preoccupation with the wedding dress, predicated upon the assumption that it would be the most important dress that a woman would wear in her life, given the enormous sanctity of the wedding ritual and being married, and the attention dedicated to it, albeit in changing media avatars over time.
Wedding dress from 1868
All the dresses have been donated to Galliera, the magnificence of the vintage dresses particularly underscoring the vigilant meticulousness with which they have been preserved. Apart from being immensely valuable examples of sartorial heritage, Keunen says that these dresses also expressly communicate bespoke wealth and status, the dress ultimately superseding its wearer and indeed, its anonymous creator. He informs that the French wedding was a highly codified affair during the 19th century, each ceremony necessitating a particular dress and other additional accoutrements be worn; to illustrate that purpose, the exhibition contains an example of an 1885 wedding dress along with a cobalt blue dress which was worn following the wedding ceremony. However, these elaborate rituals and ritual-specific dresses have long since faded away what with the main wedding dress now occupying centre-stage.
Given that aspect, in addition to the plethora of iconic designer names’ wedding dress creations dominating the exhibition, the exhibition crucially explores the intimate relationship between wedding dresses and prevailing fashions. “In the earlier times, the wedding dresses’ style coincided with that of mainstream fashion,” Keunen says, the Cinema room showing examples of daily-wear dresses alongside that of its wedding dress contemporary. However, the advent of the designer from 1960s resulted into the wedding dress disassociating itself from contemporary fashion trends and occupying an entirely novel fashion realm altogether. “The designer respected the traditional elements of the wedding dress: the bouquet, the train, and the veil, while injecting their own individuality into the dress,” describes Keunen, adding that the wedding dress serves as a veritable sum of the designers’ creative abilities. The fact that the wedding dress figures as the apogee of the designer’s creative vision and that it also happens to be the most significant and beautiful dress that a woman will most likely ever wear in her life undeniably renders the bride as the ultimate heroine of her wedding day.
Wedding Dress, Jean Paul Gaultier, 2009
The cult of the designer-figure thus initiated an era in which an individual designer’s interpretation of the wedding dress was as much a testament to the wedding dress as to his own style palette. In Karl Lagerfeld’s 1994 dress, he incorporates the iconic Chanel jacket into the structure of the dress while Jean Paul Gaultier completely takes familiar elements out of context in an eclectic post-modern take when the dress-structure becomes the veil while the veil transforms itself into a dress in his 2009 creation. “However, the interesting irony is that that post 1960, none of these dresses are ever worn; they are all catwalk models,” Keunen points out. “They function as designers’ creative name-cards, works of art never to be sold.”
Apart from the haute couture creations on the second floor, the ground floor also provides further examples of fantastical wedding dresses, this particular display associated with Fairytales: one is a dress radically crafted from paper while Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s 2000 creation is constructed from multiple miniature dolls’ dresses, a doll clinging to the back of the dress. The viewer also encounters a ceramic green frog in midst of the dresses. “The frog represents the Princess and the Frog fairytale, the princess kissing the frog to see it being transformed into a prince,” Keunen reveals, saying that the conjunction of the fairy-tale and the dresses loop back to the notion of the wedding being a fairy-tale affair that many little girls grow up dreaming of with the requisite Prince Charming and fantasy wedding dress.
“The exhibition is interlaid with multiple layers and we presented as many relevant links and associations to the wedding dresses,” says Keunen, indicating the desire for the spectator to engage with the pieces on display and abstract their own stories from them. For example, the room displaying dresses from the 19th century contains a necklace made of 27,000 year old shells; the shells were discovered in 1868, thus linking to a dress made in that year. Other times, the relationship between the dress and that of the surrounding visual interventions are more abstruse; for example, a time-lapse video of the Parisian sky one day studded with fluffy cumulous clouds refers to the billowing removable sleeves that a bride was expected to wear during the religious wedding ceremony in the day; the bride then removed the sleeves to wear the dress with shorter sleeves during the evening ball. Quotes from renowned French literary figures such as Proust and de Balzac also adorn the walls, creating an installation-like interplay with the words, dresses, and the objects.
Visitors can also see objects that helped contribute towards the transformation of a woman into a bride: a 16th century ivory comb, wax orange-blossom shaped hair adornments dated 1905 and delicate satin 1830 bridal shoes. Yet, the present is never far away what with fashion shoe aficionados undoubtedly finding the inclusion of a Christian Louboutin shoe fascinating, its trademark scarlet sole in dramatic contrast to that of the shoe’s other traditional wedding white lace and corsage elements.
The wedding dress is a coveted item of delight for its wearer, representing beauty, love, and a promise of everlasting happiness within its folds, while evoking similar sentiments from its viewers. The Galliera exhibition reaffirms these associations through the beautiful examples on display while also putting them in a context that takes them beyond the confines of a wedding and into a larger socio-cultural picture.
** However, Indian brides are also nowadays bucking the trend by choosing colors that would be considered unconventional for their bridal outfits