The wardrobe is a physical space that houses clothing and insinuates expressions of self. It was also the subject of two exhibitions that came to a close this month: Roman d’une garde-robe. Le Chic d’une Parisienne de la Belle Epoque aux Années 30, Musée Galliera, held at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, and Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House, London examined the ‘wardrobes’ of Alice Alleaume and Isabella Blow, two women who lived during very different periods. Both occupied advantaged positions in society and the fashion world, thus allowing exhibition viewers a privileged glimpse into histories of the early and late years of the 20th century in Paris and London. With the wardrobe as a foundation, as opposed to one designer’s work for example, we can approach fashion as a complex web of topics, sections, and professionals, including Alleaume – head saleswoman at the Maison Chéruit and other couture houses, and Blow – editor, muse, and broker.
The metaphor of the singular wardrobe also presents the personal and subjective dimensions of fashion and allowed viewers, in these instances, to re-examine a well-known media persona, as well as rediscover a forgotten figure. Both exhibitions began with explorations of the family histories of their subjects, which served to establish and extend the narratives chronologically, to Belle Epoque Paris for instance, and psychologically, providing insight into the subjects’ mindsets. In the case of Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!, curated by Alistair O’Neill with Shonagh Marshall, viewers were confronted with fragments of personal and national history that informed how Blow deciphered the world, and subsequently, how viewers analysed the exhibition’s contents.
The notion of the multilayered wardrobe reflects the complexity of any person’s narrative, as well as curators’ scrupulous research. The diverse resources on display at Roman d’une garde-robe, curated by Sophie Grossiord, including letters, paintings, notebooks, photographs, fashion plates, and surviving clothing, reflected the organising institutions’ focus on fashion and Paris history. Most importantly, Grossiord made use of the Paris Archives’ collection of drawings, fabric samples and dépôts de modèles – photographs of numbered garments that protected against copying. During her lecture at the Archives on 6th February, Grossiord explained how they served as valuable tools, along with cahiers de ventes, to piece together historic collections. The curatorial possibilities of these documents, however, are vast.
The wardrobe functioned as spatial metaphor for the installations. O’Neill staged sets that reflected the fanciful, sometimes archival workings of Blow’s psyche and wardrobe. Grossiord was much more conservative in terms of display and did not exploit the wardrobe’s spatial potential. The exhibition, however, situated fashion in the cultural and historic context of Paris due to its location in the Musée Carnavalet, which, according to the brochure, “invites visitors to discover Paris, the world fashion capital, in the company of Alice Alleaume.” Although the exhibition upheld the usual ideas on Paris’ fashion hegemony, its attempt at narrative was respectable. Equally, it would be interesting to use the wardrobe to explore the narratives of more ordinary subjects, which might further drive viewers to turn inward and question their own.