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Human peacocks: an exhibition in Paris dissolves chronology in its presentation of men's clothes from Louis XIV to the present day, with intellectually stimulating results.

At the entrance to this exhibition at the Musee de la Mode et du Textile, two magnificent stuffed peacocks in a display case unequivocally convey the essence of its conceit: 'L'Homme pare' ('Man attired') is not about man's attire but man in attire. The splendid clothes on display, spanning three centuries, from the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), and before, to recent and contemporary developments, constitute a material testimony of the changing ways in which man has become socialised by and through clothes. It is not necessary to make recourse to the tedium of structural analysis to uncover the multilayered meanings of material wealth, social position, political power, sexual allure and eroticism.

Emphasis is on visual splendour rather than historical or didactic criteria. The logic of the exhibition's structure, which groups together historic and contemporary clothes in superbly lit display cases, reveals a key objective, namely to uncover, or even create, links between past and present. It is interesting to compare 'L'Homme pare' with the Victoria and Albert Museum's recent exhibition 'Spectres: When Fashions Turns Back' (24 February-8 May 2005), organised in partnership with ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp. There, the centrality of time and space to fashion were explored in a very different way by the curator, Judith Clark.

She employed a variety of frameworks, such as the spatial metaphor of the labyrinth borrowed from Walter Benjamin, translated into physical terms through the use of peepholes, slowly rotating cogs, dioramas, theatrical device, transforming the exhibition into an intellectually demanding installation. Both the London and the Paris exhibitions are the result of a much-needed exploration of the ways in which fashion can be exhibited. Both move away from the hagiographic displays of celebrity fashion designers, in conventional museum format, towards exhibitions informed by intellectual rigour and serious scholarship.


Although no such philosophical aspirations are forthcoming in Paris, where sheer visual pleasure dominates, 'L'homme pare' equally asks serious questions and proposes new solutions, both in museographic and academic terms. The chosen method of display in both instances is thematic but whereas in London the tides of the constituent sections, such as 'Phantasmagoria: the amazing lost and found' revealed a preoccupation with theory, in Paris the choice of themes with titles such as 'Les plaisirs de l'ettofe' or 'Broder l'habit bordure' is self explanatory. The display here is object-driven and this is reflected not only in the splendour of the clothes but also in the sensuous beauty of the additional material and accessories on display, which enchant and seduce the eye.

Fashion continues to be labelled as frivolous because of its transitory nature, but this exhibition invites reflection about the true nature of transitoriness by confronting us with the spectacular talent of the legions of anonymous tailors, fitters, embroiderers, seamstresses and milliners who created so much splendour for their rich clients but whose names have not been preserved for posterity. In contrast, fashion designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier (Fig. 2) and John Galliano, are now hero-worshipped, and are regarded as creative artists rather than skilled artisans, yet fashion as a cultural phenomenon continues to be relegated to the periphery of intellectual debate. However, daring enterprises such as the exhibitions discussed here mean that this is about to change.


Among the exhibits is one of John Galliano's spectacular outfits from his autumn/winter collection of 2005: a blanket-size sheepskin coat with fake leopard trousers and heavy boots crowned by a headdress of such an exotic appearance that it is difficult to gauge whether it is of Eskimo or Andean inspiration (for the latter the interesting category 'La montee des nationalismes' has been specially created). We may ask what was this outfit created for, as it dearly is not meant to be worn. It exists to be displayed as an object of aesthetic contemplation; if not a thing of beauty, it certainly induces astonishment.

Two outfits encased together in the single display box dominating the first room encapsulate the essence of the exhibition, which aims at presenting and, indeed, creating trans-historical visual links. It contains a magnificent tournament armour manufactured in Innsbruck, dated 1510-15--the earliest item on display--in an almost violent confrontation with an outfit by Walter Van Beidrendonck belonging to his 1996 spring/summer collection entitled 'W&LT' (Wild and Lethal Trash)': a dummy sporting a huge red afro-style wig and attired in a translucent cuirass-like blouse and transparent tight trousers.

Ultimately the exhibition points to an expected conclusion, namely that history has come full circle, from the peacock-like splendour of the adornment worn at Versailles during the reign of le roi soleil to the twenty-first-century cult of the body beautiful, adorned with gold jewellery too, but with the ironic twist of 'bling'.

'L'homme pare', Musee de la Mode et du Textile, Paris, 20 October 2005-30 April 2006.

Sanda Miller is senior lecturer in fashion and culture at Southampton Solent University.
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Author:Miller, Sandra
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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