Exhibition Review: Tenue Correcte Exigée
Musée les Arts Décoratifs (Paris), 1 December 2016-23 April 2017
Fashion continues to have a reputation for being dictated by the elitist direction of high fashion editors, exorbitant price points, and its often unforgiving silhouettes. Its image in popular culture is only recently changing from rigid norms of beauty to one of more fluid dialogues of individuality, even if we still find ourselves abiding by certain unspoken sartorial rules. In earlier centuries, of course, the severity of these maxims was much more palpable; however, even today, many of our fashion choices are driven by a diffuse set of rules—ones driven mainly by concerns of figure flattery—even if dress codes per se have fallen by the wayside. Tenue Correcte Exigée (Correct Dress Required) at the Musée les Arts Décoratifs in Paris brings together past and present with a collection of garments, objects, works of art, and documents from fourteenth century Europe & America to the present day that, together, create a discourse on the infractions made against norms in dress, moral codes, and widely accepted values of their respective times. To establish a structure, the exhibition addresses this through three sub-themes: “Rules & Advice,” “Girl or Boy?!” and “Enough is Enough!” Each of these three universal themes is used to both establish these codes and to address infractions.
The doors to the exhibition open onto a large oil painting of Adam and Eve, while an insidious red light beams from the corner of the room toward a door that leads into the next gallery. Through this somewhat intimidating mis en scene, the notion of original sin becomes the basis of the discussion being presented. The only way to proceed from there is through a red hallway lined with mirrors that confront visitors with a fragmented reflection of themselves. Overhead, voices can be heard whispering insults and judgements: “T’es mal fagoté” (You’re badly dressed) “Quel look!” (What a look!) “T’as oublié ta jupe?!” (Did you forget your skirt?!).
This hallway of sartorial shame leads into a room in which you are introduced to the first part of the narrative, “Régles Et Conseils” (Rules & Advice), which focuses on the intersections between early etiquette manuals and contemporary fashion advice. With a case of demurely lit sixteenth century manuals on display it becomes easy to hold the advice of previous centuries in a position of restricted and elitist elegance; however, even a cursory review of the content on display reveals that the advice of the sixteenth century is not so dissimilar in tone to that proffered by fashion and lifestyle magazines today. While one may struggle to steal words off the pages that are propped up behind a barrier of glass, a facing wall offers at least a dozen quotations in both English and French with a cleverly placed citation that invites the visitors to open the panels and play a little guessing game. The element of play is thoughtfully sprinkled through the experience and complements the static display of the artifacts. Indeed, to intertwine a history into a contemporary narrative is not easily done, but the content chosen for display shows strong curatorial intuition, which is apparent in the curators’ inclusion of a small projected screen at which visitors can pause on their way out of this first gallery to watch contemporary “manners guides”: from VHS office environment video guides to very recent YouTube channels that talk about how to dress for certain occasions or body types. The parallels are comically obvious, from the centuries-old manuscripts that discuss how to dress when being courted for marriage, to a French socialite talking about how to dress when meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time.
Within the next area, the curators shift their focus from discourses to historical garments in an exploration of the rigid rules that defined nineteenth century dress codes. A progressions of late-nineteenth century gowns by the likes of Charles Frederick Worth, for instance, evidences the “day-to-night” attire of wealthy 19th century women and illustrates the prevalence of sartorial transition even in private home life. The sheer preponderance of gowns reminds the visitor that being properly attired was something of a full-time job. While it is natural that the pieces are not as charismatic or seductively scandalous as the rest of the exhibition—which is both more contemporary and more nuanced in its dialogue—the execution of the display, unfortunately, only helps to underwhelm with unfortunate romantic lighting, standard headless mannequins, and seemingly random textiles draped over the background that are unlabeled. Most of the exhibition is carried out to the same effect, but the addition of documents, artwork, and videos helps to create variation in the latter two themes. This seemingly mundane display does, however, succeed in setting a pretense for the exhibition: rules are boring, but fashion does not have to be.
The curators take a number of liberties with time—eschewing a linear history in spite of the limitations set in place by the layout of Les Art Decoratif’s galleries—and this becomes more obvious as you move through the exhibition. Indeed, as the visitor comes to the end of the first section dedicated to Rules and Advice, she might miss a little enclave that leads to a very recent section oddly pairing sneakers, men’s smoking jackets, and political dress. Each of these small vitrines utilize a different presentation. The tennis shoes which date from the 1930’s to the most recent Chanel couture sneakers from 2015 are lined up on the wall behind a glass case allowing the visitor to peruse as if they were shopping. The political dress case, however, shows something more human: two outfits stand side by side on mannequins, one a modest cotton dress with a full skirt and collar in a floral green on white print, and the other, a black Thierry Mugler suit with a mandarin collar. Both of these outfits are seemingly unrelated until you read the text along the side the small video footage: these garments were worn by French politicians at senate and were received with undesired reactions. The Mugler suit was booed due to its reference of the “Mao collar.” The dress, which invited a cat call from at least one parliament member, was viewed to be too feminine or sexual for politics. These narratives, although grouped at random, offer an interesting take on the attachment people might have to sartorial codes. Despite our desire to move forward, one still wants a politician to dress like a politician, a man like a man.
