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Marie Antoinette to Madonna: On the garment trade and the misuse of its muses

FLOWER POWER House of Worth’s Lily evening dress, with an application of ivory silk in the form of lilies, was inspired by Countess Élisabeth Greffulhe, muse to Marcel Proust. The dress is now on display at FIT in New York.

Eric Emo/© Eric Emo / Galliera / Roger-Viollet

Over the course of fall fashion month, the runway muse for Spring/Summer 2017 has been described as Lady Diana (at Mulberry and Burberry), illustrator Jayde Fish (by Gucci) and Marie Antoinette (chez Fendi).

Fashion: You keep using the word muse, but I do not think you know what it really means. The true meaning of muse is not mere mood-board clippings and opportunistic name dropping. Muses can't be hired for a season, and long-dead historical figures and fictional characters need not apply. A true muse is a person who's on hand as an ongoing source of direct artistic inspiration and input.

Famous fashion muses include Audrey Hepburn, inspiration for Hubert de Givenchy (their relationship was chronicled in Cindy de la Hoz's recent in-depth study of the pair). And there's the leonine Mitzah Bricard, the influential stylist and hat designer who worked alongside her friend Christian Dior when he founded his house, and whose unique sense of (leopard print-heavy) style enduringly influenced Dior's taste.

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This year, several fall museum exhibitions put other important, lesser-known fashion muses in the spotlight. Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, for example, was Gustav Klimt's long-time confidante and muse. She was a frequent subject of his paintings, but in spite of being one of the most recognizable women in the world (aside from Mona Lisa and Angelina), she is not known by her name.

Equally anonymous, until recently anyway, is Adele Bloch-Bauer, a.k.a. the lady in gold who is the contested subject of the painting in last year's Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren. This famous gold-leaf portrait of Bloch-Bauer is displayed, for the first time in a decade, side by side with Klimt's later portrait of his patron and society doyenne in New York's Neue Gallery.

The exhibition, Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age 1900-1918 (on until Jan. 16), also features Klimt's portraits of other fin-de-siècle mavens such as Serena Lederer and Ria Munk, all of whom wear garments that reflect the era's new dress reform or rational-dress movement. Sonja Knips, another patron of the Vienna Secession, wore this radical new style in her portrait, but also in her high-profile social life and helped popularize it.

This non-constricting sack dress, a sartorial expression of women's suffrage, was produced by Flöge's Salon Flöge. And the style of the dresses arguably had an effect on the art itself: The shape and fabric pattern inspired not only the stylized rendering of the clothes, but the surrounding decoration of the paintings. To further emphasize the point, contemporary designer Han Feng recreated versions of these garments and they are on display on full-size mannequins alongside the art.

At the Museum at FIT is an exhibition of Countess Élisabeth Greffulhe's wardrobe (on until Jan. 7). The famous belle époque beauty and extravagant dresser was Marcel Proust's muse at the Palais Galliera Countess; she treated clothing as an art form and was immortalized by Proust as the spectacular Oriane, Duchess of Guermantes in In Search of Lost Time.

Exhibition curator Olivier Saillard notes that Greffulhe had a taste for theatricality, and among her effects is a pair of red velvet shoes from 1905 – in the novel's third volume, one such pair is mentioned as necessary to go with a red satin dress, ostrich feather and tulle scarf. Like the fictional Duchess, Greffulhe's garments were often covered in orchids or lilies, green or mauve-pink to accent her auburn hair, or shimmering velvets with printed motifs. Proust longed for a photograph of Greffulhe and especially coveted the one in Montesquiou's home that showed her in an elaborate lily appliqué and embroidered black velvet evening gown. This real-life Lily dress, attributed to the House of Worth, is reason alone to visit the FIT exhibition.

Despite his novel's poetic examinations of her wardrobe and character, Proust was not actually introduced to Greffulhe until the following year. He was familiar with – and admired from afar – the Countess's every veil, patterned velvet and gauze dress (by Maison Soinard and Callot Soeurs, later by Lanvin, Maggy Rouff or Nina Ricci), because they were closely followed and breathlessly described in the fashion and society press of the day. The press narrated each outfit worn to a ball, artistic or political salon at her Paris townhouse in the Rue d'Astorg, much as Proust later did in In Search of Lost Time. "Each of her dresses seemed like the projection of a particular aspect of her soul," he wrote.

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Among these garments are several by Mariano Fortuny y Madraso, a Spanish designer living in Venice whose clothing was shown in the Venice Biennale in 1924. "It swarmed with Arabic ornaments," is how Proust describes in the book one opulent blue and gold Fortuny gown lined in pink silk. Studying the favourite gown of Proust's fickle lover Albertine leads to another layer of Fortuny's influence – and inspiration: the one responsible for these very lavishly doted-upon exotic gowns and textiles.

For 47 years, Fortuny's wife, Henriette Nigrin, was also the artist and inventor's collaborative design partner. It was her idea to create the now-famous avant-garde Delphos dress, a glistening plissé silk gown, and to develop the exquisite velvet separates that inspired Proust's reveries of Venice. Over the decades, these designs made their way into the wardrobes of other muses like the Countess Greffulhe. It's both beautiful and apt that they have, in turn, found their way into the museum, for a show not strictly speaking about clothes but about the muses themselves.

The fruits of these relationships prove that muses are not partnerships of convenience. The relationship between artist and muse is one of collaboration, and the often ineffable dialogue of inspiration between pairings of kindred spirit relationships lead to great and lasting works of art.

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Nathalie More

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