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Marie Antoinette to McQueen in French fashion exhibit

"Let them eat cake," Marie Antoinette is famously quoted as saying, but the 18th century fashionista, had she lived today, may well have said, "Let them wear Lacroix."
/ Source: Reuters

"Let them eat cake," Marie Antoinette is famously quoted as saying, but the 18th century fashionista, had she lived today, may well have said, "Let them wear Lacroix."

Frills, foppery and all the delicious excess of 18th century fashion -- juxtaposed with contemporary interpretations of France's Golden Age -- are on display at the Grand Trianon at Versailles in the exhibit "The 18th Century Back in Fashion."

As Paris Fashion Week begins, the dozens of ornate dresses on show, both antique and modern, stitched from endless yards of silk and adorned with sumptuous embroidery and lace, are the antithesis to the politics of austerity on the world's lips today.

Restraint, sobriety, discipline -- these are not the words that spring to mind when viewing the show, and it's part of its appeal, as global economic stagnation and a potential euro zone collapse are the order of the day.

Christian Lacroix's mustard brocade gown from 1994 is encrusted with patinated metal, its lavish skirt jutting out dramatically at the hip through use of "paniers," or side hoops.

Witness the pink confection designed by Vivienne Westwood for her 1995-96 season, a six-year-old girl's dream with a surfeit of bows, flounces and lace in the color of Pepto-Bismol.

In the hands of the provocative British designer, the saccharine-sweet gown, inspired by King Louis XV's mistress Madame de Pompadour, is a subversive commentary on femininity and the disheveled, brooding grunge look popular in the 1990s.

It's no surprise that all but a handful of the modern looks in the exhibition that runs through October 9 were designed before the 2008 global financial crisis made flamboyance a dirty word.

Yet France, too, was in an age of austerity in its pre-Revolution days, as co-curator Laurent Cotta notes. Near-bankruptcy from years of overspending did not stop the French court from putting its most fashionable foot forward.

"Austerity has never prevented the upper classes from living in the utmost luxury," said Cotta, who is head of contemporary design at Galliera Museum of fashion in Paris.

He warned against making too much of a link, however, between fashion, politics and economics in history, noting that many of the modern outfits in the show are "completely incredible creations."


Indeed, the over-the-top nature of many of them make the vintage garments look positively modest in comparison.

"Most of the time they (the modern gowns) were intended for the runway and not necessarily designed to be worn, but rather to provide the tone of a collection or fashion show," he said.

One 1992 Thierry Mugler dress is an avant-garde Gothic fantasy that looks like it fell off the back of Cher, the American singer known for her outlandish sense of style. Complete with side hoops, silver studs, black tulle and corseted sleeves, it's pure theater.

The House of Chanel interprets the 18th century with more restraint. Designer Karl Lagerfeld, a staunch fan of the era, offers a wedding gown in Chanel's trademark wool tweed and chain piping, but includes a crinoline petticoat and corseted bodice.

And Pierre Balmain's 1954 gown -- less than a decade after Christian Dior's New Look brought volume back to fashion after World War Two fabric shortages -- features a flowing satin skirt dripping with appliques of gold scrolls and red roses.

One of the modern standouts is by the late Alexander McQueen for Givenchy from 1999-2000. Just as Yves Saint Laurent reinvented the tuxedo for women, here McQueen takes on the men's court suit, with the result an opulent ladies' power suit in powder blue. Its elegant fitted jacket and high collar imparts structure while an abundance of lace and a cascade of dove grey taffeta ruffles at the neck is utter femininity.

But a surfeit of decadence can be a dangerous thing. Marie Antoinette lost her head, and Christian Lacroix lost his haute couture business amid debt woes a few years back.

Eyeing the exhibits, one cannot help but remember that many of those who wore similar finery on the eve of France's bloody Revolution were carted to the guillotine before thousands of angry poor, fed up with rising prices and the monarchy's prodigious spending.

But that knowledge, too, helps us appreciate the era and its splendor on display, said Cotta.

"What fascinates us are always those stories that end badly."