BACK SIDE OF FASHION
The world of fashion has always been obsessed with cyclical repetition and continuous recycling of something déjà-vu. Paradoxically, at the same time, there's a Don Quijote-like search for something new, original and fascinating. We witness an intoxication with a pervasive, superficial aspect of fashion. Today's society, trivial and obsessed with face and body, finally has the opportunity to observe and experience the other side of fashion - its back, that often tells more about the history of fashion and our society than what we can see on runways, or read in fashion books and magazines.
The Bourdelle Museum in Paris exhibited an original, unexplored and quite unexpected exhibition that examines the connection between the human body and clothing from a psychological and sociological point of view. The exhibition is called Back Side / Dos à la mode. It questions the perception of our back and the back of everything that surrounds us. From sensual, reversed decolletages, to silhouettes that question the construction and deconstruction of fashion, this thematic exhibition consists out of one hundred designs dating from the 18th century to today. They are a part of the invaluable collection of the Palais Galliera, which is currently closed for reconstruction. The exhibition is further enriched by a selection of movie clips and photographs made by an extraordinary French photographer Jean-Loup Sieff. Four centuries of fashion, summarized in the naked, closed, embroidered, deformed, harmonious, weighted and provocative silhouettes, present us the human back as a mysterious territory - one that is almost invisible to us. The backside of fashion presents us human boundaries: visible and tangible. On the most straight part of our body, messages and patterns are completely legible. Within layers of sumptuous fabrics, embroidered threads, and delicate details, we clearly read a message from Alexander Samson, the historian of fashion and curator of this exhibition: Our society is obsessed with identity!
The exhibition begins in the plaster room of the most famous French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, after whom the museum is named. The two dresses exhibited in the room set up an initial dialogue between fashion and the sculptures of the twentieth-century master. This is an unprecedented look at Bourdelle's works - one that highlights the contrast of the powerful musculature of his figures and the lean profiles he sculpted. The exhibition shows us not only the backside of fashion but also the backside of Bourdelle's sculptures that almost always celebrate the strength of the human back. Such a unique exhibition concept is courageous, especially today when all we seem to appreciate is the superficial aspect of beauty.
Upon exiting the plaster room, the exhibition continues in the lavish lobby, followed by the central museum space, and Bourdelle's workshops. It is divided into thematic segments: Le Sillage, La Marque, Le dos nu, L'Entrave, Les Ailes, Le Charge and L'Oubli. Some of the exhibited pieces evoke memories of the golden age of fashion design, when Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld, and Cristobal Balenciaga dictated the fashion pace and set almost unattainable standards in the fashion industry. It is their design, exhibited in the central museum space, that attracts the most views: Thierry Mugler's gorgeous white crepe silk dress adorned with gold wings from the Fall Winter 1984 prêt-à-porter collection, the festive, embroidered Cristobal Balenciaga gown from the Spring Summer 1965 haute couture collection; and Karl Lagerfeld's silk fuchsia dress designed for Maison Chloé in the Spring of 1983. As a complete opposite to these elegant dresses stands the creation of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, which consists of a skirt and a dress made of densely woven linen. "The back is the focal point of my construction. It decides the emotion of a garment, like a clavicle bone in the human body. I sometimes observe the women in the streets and pay attention to their silhouettes and their backs as they walk. It inspires me“, says in a designer statement next to Yamamoto's spectacular ensemble.
In the lobby, the breath pauses on five carefully curated fashion pieces that blend perfectly with the serene space filled with natural sunlight. The central dress stands at the top of the marble steps, and it is the only one that cannot be observed from up close. It is designed by Martine Sitbon and makes a part of the Fall-Winter 1997 prêt-à-porter collection. The second ensemble, a colorful kaleidoscope, belongs to designer Walter Van Beirendonck. It is certainly a state-of-the-art piece and makes a part of the Fall-Winter 2019 prêt-à-porter collection. The third dress was designed by Claire Waight Keller for Givenchy and worn by actress Cate Blanchet on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival. The Row pastel gown is reminiscent of the Greek goddesses era. It is the fourth dress in the lobby and makes a part of the Spring Summer 2018 prêt-à-porter collection. The last, and certainly the most valuable dress in this space is the dress that Karl Lagerfeld designed for Chloé. The dress called "Brise" is decorated with Swarovski crystals and makes a part of the Spring Summer 1983 prêt-à-porter collection.
Contrary to what one might think, the back of fashion has not been overlooked in history. Samson claims that we can trace strong messages conveyed through the back of certain garments since the beginning of the 13th century. However, these messages could sometimes be found only between the lines. "The back of the clothing, especially women's dresses, spoke of the differences between the rich and the poor. For example, one Baroness was obliged to wear a three meter-long train on a dress so that it could clearly be identified to which social class she belonged. The Queen of France wore a train as long as thirteen meters. In royal Versaille, fashion was a reflection of social and political power. It was a reflection of hierarchical status, equally for men and women."
Furthermore, we also see the back of fashion as the subject of social debate, especially concerning the status and perception of women in modern-day society. Take for example uncomfortable corsets, almost always tied at the back, which are impossible to put on independently. There are proponents of the idea that such garments imposed assistance on women and were a form of degradation. In addition to the bourgeois-era corsets, this museum exhibition also features modern-day garments such as a dress designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, which closes with as many as 51 buttons – in the back, of course!
The back, especially the woman back, has also been perceived as an object of desire and sensuality, and garments that are closed from behind as weapons of mass seduction. The first association that comes to mind is the iconic Guy Laroche black dress worn by actress Mireille Darc in the movie The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe (1972). In the film, Darc disarms the shy Pierre Richard by revealing her back to the verge of decency. It is this dress that stands as one of the central figures of the exhibition, exhibited in a glass display case. In 2013, Darc recalled how the dress came about: "I visited Guy in his studio, and I told him that it was impossible for him to design a dress for me that would have a deep decolletage. I just don't have breasts for that. That's when we came up with the idea of a reversed decolletage, that revealed my back and much more. It looked dirty enough for this movie, so I said yes.“
Ultimately, the task of fashion is to describe, articulate and give metaphor to the human body. It is like a window through which we clearly see the human body balancing between the urge for modesty and the desire for expression through the physical aspect. This exhibition seeks to define the fashion practice of exposing the back in a way that has never been done before. This unique fusion of art and fashion reminds us that fashion is also art in a three-dimensional form. It is fascinating to experience the harmony of two such related artistic expressions in a space whose scenery is signed by the famous French architect Jean-Julien Simonot. Who could have imagined that contemporary designs of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons would so magically respond to the sculptures of Antoine Bourdelle? Or, that Azzedine Alaïa's evening gowns would awaken the hidden emotion when paired with imposing bustiers sculpted by this master? Perfect harmony has been achieved between the feminine and seductive, androgynous and extravagant fashion creations that convey the same message – backs are not solely made to carry burden.
(Story was originally published in Gloria magazine, October 2019.)