Inspiring designs

During the holiday season, when calendars tend to fill up with special occasions, we may look at our wardrobes with fresh eyes.

We want not only to feel but also to look our very best — and, yes, we want to impress. We even might dare to dream that our fashion choices might inspire others.

As one of the exhibitions at The Museum at FIT in Manhattan shows us in dazzling detail, that’s nothing new.

A walk through “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe,” which continues through Jan. 7, offers plenty of proof of this timeless fascination — and that proof comes in velvet and silk, satin and taffeta, embroidery, pearls, sequins and so much more.

The evocatively lit show in the Special Exhibitions Gallery features some 40 fashions and accessories from the wardrobe of The Countess Greffulhe, Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay (1860-1952).

It 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 today houses the Countess’ wardrobe. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at The Museum at FIT, organized the exhibition in New York in collaboration with Saillard.

In a video accompanying the show, Steele says, “I wanted New Yorkers to have a chance to see the really unique dresses that were part of her wardrobe. I wanted people to ‘meet’ the Countess Greffulhe, who was really a fashion icon of Belle Epoque Paris.”

And meet we do.

A famous beauty known for her elegance and bold taste, she captivated her contemporaries. Those included the famed French novelist Marcel Proust — so much that when he wrote his landmark “In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu),” the Countess was a primary inspiration for Oriane, the Duchess of Guermantes.

It’s said that Proust drew heavily from his own life in creating what is believed by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. 

And, as Steele’s essay introducing the exhibition explains, “To create it, Proust drew on everything he had experienced and thought over the course of a lifetime — about art, love, society, time, … and fashion. Indeed fashion was one of the ways that he came to understand the mystery of time.”

The “audacious style” of The Countess Greffulhe — said to be the Daphne Guinness of her day — had his full attention.

In this proverbial walk through a most elegant closet, the highlights are many, starting with the exhibition’s centerpiece. The famous “Lily Dress” (1896), in black velvet with ivory silk accents and attributed to the House of Worth, is said to have been created with much input from the Countess, as was her way.

Visitors will delight, too, in what’s come to be known as the “Russian cape,” a sumptuous, dramatic affair; in a vivid peacock-blue velvet on green satin tea dress; and in a Byzantine empress gown attributed to Paul Poiret for Worth (a glittering creation the Countess wore to a 1904 wedding, handily upstaging the bride — who just happened to be her own daughter).

Throughout, the fashions reflect the varied interests of the Countess. An arts patron who raised funds for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, she would begin to wear exotic designs from Fortuny and Babani inspired by the growing influence of Orientalism. And as she aged, the Countess lost none of her flair, evidenced by 1930s ensembles by Nina Ricci and Jeanne Lanvin.

The exhibition is rounded out by a collection of shoes (yes, Proust fans will delight in a certain red-velvet design), hats, fans, gloves and stockings; a contemporary outfit by Rick Owens created in homage to the Countess; a selection of period photographs; and rare 1903 film footage of the Countess herself.

As Steele concludes in the overview video, it’s all part of quite a picture — a memorable one.

“For Proust and the Countess Greffulhe, fashion was not only a social and cultural sign, it was also a mark of individuality, an expression of emotion and a type of art.”

For more, visit fitnyc.edu/museum.

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