I’ve had a few down n’ out moments during fashion month. Moments where I question my own validity, whether I should be there at all and worst of all, when jadedness and cynicism starts creeping in, something that I thought would never happen and try to blank out at all costs. The pity party however stops right there as I have to truly thank Olivier Saillard, Tilda Swinton and Katerina Jebb for picking me up at just the right point in time with their performance and film revolving around the idea of “The Impossible Wardrobe”, presented at the Palais de Tokyo, where collectively we witnessed a moment in fashion that felt pure, free of commerce and high in fashion adulation.
On paper, it was already a performance that was just my speed. I was a huge fan of Olivier Saillard’s performance Dress Like a Man in Florence and he’s been building up his portfolio of performance-based dialogues within a fashion context that go hand in hand with his work as museum director of Musée Galliera. He’s seeking to give new perspective on what a fashion show is without actually creating any clothes himself. By using pre-existing artefacts, he’s building up a storied narrative that goes far beyond the thinking of merely “Oh this is my new collection.” Tilda Swinton, of course was the face of the project, a weighty thespian force that really got involved in the conception of the performance, offering up her time to perform three nights in a row at the Palais de Tokyo (tonight will be the last of the performances). Then there were the clothes themselves as I knew archive pieces from the Musée Galliera would be involved somehow.
Before the performance we were treated to an eight minute film by Katerina Jebb. Swinton stalks an industrial looking carpark, enters the morgue-like archives of the museum and takes a military jacket worn by Napoleon Bonaparte and begins to scan it, like a detached caretaker or technician. It’s an inward looking reference to Jebb’s own scanned-skeletal photographs of clothing. She breathes in the essence of the jacket, looking for traces of the diminuitive leader. This clues us into the performance that we’re about to see. Swinton then sits quite still with images of notoble women – Marie Antoinette, Isadora Duncan, Elsa Schiaparelli, Sarah Bernhardt – flashing across her face. Jebb’s quote at the beginning “Reality being nothing more than a projection of ideas” tells us that though we may have the physical artefacts of these deceased figures, they’re still intangible to us. As it turns out, the performance actually seems to refute that point partially but perhaps that’s up to the viewer to decide.
That was the teaser. Then came the main event. Swinton and Saillard stepped up at the end of the runway, she in a cream calico robe and matching heels and he in a lab coat, each of them designated the role of caretaker and pedestal of these priceless garments. Saillard would faciliate the unwrapping and handing over of 54 garments and accessories and then Swinton would then proceed to walk down the runway to the other end where a mirror was propped up. With every piece, every single gesture, expression and movement was laden with freefall interpretation. It was around 45 minutes of being utterly transfixed by Swinton and the way she interacted with every garment in different ways.
The point was that these clothes could never be worn again but breaking museum convention, they are taken out of their glass cases, dust bags and protective boxes and presented in a way that is mesmerising, taking the viewer into the world of the historic wearer of these garments, that particular time period and more importantly the emotional relationship between clothing and wearer. It was basically a justification of everything that I believe to be great in fashion – the enchantment of craftsmenship and taking aesthetic pleasure from well-made and innovative design, the emotional attachment to clothing that a person forms through repeated wear, the belief that on a wider level fashion reflects cultural shifts and then on a personal level, that in clothing reflects your personality, mood and state of mind. It’s reaffirming those things at a time when Saillard feels there is too much fashion, too much imagery in the present fashion system and period of digital flux, with yours truly perhaps contributing to that cacophony. I’ll get to the contradicting dichotomy of that later.
First though to revel in some of the gestures that Swinton performed… (by the by, I don’t actually possess this encyclopaedic knowledge. A ticker tape above Swinton gave us the clothing credits, the owner of the garments (sometimes notable, sometimes annonymous) and the dates of the garments).
It opened with a grossly poof sleeved corset top worn by Cléo de Mérode from Bon Marché dated 1900 and Swinton danced with it as though someone was still in it or she was clutching on to the person who is no longer there.
She holds a Schiaparelli 1950 harlequin opera coat up high giving a deathly stare into the mirror like she is worshipping it.
Certain pieces such as this 1898 embroidered cape were laid out on a canvas covered board, so that instead of emphasising their wearability and past life as a garment, they are presented to us as art pieces to be admired as an object. We get to marvel at the intricacy of the gold embroidery as well as perhaps mourn the loss of its life as a wearable piece of attire.
