Monday, September 26, 2016

Proust's Muse, THE COUNTESS GREFFULHE: Review By Polly Guerin

Elisabeth de Caraman-Chmay, the Countess Greffulhe
With Celebrity recognition The Museum at FIT's exhibition, introduces Proust's Muse, Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952). A famous beauty, she was known for her "aristocratic and artistic elegance, a fashion icon comparable to Daphne Guinness today. 
    The exhibit showcases some 40 garments and accessories once owned by the celebrated beauty, fashion icon, and patron of both arts and sciences.The Countess Greffulhe patronized the greatest couturiers of her day, Worth, the founder of the French Haute Couture, principal among them, known for the use of exquisite, and lush textiles.
    "The Countess Greffulhe believed in the artistic significance of fashion, " says Dr. Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT. "And although she patronized the greatest couturiers of her time, her style was very much her own. Today, when fashion is increasingly regarded as an art form, her attitude is especially relevant."
House of Worth Lily Dress, Photo by Paul Nadar

THE PROUST CONNECTION When Proust wrote his novel In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu), the Countess Greffulhe inspired his immortal character Oriane, The Dutchesse de Guermantes, of whom he wrote, "Each o f her dresses seemed like the projection of a particular aspect of her soul." The Countess Greffulhe, like her counterpart, the Duchesse de Guermantes, represented for Proust, the aristocrat as a work of art. "But elements of her style," noted Valerie Steele, "also influenced characters as diverse as the courtesan Odette de Crecy (later Madame Swann) and the Narrator's bourgeois lover, Albertine." Image right: "Lily Dress," 1896, attributed to Worth, black velvet application of ivory silk in the form of lilies, embroidered with pearls and sequins. But the Countess clearly contributed to  ideas about its design and decoration. 
The motif of the lilies refers to a poem in her honor by the dandy-poet Robert de Montesquiou, who served as the main inspiration for another of Proust's characters, the Baron de Charlus. In her correspondence with Montesquiou, Elisabeth Greffulhe confessed, "I don't think there is any pleasure in the world comparable to that of a woman who feels she is being looked at by everybody, and has joy and energy transmitted to her."  
                                                                                       THE COUNTESS'S AUDACIOUS STYLE
Robe de Ceremonie, Byzantine Empress Gown  
Another highlight of the exhibition is an exotic emerald green and blue "robe d'interieur"(1897) which epitomizes the countess's audacious style. She loved to wear green, which complemented her auburn hair.
    Image Left: One of the countess's most famous gowns was a sensational gold lame Byzantine empress gown, pearl-encrusted, fur-trimmed robe de ceremonie, that she wore to her daughter Elaine's wedding in 1904. It said that people in the crowd exclaimed, "My God, is that the mother of the Bride>" Although labeled Worth, it was probably created for the countess by the young Paul Poiret. 
SPONSOR OF THE BALLETS RUSSES. A pioneering fund-raiser, the countess was a major supporter of the Ballets Russes, and in the years prior to the First World War her fashions also gravitated toward avant-garde Orientalist styles. When Proust describes the exotic Fortuny gowns of his fictional Dutchesse de Guermantes, evoking "that Venice loaded with the gorgeous East," he was clearly inspired by the Countess Greffulhe.  Crafting her image like a work of art, she cultivated an elegant signature style that highlighted her svelte, wasp-waisted figure. Besides Charles Worth, Jeanne Lanvin, and Nina Ricci are among couturiers represented. There is also an ensemble inspired by the Countess Greffulhe created by contemporary fashion designer Rick Owens. In addition to the 28 garments on display are dozens of accessories, a selection of photographs. Through Jan. 7, 2017, at The Museum at FIT, (FREE Admission) 27th street and Seventh Avenue. For information about the Proust Muse Fashion Symposium on Thursday, September 20th contact the museum.
   Ta Ta Darlings!! The exhibit is too, too marvelous, I am green with envy, but alas I do not have a wasp-waist. Polly welcomes fan mail at  Visit Polly's other Blogs at and click on the links in the left-hand column.