Odette at the Fashion Institute in Manhattan – 2003
If you live in the new York area, there is a not-to-be-missed exhibit going on through December at the Fashion Institute (museum hall on SW corner of 7th Ave and 27th in Manhattan). See Femme Fatale – a collection from fin-de-Siècle Paris. The fabulous fashions and artifacts make the women of the Search – monde, demi and haute – come pulsing right out of its pages. You will see exactly how magnificent Odette was as she walked in the Bois – what caused men to suck in their breath as she passed. You will delight in le Japonisme of the evening coat, the black and white striped silk gowns with ostrich feather trim, extraordinary dresses with trims of chiffon and embroidered lace, teagowns for 5 o’clock tea, visiting gown, opera cape, petticoat, exotic Orientalisme – an outfit with a foot and half vertical feather standing straight up, stern riding clothes – plus posters, postcards of Sarah Bernhardt – all this is pure delight. The fancy cocottes, the actresses, society all began to coalesce in dress. (OK, maybe you’ll want to give a pass to that little hat crowned by stuffed parakeets)
Also, you may want to shield yourself from some vapid curatorial voice. For example, as you admire a lovely high-necked black silk with velvet black apples by Pingat, you will be instructed that:
“Fin de siècle art and literature associated Woman with the organic/sexual cycle of growth and decay. With this dress, the iconography of forbidden fruit is subsumed into an image of the fashionable woman as an exteriorizing surface without organic interiority. Like the dandy the fashionable woman was a creature outside nature and beyond gender.”
I suppose one could argue that the freaky hat trimmed with parakeets signals that Odette and Oriane are “beyond nature”? But do you really think they are “beyond gender”? Are those velvet apples their “forbidden fruit”? I think that understanding the fin-de-siècle “construction of Woman” through the lens of Octave Uzanne, the fashion writer brings us closer to the light. (He is certainly more fun to read!) He wrote in his magazine L’Art et l’ideé “A great cocotte is like a flower … who emits her discrete perfumes in the mystery of her intimacies.”
The exhibit led me to think about Odette’s taste in clothes. There is an affinity of her taste (in clothes) with Grandmother’s artistic taste. Their point of intersection is reverence for the past. Ultimately, I’m trying to understand M’s budding taste in art/literature and even to articulate what that taste is. It seems to begin (but not end) with a kind of classical view, le grand style, informed by these early exposures: Grandmother in furniture and gifts, Odette in clothes, Bergotte on Berma – her classical performance style. These all gesture to the classical and to the reach beyond the moment, specifically into the past. As M matures, his taste evolves, but this reverence for the enduring past, is his early foundation that he never abandons.
Odette’s taste in clothes and the past.
I learned from this exhibit what “elegant dishabille” meant. The sweep of fashion elaborated the dressing gowns formerly meant for the boudoir and brought them now out into the receiving rooms. ( ie, So you would now serve tea in your nightgown.)
“… I used often to find Mme Swann in an elegant dishabille the skirt of which, of one of those rich dark colours, blood-red or orange, which seemed to have a special meaning because they were no longer in fashion…”… the dog-toothed edging of her blouse suggested a glimpse of the lapel of some on-existent waistcoat such as she had been accustomed to wear some years earlier, pigeon’s-breast taffetas which were the latest novelty was knotted in such a way under her chin, without one’s being able to make out where it was fastened, that one was irresistibly reminded of those bonnet-strings which were now no longer worn. …As in a fine literary style which superimposes different forms but is strengthened by a tradition that lies concealed behind them, so in Mme Swann’s attire those half-tinted memories of waist-coats or of ringlets,…. …One felt that she did not dress simply for the comfort or the adornment of her body; she was surrounded by her garments as by the delicate and spiritualised machinery of a whole civilisation…” [Vol I BG 666].
Grandmother’s taste and the past.
Her conviction that conversation, gifts and decor must have educational and artistic value results sometimes in pure (lovable) comedy. Chairs that break are ok to give providing they sound the past and thereby enlighten the recipients. (Enlightening and enhancing artistic sensibilities in the family is her moral duty.)
“We could no longer keep count in the family (when my great-aunt wanted to draw up an indictment of my grandmother) of all the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old which on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipients. But my grandmother would have thought it sordid to concern herself too closely with the solidity of any piece of furniture in which could still be discerned a flourish, a smile, a brave conceit of the past.” [SW 44]
Bergotte on Berma evoking the past.
Bergotte claims that Berma, with a mere gesture of her arm, evokes the grand statues of the Acropolis. Young M listens attentively, soaking up taste like a sponge.
“Do you mean the Caryatids?” asked Swann. “No, no,” said Bergotte, “except in the scene where she confesses her passion to Oenone, where she moves her hand exactly like Hegeso on the stele in the Ceramicus, it’s a far more primitive art that she evokes. I was referring to the Korai of the old Erechtheum, … There is a great deal more antiquity in it than in most of the books they’re labelling ‘antique’ this year.” Since Bergotte had in one of his books addressed a famous invocation to these archaic statues, the words that he was now uttering were quite intelligible to me, and gave me a fresh reason for taking an interest in Berma’s acting. I tried to picture her again in my mind, as she had looked in that scene in which I remembered that she had raised her arm to the level of her shoulder. And I said to myself.- “There we have the Hesperid of Olympia; there we have the sister of those adorable suppliants on the Acropolis; there indeed is nobility in art!” [BG 603-604]