Marie Antoinette’s shoes up for sale

Pink and green shoes, c. 1790, once from the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette

An auction of items from the royal families of Europe last Wednesday featured several items that once belonged to Marie Antoinette including a pair of pink and green shoes with reasonable enough provenance to associate them with the Queen of France. The shoes sold for just over 80,000 U.S. dollars. A pair of mules with sketchier provenance to the Queen sold earlier this year for $57,000 U.S. Dollars.

Mules, c. 1780 said to be from the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette

What Marie Antoinette and Andy Warhol have in common…

(Originally blogged December 6, 2008)

Last weekend we braved the upstate New York snowy weather forecast for a trip to visit friends in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. For years now we have been driving by Syracuse on the way to visit our friends or to get to New York, but this time we decided to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. This was going to be Syracuse’s chance to prove it was more than just another rust-belt city, and it succeeded.

Firstly, from the mid 19th century to the late 20th century, every architectural movement is represented by phenomenal examples in Syracuse, including one of the best Art Deco edifices ever – the Niagara Mohawk Hydro building. A drive or walk (in better weather) reveals numerous examples of textbook perfect historical and modernist structures including the I.M. Pei designed Everson Museum of Art.

Fortunately, we had time to visit the museum where there were currently two fashion related exhibitions: Marie Antoinette: Styling the 18th-Century Superstar, and Warhol Presents. Both exhibitions opened September 20, and close January 11, 2009.

At first the Marie Antoinette exhibition appears more like a window display at Lord and Taylor than a museum exhibition, but there are no rules for how a museum exhibition has to be. In fact it is upon reading the text on the walls and relating the Rococo-styled models to the themes of the exhibition (exoticism, luxury, fantasy, novelty…) that the presentation becomes deceivingly clever. Using modern clothes and accessories (1950s to the present) to tell the story of the 18th century queen and her influence upon fashion history is a brilliant concept. Mounting similar exhibitions without using authentic clothing could become a valuable exercise for fashion departments that want their students to understand the aesthetics of period dress, especially where students do not have access to museum garments.

This exhibition of 48 mannequins was curated by Jeffrey Mayer, Associate Professor of Fashion History at Syracuse University’s Fashion Design Department. There is also an interesting catalogue published by the museum and available at the gift shop, that further develops the textual information from the exhibition. Speaking of the gift shop… I have to give a prize to the Everson Museum for having the most sardonic souvenir ever produced for an exhibition… the Marie Antoinette head on pike chocolate lollipop!

On another floor there is a small but charming exhibition of Andy Warhol’s fashion illustrations from the late 1950s. Before his Pop fame, Warhol worked as a commercial artist; his first jobs were as a freelancer for New York firms such as shoe manufacturer I. Miller. Warhol’s whimsical drawings have a relaxed quality to them, like Ludwig Bemelmans’ sketches of the French school girl Madeleine, or Charles Adams’ cartoons of the Adams family. There is something quintessentially 1950s about the sketchy style and Warhol cleverly transformed the art style for the world of advertising.

Curated by Natalie Sanderson, University Art Museum at the University of California, the exhibition highlights eighteen of Warhol’s shoe illustrations as well as drawings of other accessories and fashions, and most notably a recreation of a store window Warhol designed of Miss Dior perfume for Bonwit Teller in 1957.

Marie Antoinette’s Dress at the Royal Ontario Museum

(Originally blogged October 26, 2008)

Last week I made sure I made my way to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to view a dress with disputable but convincing evidence of having once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette of France. This is a rare opportunity to view the dress as it is rarely ever shown. According to the ROM the last time this dress had been displayed was 35 years ago but I had heard the dress had not actually been on public exhibition since 1927.

Podcast from the Royal Ontario Museum about Marie Antoinette’s dress

The Marie Antoinette Dress - possibly the most complete garment from her wardrobe extant

Before I write any more about the dress, I have to vent about the Royal Ontario Museum’s architectural carbuncle – the Michael Chin-Lee crystal, designed by the self-important architect Daniel Libeskind. This is not like the pyramid at the Louvre, or the redesign of New York’s Lollipop building – we aren’t splitting hairs over the value of the building as art – Libeskind’s building cost a third of a billion dollars (that they are admitting to) and the building doesn’t work! The entire structure was created without consulting the curatorial staff of the museum. The textile gallery was designed to be a glass house so that the weave of cloth and the seams of frocks could be studied through direct sunlight — Incroyable!

The addition does not relate to the original structure in any way. Fire escape-like stairwells attach the addition to the old building because none of the floors match up; the ground level floors of the new section are sloped – funneling visitors out the exit through the gift shop. The angled architecture will cost the museum endless thousands in the future for upkeep which so far they don’t seem to be bothering with (judging by the dust and fingerprint build-up). Purposefully designed crevices or mini-ditches in the floor are catchalls for gum wrappers, plastic proof-of-entrance-fee-purchase tags, and dirt.

To blame for the building are Daniel Libeskind, the architect, who was let loose like a baby with a gun, and the director of the ROM, William Thorsell, who put the bullets in the barrel. To make matters worse, half the museum remains closed for retrofitting even though the entrance fee is a hefty $20.00 per adult. I spent $19.00 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer for an entire day’s visit and I left at closing not having seen everything — at the ROM I was done with every exhibit within three hours of arriving.

The location on Bloor street, where this crystalloid now towers over the sidewalk, was once the home to century trees where squirrels and birds lived and played, and a wrought iron trimmed brick wall that added to the ivory tower elan of the old brick facade. The costume and textile gallery on the top floor of this new space has been altered with shutters and drapes to keep all sunlight out so visitors can spelunk about for bits and bobs of fashion history inside the black cavernous gallery. Although far from perfect, this gallery exists only because of the generosity of Patricia Harris, the daughter in law of the important Canadian painter Lawren Harris. The Harris gallery features highlights from the textile and costume collection ranging from a 2,000 year old Paracas culture shawl to examples of European couture, including items such as Marie Antoinette’s dress.

Ah yes, the Marie Antoinette dress – I bet you thought I forgot about that… The dress, although altered, is a phenomenal example of rococo bordering on the classical. Dating from the late 1770s or early 1780s, this dress is tiny in stature but grand in presence; even with the alterations it still held onto all its glamour and elegance of a time and place long vanished. It was almost poetic that a dress of such great cost, exquisite beauty and worn by a woman out of touch with her people should be housed in a building of such great cost, despicable ugliness and alienating and cold to its visitors — plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…