Proust's Muse: The Countess Greffulhe

Calling all Francophiles! Calling all fashionistas! Calling all bookworms! The stars fell into alignment over The Museum at FIT this week as several international experts on Proust and the Belle Époque gathered for a fashion symposium marking the opening of a superb exhibition: Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe.

Heading the program was Dr. Valerie Steel, the director and chief curator at the Museum at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, in conversation with Olivier Saillard, the director of the Palais Galliera, Museé de La Mode de la Ville de Paris. It was Saillard who originally curated this show in Paris, as all the clothing and accessories belonging to the Countess Greffulhe had been donated to the Palais Galleria by her family.

What's remarkable is that so many of the dresses that inspired Proust, dresses he saw the Countess wearing, have survived. Of course, some were too fragile to hang on mannequins, so the curators came up with an ingenious solution; that is, laying them out in boxes on the floor and then angling full length mirrors behind the boxes to reflect the details. To protect the collection taking photographs was strictly prohibited. 

On view were  25 garments and a dozen accessories, none more charming than a pair of low-heeled pumps in cut red velvet that could have been the prototype for the shoes worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. (Shoes that a few weeks ago the Smithsonian announced needed to be restored to the tune of $500,000).

The fashionistas of the Belle Époque favored feathers, flowers and furs. The dresses on display were stunning, none more so than the ‘Lily Dress’ worn by the Countess which can be seen in the photograph above where she's primping in front of the mirror.  

Last week’s seminar at the Museum at FIT included such offerings as: 1895-1900, the Golden Age of Parisian Fashion; Mme. Greffulhe and the Costume Balls of Fin de Siècle Paris; and Fashion, Art and Portraiture in the Belle Époque.      

Other fall programs involved a book signing and a presentation of Proust’s Latin Americans by Ruben Gallo, a professor at Princeton, and a concert by the award-winning Solera Quartet of Music. Selections played included a piece by Fauré that the composer had dedicated to the Countess. The lady got around!

If there were other style-setters of the Belle Époque who influenced Marcel Proust, there was no one who held a candle to Elizabeth Greffulhe. After her, Proust would say, “There was simply nowhere to climb.” In his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, the Countess was the model for Oriane, the Duchess of Guermantes. Her beauty, perfection and pedigree had fascinated the narrator even as a young man. To see more, click here.

Both the real-life Countess of Greffulhe and Proust's Duchess de Guermantes were well-born aristocrats with philandering husbands, but the Countess Greffulhe was a talent in her own right, one who collaborated with some of the finest couturiers of that time, including the House of Worth, Fortuny, Lanvin and Nina Ricci. The dresses, intended to turn heads and set tongues wagging, did just that. Indeed, the Countess, who lived to be 92, maintained that there was no greater pleasure than to enter a room and have all eyes upon you. To that end, she felt it better to look bizarre than banal. In an exquisite beaded gown trimmed with fur that was neither bizarre nor banal, one she wore to her daughter’s wedding, she not only turned heads but stole the show from the poor bride.

If you have never been to The Museum at FIT, at Seventh Avenue and West 27th Street, it's well worth a visit. Situated in the heart of the old Garment District, the streets are noisy and bustling, but once inside, you'll find the galleries tranquil and dimly lit. All the better for highlighting those superb creations. 

On view through January 7, 2017.

Last week, we were knocked offline by that sneaky cyber attack that started in the east to work its way west. All afternoon, unable to upload any images, I kept thinking that I was doing something wrong -- which would not have been all that unusual-- but what? Late afternoon when discovered it was the hosting platform, not my computer that was under attack, I felt immeasurably better. 

Hope to see you back next Sunday when I'll have the coffee ready... à plus tard, see you then, dear friends!