Swinton holds a few of the dresses like this 1942 Madame Grès dress to her chest like something that is extremely dear to her as though it were her oxygen tank.
Or she might take a Lanvin 1934 dress, look downwards as if to say “I’m not worthy”
There’s a pure look of ecstasy on Swinton’s face as she holds a Mariano Fortuny “Delphos” dress as the pleats are resplendent in her arms. The dress almost looks like a bird in flight.
She holds a bustle cage from 1885 is in front of her and looks at it with curiosity and intent like most of us would I suppose if we were asked to shove this in our skirts in present day.
When she looks in the mirror, from my perspective, I couldn’t actually see what she was going and that was part of the intentional mystery because she would stop at the mirror for a good 15 seconds before walking back up to obtain her next piece.
Swinton has a fearful expression as she swings a Kristoff von Drecoll 1905 coat in front of her allowing us to admire the beading going on this dramatic piece. It was such a visual rush as your eyes diverted from Swinton’s face to the garment itself, not knowing who or what was more magnificent.
A pair of 1936 Schiaparelli gloves were paraded around with Swinton giving of a knowing look as if amused by the wit of this surreal seminal piece.
Another piece of Schiaparelli, this time a 1953 shocking pink skirt, worn on the arm like a dramatic cape. Saillard has in the past played with garments, re-appropriating their intended use and here, he choregraphs those moves again. It’s of course not a real proposition of how to wear pieces but somehow together with Swinton, pieces that are moribund are once again revitalised when placed in a different position on the body.
There were only a few pieces that went beyond 1960. This Yohji Yamamoto hat from 1993 was held like armour with its structure bouncing up and down. Another piece that isn’t photographed here was a Paco Rabanne dress worn by Bridget Bardotte carried on canvas.
I loved this playful movement of Swinton sashaying around with several Chanel ensembles on the hips, moving with a haughty look and perhaps hinting at the heightened status of a Chanel suit that is still valued today.
A 1900 feathered fan is also held high and lofty above the head.
Swinton is at her most potent when she looks like she is really trying to reclaim the spirit of the people who wore the garments. Take this lavish Beer coat from 1933. The delicate feathers brush across her face and she looks like she’s inhaling something lovely and peachy from this richly ornate coat.
Saillard did begin by choosing the items for the performance by the notoriety of the wearer with none more famous and significant than Napoleon Bonaparte. Here Swinton clutches on to his jacket (dated 1805-15) in a surprisingly intimate way (given the fragility of such a garment) but she has a frightened expression. She went through the motions of sniffing it, curiously prodding it, weighing it up and down and then finally looking like she can’t get rid of it fast enough.
A corseted top worn by actress Sarah Bernhardt was also a star item. This is an ethereal piece that is again, held away from Swinton. She looks at it with a longing and desire but knows that it can never be truly hers.
By the end of the performance, unlike any other show that I’ve been to this season, there was a five minute standing ovation as Saillard and Swinton came out to take their bows. That’s a gesture that would previously had been de rigeur at iconic fashion shows from the past – the great shows of Dior, YSL, McQueen to name a few. I asked Saillard whether he felt that this show was a comment on the state of fashion today, with regard to its perceived dearth of innovation, which yesteryear’s fashion clearly had in abundance. He was adamant that wasn’t the case and yet, he could only name a few of the “purists” in fashion today that had relevance for him – Nicolas Ghesquière, Rei Kawakubo, Azzedine Alaïa – that’s just a handful of names from a list of thousands of designers working today.
It’s quite a severe stance to take but one that I admire because it’s up to curating talents and fashion historians like Saillard, to strictly edit and filter out the chaff to get to the real wheat. I, on the other hand can’t be quite as purist as that. I come back to my point about the dichotomy of this performance from my own perspective. Am I part of the growing chaos that surrounds fashion now? It was bittersweet clapping away at the end and wiping a tear or two (I wasn’t the only one blubbing by the way – Kylie Minogue, who was in the audience was properly crying by the end). I sincerely loved everything I saw and what it represented. I *think* I understood the purpose and intention of Saillard’s work. And yet, I deduced that perhaps that what I do here on this blog or as a “fashion blogger” was contributing to the problem that Saillard raises with this performance. I’m still on a high from the whole thing. However when I come back down to earth, perhaps it’s time to reflect upon how do I figure out this conondrum.
All photography by Piero Basion.