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A Considerable Collection

Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915
LACMA Resnick Pavilion, October 2, 2010–March 6, 2011 –

Photography by Nancy Baron

Fashioning Fashion, one of the inaugural exhibitions of the Renzo Piano designed Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion, is a trove of European clothing that speaks to both the evolution of style and the historical narrative of technical innovation covering a span of more than two hundred years. The show is the culmination of the gift from donors Michael and Ellen Michelson and Suzanne Saperstein, that when integrated with the objects and holdings of the LACMA’s Costume and Textile departments, now make Los Angeles a destination of consequence for European costume studies. Stewards Sharon S. Takeda, department head and senior curator along with co-curator Kay Spilker have culled nearly two hundred rare highlights from the immense thousand-piece collection amassed over  50 years of acquisitions by dealers Martin Kamer of London, England  and Wolfgang Ruf of Beckenried, Switzerland. In a statement Takeda observes, “The addition of this extraordinary collection is a coup simply for the breadth and depth. But even more significantly for its overall quality and number of extremely rare pieces-shown widely in this exhibition.”

As one navigates the the show, organized by the thematic sections Timeline, Textile, Tailoring and Trim there is a palpable sense of drama fueled by the socio-polical narrative of a European society being transformed by wars, revolution, industrialization and the emergence of a burgeoning middle class. For two centuries, from the Age of Enlightenment to the onset of World War I, we can track the shift in taste from aristocratic court-inspired opulence to a fashion that reflected style possibilities more closely aligned with the expanded trade routes, manufacturing processes and technological advances of the day. Research scholar Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell affirms in her catalog essay, “Indeed, the more we delve into the history of fashion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the more familiar it looks. This period witnessed the birth of the fashion industry as we know it today—that is, seasonal, international and corporate.”

There is a tangible seduction about the collection and a strong operatic quality of intrigue and beguilement as one traverses through the years engaging with these extraordinary sewn artworks. Designed by renowned opera stage designers Pier Luigi Pizzi and Massimo Pizzi Gasparon, each dress, suit, cap and vest seems to not only to manifest its own place in history, but also bears evidence to individual character, principle players on history’s stage. John Galliano, head designer for Christian Dior, is no stranger to dramatic affect in his designs nor his personage. LACMA had definitely chosen the right man to preview the collection and write the Preface to the remarkable catalog, designed by Pentagram’s Abbott Miller, that accompanies the show. Gallinano’s pick to illustrate the concept of how a piece of clothing can transform character is the Revolutionary Vest, French 1789-94. Made of linen canvas with silk needle point, this precursor to the protest tee, is rife with revolutionary symbolism. “You can spend hours studying this vest. It gives many clues about the turbulent time, weaving style with politics, rebellion, and the ‘tricolore’. Here fashion speaks its owners mind through intricate needlework and beauty rather than through the violence of the day.” The embroidered caterpillar collar represents how the aristocracy once dressed “en chenille” or casual in appearance by day, and then morph into the showy butterfly by night. Again as Galliano aptly points out, “The vest is both a political and a fashion statement that captures the mood at the beginning of a new era. It also shows how style reacted, like a fickle mirror, and instantly rejected the gaudy finery so beloved before.”


Both men and women are given equal opportunity to shine in the details of the embroidery, the exactitude of the tailoring, the exoticism of the fabrics and the inventiveness of the reshaped silhouette. The embellishment of the body begins early and these two boy’s frocks are striking examples of both the growing global trade economies and the technological advances of times. The two following descriptions are extracts from the catalog.

Left: This English boy’s frock is made of soft, lightweight cashmere twill woven in Kashmir. Prior to being cut and sewn, professional Indian embroiderers utilizing silk embroidery thread, probably imported from China, embellished the fabric with traditional stylized floral motifs that featured curved tips (buta) often seen on Kashmir shawls.

Right: The boy’s frock incorporates a white-work technique, broderie anglaise, in which small eyelets are outlined with sturdy embroidery stitches and cut out of the ground fabric. Although the result resembled lace, it could withstand frequent washing and was therefore practical for children’s clothing. Technically very simple, this imitation lace was lower in cost that real lace, and it became increasingly available as the nineteenth century progressed. Ironically, this “democratic” decoration owed its affordability to the meager wages given to the female and child laborers who often produced it.

please click to enlarge for garment details



If ever there was a dress that Violetta Valery, the famed and fated courtesan of La Traviata, would favor it is this moiré finished silk gown. The temptation of this sensuous material alone would keep Verdi’s heroine of ill repute ripe with clientele. The Japanese inspired butterfly-and-flower motif was produced using a mechanical process of roller-printing warps (shadow printing) meant to simulate the chiné à la branche, whose characteristic hazy, impressionist patterns might give our Lady of the Camellias the aura of walking on water.


The allure of Fashioning Fashion is far reaching from the lavish court gowns, adorned with silk passementerie, to men’s silk cut and voided velvet suits, laden with embroidery. Casting an eye back from the 21st century where clothing has been stripped of most extravagant ornament in favor of more serviceable purposes, it is hard to imagine the kind of functionality all the finery afforded and what real freedoms were accorded in wearing so much, but being given the opportunity to explore these sensibilities in close proximity and collected under one roof is the real luxury of modern times.

Photography © Nancy Baron


  1. Great article and absolutely lovely photographs depicting the beauty and soul of their style.

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