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The Countess of Greffulhe: Between Muse and Master of Her Self-image

The Countess of Greffulhe: Between Muse and Master of Her Self-image

Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe, The Museum at FIT (New York) September 23, 2016‑January 7, 2017

 Proust’s Muse Symposium. 16th Academic Symposium. Katie Murphy Amphitheatre, The Fashion Institute of Technology (New York), October 20, 2016 

Marcel Proust, author of arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, saw clothing not just as material adorning the skin, but as an extension of one’s personality. In his novels, Proust reveals how fashion plays a pivotal role in identity construction and how it is coded with layers of meaning. The current exhibit at The Museum at FIT, Proust’s Muse: The Countess Greffulhe, explores Proust’s writing on fashion through material evidenced in the wardrobe of a woman who greatly influenced him; Marie Anatole Louise Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe. Through the artful display of elaborate garments from Lanvin and Worth (among others), as well as accessories, and photographs, the exhibit positions Gerffulhe as both muse and as an artist of her own mythologized beauty.

The exhibit and coinciding symposium are based on an exhibit organized by Olivier Saillard at Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. While the Paris show seemed to focus more on the Countess as a Parisian society figure and philanthropist, the exhibit modified for a US audience by Saillard and Dr. Valerie Steele, uses Proust to introduce Gerffulhe as fashion icon and to a contemporary audience. Steele presents Greffulhe, whom Proust based the character Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes in the novel In Search of Lost Time, within the context of aristocrat as a work of art and more broadly explores fashion as artistic expression.

In the exhibition pamphlet, Steele explains how “fashion is really central to his novels” and “for anyone who loves fashion, Proust is the ultimate writer.” Of the Countess’ dresses, Proust famously wrote how each “seemed like...the projection of a particular aspect of her soul.” According to Steele, like her fictional counterpart, the Countess “represented for Proust the aristocrat as a work of art.” Although he describes Duchesse de Guermantes’ style as having the touch of an artist, Proust simultaneously traps her in the image of an immortal figure in his novel. In the exhibition, the Countess’ image is similarly constrained to that of the muse as her own, more complex practices of self-fashioning are sidelined. The Countess, however, was much more than a pretty face.

At the entrance of the exhibition twelve photographs are displayed with a quote by Count Robert de Montesquiou, Greffulhe’s uncle, “A photograph is a mirror that remembers.” In contrast to the title of the exhibit, some of the photographs showcased Greffulhe as an influential historical figure. For example, a caption under a photo of Marie Curie informs viewers that “the Countess Greffulhe successfully solicited supporters such as Andrew Carnegie and other philanthropists for the International Scientific Institute, so Marie Curie could continue researching radioactivity.” Other photo captions show the Countess as a pioneering fundraiser, even providing support for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Next to these contextual pieces that assert Greffulhe as a prominent figure with great impact in the arts and scientific research, are photographs of her looking in a mirror or draped in an oversized cape. Beneath an 1896 photograph of Greffulhe in the beautiful House of Worth Lily Dress (also on display), the caption reads, “[P]osing in front of a full-length mirror, a symbol of female vanity.” This juxtaposition exemplifies the curatorial challenges in representing a complex figure such as Greffulhe while using the context of muse—she was at once a person with influence and an object of desire, a fictionalized character. 

This juxtaposition exemplifies the curatorial challenges in representing a complex figure such as Greffulhe while using the context of muse—she was at once a person with influence and an object of desire, a fictionalized character.

The metaphor of the mirror is carried out in how the first three garments are displayed, referencing Greffulhe’s innovative poses in her photographs and Montesquiou’s quote at the beginning of the exhibition. The first costume with a dark silk tulle bodice cleverly hovers in front of a mirror, allowing the viewer to see every angle of the design’s structure. This unique placement of the mirror echoes Greffulhe’s Lily Dress photograph, in which she glances in the mirror so that the viewer could admire the entire architecture of the dress, as well as her body. The use of mirrors as a curatorial device can be seen as a reference to Greffulhe’s creative construction of her own image; yet the textual clues given at the beginning of the exhibit indicate a link to vanity and self-objectification.  

In the second and third displays, the Countess’ gowns lie lifeless, on the floor, with mirrors hanging overhead. The scene of the disembodied dresses imprinted in the mirrors above evoke Steele’s description of a mirror capturing “a beautiful effigy to be remembered.” As if these mirrors were attempting to immortalize the legendary beauty of Greffulhe by entrapping the images of her dresses within their frames. Proust’s Muse arranges Greffulhe’s garments chronologically, beginning with what she wore in her early years and concluding with ensembles worn in her later years. A caption underneath a 1936 Lanvin coat with surrealist effects reads, “Even in her old age, the Countess continued to adopt advanced fashions.” Ensembles that the Countess wore later in her life were described as bold and designed to attract the power of the gaze even in her waning years. While the exhibition does show how she used dress as a means of authority, it does not position Greffulhe’s act of looking in the mirror as a form of artistic agency; however, some of the connections lacking in the exhibit were explored during the symposium.