Moving onto the second part of the narrative titled “Fille ou Garçon?” (Girl or Boy?) a tension in the structure of the exhibition becomes more apparent. While dress practices have often been separate for men and women, the blurring of gender binaries is not unique to the present moment. Although a lot of this section deals with androgyny, it also illustrates shifts in how we define gender through dress: accessories that were exclusively male such as the hat become a unisex garment, while makeup does the opposite going from something acceptable and elite for men to something too feminine. However, these larger vitrines dealing with big themes are less effective and engaging in their exploration in comparison to the singular approach demonstrated, for instance, in a display dedicated to the Duchess Troubalante (the “Disturbed Duchess”). This vitrine, sitting next to one dedicated to Joan of Arc, presents the Duchess Frances Stuart of Richmond with a single painted portrait and an outfit. This 17th century figure who cross dressed as a man despite the obvious outrage of the court is both successful in interrogating the issue of gender, as well as the unspoken counter to the neighboring vitrine of Joan of Arc.
Focusing on the hot topic of gender fluidity, in retrospect, “Fille ou Garçon?” featured one of the more exciting parts of the exhibition as a whole. Focusing on men’s relationship with makeup from the early 15th century royal court in which a powdered face and rouged cheeks was a sign of esteem and prestige to today, it quickly becomes evident that this theme could elicit an entire show. The presentation, however, is easily graspable. Through a juxtaposition of historical portraits with contemporary advertisements for men’s beauty products that can, ironically, render a man hyper masculine, the matter of gender performativity is placed on a historical continuum.
Beyond a dark screening room projecting short clips from French films to Hollywood blockbusters such as The Devil Wears Prada—all of which address how the excesses of fashion have been a longtime subject of caricature by the media—visitors take the stairs leading up to “Trop C’est Trop!” (Enough is Enough!), which documents the extreme moments of fashion history. The dialogue between history and the contemporary in this space is amusing and concise, making it probably the easiest to absorb visually because of the literal characterization involved in the design. Interesting histories are uncovered within this realm, one of which being the origin of high heels as a male accessory. Likewise, the excesses of a display called “Trop Court” (Too Short) for example plays with this scandalous visual and becomes the center of giggles and discussion. For instance, a series of Bonaveri Schläppi mannequins wearing a variety of skirts with hemlines starting from above the knee to right above the “privates” are on display here, with the glossy crotches of the more scantily-clad figures peeking through just enough to elicit a quiet smirk from visitors.
In another striking juxtaposition of parodic extremes, the hood makes an appearance in a vitrine that showcases thirteenth century variations of the garment as well an AW16 Yeezus hoodie—both of which are placed on mannequins facing away from one another in either direction. A feeling of uneasiness would overcome anyone familiar with the politics of the hoodie today, and a small label appropriately addresses the fact that this seemingly innocuous garment has been banned in places throughout the United States. An old manuscript sits open at the bottom of the vitrine seemingly unrelated until one learns that this manuscript holds one of the first bans on hoods: a 14th century edict made by Charles IV who banned the wearing of “false faces.” Missing from the display, however, is a reference to the relevance of this politicization of this garment. However, in a separate area a visitor might come across a small screen with headphones propped up on the wall and notice the footage of White House Representative Bobby Rush wearing a hoodie on the House Floor as a tribute to Trayvon Martin.
As a rich partner to the exhibition, the museum also released a large printed catalogue with a wealth of information, resources, and references that broaden the dialogue about the issues touched upon—a collection which includes thirty-three essays by writers such as Michel Pastoureau, Hugo Lucchino, Denis Bruna, Pauline Randonneix, and more. The catalogue is however exclusively in French and not available online for now, but considering the amount of information and visual cataloguing of historical pieces within the exhibition it would prove immensely useful for scholars across disciplines and for fashion readers alike.
As limited as the space seemed to have been in giving visitors easy guidance through the space, the curators nevertheless managed to incorporate an enclave for engaging play. Throughout the exhibition, visitors were given key information about dress codes, and on the second floor, this knowledge is put to the test at two interactive stations. A simple large screen posing a game of true or false lets the visitors feel like they carried something with them from this experience. Even as one is walked to the exit by a number of runway looks, they might be left once again confused as to whether the dialogue that was had was about the celebration of rule breaking as something acceptable or the tension of those who must abide these sanctions. By the exit, a series of flashing quotations on fashion and style walks them out: the implication is that are not rules, simply advice—a distinction that, as the exhibition demonstrated, is blurry at best.