Dressed to Impress : French Fashion at the Chester Beatty Library


I have been once more touring the cultural hotspots in Dublin; putting myself through the hard grind of visiting exhibitions so that I can pass the results on to Irish News Review readers. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it; that’s what I tell myself anyway. However, as soon as I read Chester Beatty Library’s autumn programme, I have been looking forward to seeing the French fashion prints. I could try to claim that I have been visiting the Costumes Parisiens exhibition in an entirely selfless spirit, but I confess that just wouldn’t be true.

The bulk of the Costumes Parisiens display consists of over 100 fashion plates (I did try to keep a tally, but kept losing count) from the French fashion magazine, Journal des Dames et des Modes (1912 – 1914). Italian writer Tom Antongini (1877-1967) set up the journal in June 1912 and went on to publish three issues a month until the outbreak of the First World War. Antongini invited well-known artists and designers of the day, such as Léon Bakst and George Barbier to illustrate the periodical and so the Journal des Dames became much prized for its high quality illustrations. The fashion plates were made using a process requiring a great deal of skill, which involved the use of stencils (pochoir) to create the coloured parts of the scene.  Many years later, the colours and lines of the illustrations of fashionably clothed women are still exquisite.  

The curators have complemented the colour prints with a short film of archive footage and some gorgeous original outfits. The Ulster Museum loaned the costumes but the prints are part of the Chester Beatty Library’s own extensive collections of artworks. I was surprised to discover that Chester Beatty had been a collector of fashion journals and plates, but credit for that goes to his second wife Edith Dunn’s influence. She was a dedicated follower of fashion; New York society hailed her as one of the ten most beautiful women in America.

The fashion magazine not only contained gorgeous prints, but also poetry, reviews, society columns and fashion articles. In September 1912 Lucie Delarue-Mardrus wrote,

‘… If it were simply a matter of clothing oneself, fashion would certainly not exist. But it is above all a matter of attiring oneself, and whoever says attire says ornament, and whoever says ornament says art… So, ladies, be stylish. It is a great civic duty. Though Notre-Dame is a cathedral, it is nonetheless une dame. May your exterior be also the cathedral of your soul …’.


So there it is, being stylish is a woman’s civic duty; a writer in a French fashion magazine said that, so it must be true mustn’t it?

The exhibition runs until March 2014 so you have plenty of time to go along and gaze at the images dating from a bygone, more elegant and stylish age. Standing looking wistfully at the beautiful pictures of beautiful clothes, it’s easy to forget that the women who could afford to buy the fashionable clothes probably also had maids to wash them. Perhaps there’s something to be said for progress after all…

For further information: www.cbl.ie

Image courtesy of martellomedia.com

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