The Museum at FIT complements its exhibitions with a corresponding symposium that seeks to contextualize the exhibit historically—tying up any loose ends that the exhibition was unable to address—and to consider its broader implications within society and culture. The symposium accompanying Proust’s Muse addressed issues of power, gender, and representation surrounding the naming of Greffulhe as Proust’s Muse. In particular, while the problem of too narrowly connecting the Countess with Proust’s fictional character or worshipping her, as Proust did, as Minerva was not addressed in the actual exhibit, was taken up by presenters. More generally speaking, the symposium problematized the close association of Greffulhe with Proust’s goddess-like, fictional characters, explored how her self-fashioned image can be read as a sartorial narrative, and clearly gave Proust’s muse the title of an artist.  

In her presentation, “Dressing in Code: Mme. Greffulhe and the Costume Balls of Fin de Siècle Paris”, Caroline Weber took an in-depth look at Steele’s choice to call Greffulhe a “co-creator of her dresses.” With the luxuries of time and context not afforded by the exhibition format, Weber was able to offer biographical information on the Countess that Steele and Sailliard could not. At the beginning of her lecture, Weber connected the onset of Greffulhe’s creative work with an unhappy marriage and unfaithful husband. Writing several unpublished novels, she gave herself the alter ego of a provincial girl, who was a sensitive musician brutalized in the marriage bed by her husband. According to Weber, the Countess not only constructed a persona for herself through these novels, but also in fancy dress costume balls. Greffulhe appeared at her first fancy dress ball as the sister of Marie Antoinette, who had never gotten married and had gone to the scaffold with dignity and self-possession. Weber recalled how Greffulhe continually referenced this dignified virginal figure through her allegorical costumes. Through imaginative techniques of self-fashioning, the Countess elicited “an aura of chastity” during her public presentations. In contrast to Weber’s discussion at the symposium, Proust’s Muse did not show how Greffulhe cultivated a chaste persona through a sartorial narrative nor did it depict her agency in self-styling this image. Instead of emphasizing how Greffulhe constructed her own characters through the dresses she wore, the exhibit focused only on the Proust characters she inspired.

Heidi Brevik-Zender’s presentation “A Fashion Inspiration: The Countess of Castiglione” continued with the theme of self-constructed identities and compared Greffulhe to Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione. Brevik-Zender’s lecture conveyed how both women used dress as tool of identity construction, ultimately self-fashioning images of their own. Like Greffulhe, Castiglione engaged in, what Brevik-Zender’s called a, “self-fashioning narration” by creating a “narrative persona” through photography.  In contrast to Brevik-Zender’s views on self-fashioning and agency, Proust’s Muse portrays Greffulhe’s use of photography as a form of self-objectification and narcissism. Both women can be seen as attempting to gain authority as independent women by challenging traditional notions of femininity and embracing radical fashions. Brevik-Zender remarked that both Castiglione and Greffulhe had “subtle provocative slips” in their fashioning techniques, such as an exceedingly low cut dress or an audaciously bright hue. When describing Castiglione and Greffulhe’s bold move to reject conventional fashion in favor of their own styles Brevik-Zender remarked that both women became known for an “oddness, eccentric, and strange galore.”

Though Proust’s Muse attempts to present the image of Greffulhe as an important historical figure in the arts and sciences and as “co-creator” of her dresses, it simultaneously traps her in a mirror of mythologized beauty. Similar to Proust, the exhibit recognizes Greffulhe’s poetic use of dress and artistic manner of fashioning herself, while simultaneously limiting her to a vain, ethereal creature. Near the close of the exhibit, a Rick Owens design is on display as an example of how Greffulhe’s influence in fashion is still relevant. Yet, the caption quotes Owens saying, “I have long been a fan of Robert Montesquiou, but it wasn’t until I saw this show that I was aware of his relationship with the Countess Greffulhe.” This quote reveals how Greffulhe has been pushed aside to the fringes of fashion history. Though Proust’s Muse did help bring awareness to Greffulhe, it lacked a curatorial strategy to address the complexity of the subject, issues surrounding her mythologization, lack of historical recognition, and the need for her to gain autonomy as an artist in her own right. 


Thumbnail Copyright: Photograph by Otto, the Countess Greffulhe in a ball gown, circa 1887.  © Otto/Galliera/Roger-Viollet.

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