NEW YORK — “This exhibit transfers us back to another time, a time of opulence and a certain decorum,” said Joyce Brown, president of the Fashion Institute of Technology, referring to the Museum at FIT’s latest exhibit, “Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris.”
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The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 25, was sponsored by La Mode de France, a French organization that supports and promotes French fashion throughout the world.
More than 200 fashion industry executives turned out to view the thought-provoking presentation, which explores the sexual politics of women’s fashion of La Belle Epoque in late 19th-century Paris. It was a time when courtesans and actresses such as Sarah Bernhard were instrumental in launching new and what was considered at the time overtly erotic fashions, which were adopted by respectable women around the world.
Valerie Steele, acting director and chief curator, said the exhibit shows “how the sexualization of fashion occurred within the context of women’s growing social and political power, and how the the Parisienne haute couture contributed to the creation of the ‘new woman.’”
The exhibit features more than 50 couture creations from Poiret, Doucet, Paquin and Worth, as well as fans, corsets, lace-up boots, sequined shoes, Art Nouveau jewelry and plumed hats. Also spicing up the Belle Epoque message was a nonstop flow of Perrier Jouet champagne, specifically Cuvée Belle Epoque, also known as the “Flower Bottle.”
Steele cited key examples of “the demi-monde fashion mongers of Paris,” including seductively sheer tea gowns and a scarlet satin corset of the 1880s, which depicted the acceptance of female sexual display at a time when modest white corsets were typically the undergarment of choice. Steele cocurated the exhibition with associate curator Fred Dennis.
In connection with the exhibit, the museum will present a two-day symposium on fashion and the femme fatale at FIT’s Haft Auditorium on Jan. 24 and 25.
Speakers will include Emily Aptor, author of “Feminizing the Fetish,” who will speak about “The Weaponised Woman: Rachilde’s Lethal Amazon, La Marquise de Sade;” Hollis Clayson, author of “Painted Love,” who will speak on the topic “Vulgarians in Paris: Prostitutes and American Women on the Town,” and Rae Beth Gordon, author of “Ornament, Fantasy and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature,” who will speak on the topic “Fashion and the White Savage in the Parisian Music Hall.”
Additional speakers will be Bruno de Remaury, author of “Le Beau Sexe Faible;” Debora Silverman, author of “Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France;” Nancy Troy, author of “Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France;” Barbara Vinken, author of “Mode Nach der Mode;” Steele, author of “Paris Fashion,” and Deborah Davis, who will discuss her forthcoming book, “Strapless: Madame X and the Scandal That Shocked Belle Epoque Paris.”