September 26, 2016

"Proust's Muse: The Countess Greffulhe"

We have become almost inured to fashion spectacles by the likes of Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian who seek to shock with more and more outrageous outfits on the red carpet or just on the town.  But their desire to create a sensation or gain notoriety through dress (or lack of it) is nothing new.  In fact, one could say that the trend began over a century ago, in Paris, with the original fashion queen, the Countess Greffulhe.

Born Marie-Joséphine Anatole Louise Élizabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay to an aristocratic French family in 1860, she married the very wealthy Viscount (later Count) Henri Greffulhe at the age of 18.  This advantageous union provided the Countess Greffulhe the fortune she desired to indulge her many passions, and indulge she did.  As well as a generous supporter of the arts and sciences - she was a patron of causes from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to Marie Curie's research into radioactivity - the Countess was also a major client of some of the greatest couturiers of the age.
"Lily Dress", attributed to Worth, 1896
Black velvet with ivory silk appliqued "lilies", sequins and pearls

A stunning beauty with a slim build, dark eyes and auburn hair, the Countess had a very clear idea of how she wished to present herself and dictated those fashion terms to her dress designers.  Even such masters as Worth and Paul Poiret were forced to alter their sartorial visions to accommodate her wishes.  According to the press at the time "Her fashions, whether invented for her or by her must resemble no one else's."   She preferred to look "bizarre" rather than "banal".

Photograph by Nadar of the Countess Greffulhe posing
in front of a mirror, wearing the "Lily Dress"

While this may have rubbed some gentry the wrong way, it had the opposite effect on the up and coming writer Marcel Proust.  Though not a personal acquaintance, he became infatuated with the Countess Greffulhe and modeled Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes in his magnum opus "A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)" after her.  Oriane, like the Countess, used fashion as a tool to project social standing, as a language to express her individuality and as a form of artistic expression.

Szekely de Doba "Portrait of Marcel Proust", 1926
Etching with drypoint

In collaboration with the Palais Galliera, the Fashion Museum of the City of Paris and the repository for the Countess' wardrobe, Dr. Valerie Steele and her team at New York's Museum at FIT are now presenting twenty eight magnificent examples of the Countess' gowns and wraps, plus an assortment of accessories including stockings, hats and shoes.  Dating from around 1885 to the late 1930s, the collection comprises fashions from day dresses to ball gowns, from the House of Worth to Jeanne Lanvin, each a masterpiece of couture in both style and workmanship.

"Tea Gown", House of Worth, circa 1897
Blue cut velvet on green satin ground

Two items in particular exemplified the Countess' identity as a very self aware fashion icon.  The first is an evening cape that originated as a gift from Tsar Nicolas II on a visit to Paris in 1896.  He presented the Countess with a heavily embellished court robe from Bukhara.  She promptly took it to Charles Worth and had it re-styled and transformed into an evening cape that is almost ecclesiastical in feeling.  The second is the gown she wore to her daughter's wedding.  Conservative in style with long sleeves, a train and a high neckline, the dress, nevertheless, is a show stopper.  Taffeta lamé with gold and silver embroidery, sequins, pearls and a fur trim, the "Byzantine Gown" was created in 1904 by a young Paul Poiret when he was still at the House of Worth.  The story goes that when the Countess arrived at the wedding, a good fifteen minutes before her daughter, the crowd exclaimed "My God, is that the mother of the bride" and the poor bride was completely forgotten!

The Countess Greffulhe lived a very long life and maintained her unique sense of style until the end.  And though Marcel Proust immortalized her in prose and worshiped her in private, she did not return the favor and refused his repeated requests for a photograph.  Fortunately for us, the legend lives on in this fascinating testament to a woman ahead of her time.

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