During the 19th Century, the connection between celebrity and fashion became increasingly intertwined. One of the first designers to exploit this connection was Charles Frederick Worth and assisted by the growth of the fashion press, Worth developed into an arbiter of fashion (while at the same time increasing his sales).
One such celebrity connection was Marie Anatole Louise Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe née de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay (July 11, 1860 – August 21, 1952). Born to Belgian nobility and cousin of the poet and dandy Robert de Montesquiou, Comtesse de Greffulhe was the acknowledged leader of Parisian society by the 1880s and was noted for her association with various artists and writers and was even immortalized by Marcel Proust as the Duchess of Guermantes in his novel In Search of Lost Time. Some of her achievements as a patron are described here:
She was an early adept of ‘fundraising’. As founding president of the Société des Grandes Auditions Musicales, she turned charity work into public relations. With tremendous practical acumen, she raised funds and produced and promoted operas and shows, which included Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Twilight of the Gods, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Isadora Duncan. In addition to this, she was a political animal – a fierce supporter, for example, of Captain Dreyfus, Leon Blum, and the Popular Front’. She was also a passionate sponsor of science: she helped Marie Curie to finance the Institute of Radium, and Edouard Branly pursue his research into wireless telegraphy (Palais Galliera).
The Comtesse was also celebrated for her beauty and taste in clothing:
Countess Greffulhe was the epitome of elegance, with glorious outfits to match. Her public appearances were highly theatrical, with a sense of their being rare, fleeting and incomparably fascinating, in a cloud of tulle, gauze, chiffon and feathers, or in her kimono jackets, her velvet coats, with her oriental patterns, her shades of gold and silver, pink and green. The outfits were carefully chosen to emphasize her slim waist and her slender figure (Palais Galliera).
Much of the Countess Greffulhe’s wardrobe survives to this day and in fact, is the subject of an exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris and will be coming to this country later this year in September 2016 at the Museum at FIT, New York. Below are both pictures of one of the dresses along with the Countess wearing it:
The dress itself is made from a black silk velvet decorated in white satin appliques embroidered with metal cannetilles and old sequins. The collar/bertha could be turned up like a pair of bat’s wings. Below are two pictures of the Countess wearing the dress:
When compared against the original dress, it is evident that that the collar/bertha has been altered. Also, it appears that the dress originally had a white embroidered panel running down the front that appears to have been removed.
Another Worth dress that belonged to the Countess is this iconic green tea dress:
This tea dress was constructed from a dark blue-black cut velvet on an silk satin emerald background.
Finally, we’ll wrap up with this double portrait of the Countess that was taken in 1899 by the photographer Otto Wegener in which she’s seen to be embracing herself, the figures dressed in contrasting white and black dresses. This photo was achieved by the superimposing of two negatives onto each other and it’s an interesting portrayal. The exact motive for her having this picture taken is lost to posterity but some theorize that it was meant to be a musing on the fragile nature of beauty over time. We leave to the reader to draw their own conclusions… 🙂
The Countess Greffulhe was a dynamic woman who was an influential force in Parisian society during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and as such embodied the idea of “patron of the arts” and from the looks of it, fashion was no exception. In the end, fashion exists as part of society, not apart from it. 🙂
P.S. On our first trip to Paris, we discovered that the hotel we were staying at is located across the street from where the Countess’ mansion was located. Unfortunately, it’s now the site of an ugly office building.