“It all depends on the hostess: she is the conductor. ”

In the 1960s, food journalist Ninette Lyon produced a series of portraits of personalities from the worlds of art, fashion, and high society for Vogue. As she interviewed them about their favourite dishes and recipes, Andy Warhol, Louise de Vilmorin, Lucio Fontana, and Federico Fellini revealed – quite literally – their tastes. In March 1965, in two double-page spreads illustrated with her portrait by Balthus, Marie-Laure de Noailles took her turn. The great patron of modern art opened up about her penchant for white pudding and discoursed on how much cream to use in a successful pea purée. The Viscountess was a regular on the pages of both the French and American editions of the fashion magazine: since her wedding in Grasse in 1923, each of her public appearances was the subject of comment. Her dresses, coats, jewellery, and the ways in which she wore them were identified and analysed with fervour. The people she brought together in her Parisian salons as well as in her villa in Hyères – over strong garlic-flavoured dishes, according to Ninette Lyon – were just as important. Marie-Laure de Noailles was a “Vogue lady”, as the journalist Bettina Ballard dubbed her to mark the influence she exerted in terms of prescription and elegance over several decades. As such, she was one of the most photographed and drawn women of this mid-twentieth century: the scrapbooks she composed from the many publications about her in the press attest to the abundance of articles and portraits devoted to her.

It would be tempting to glance with amusement over these hundreds of illustrated pages, which from the 1920s to the 1960s seem to cover every aspect of her life. To relegate dressmaking, cooking and social events to the rank of gossip or superficial anecdotes in the light of the commitment and decisive support that the Noailles couple provided to the most illustrious artists of the avant-garde movements. Yet, her archives tell of the great importance she attached to what she wore, where and with whom. Beyond the hypothesis of vanity or narcissism, these thousands of images invite you to perceive in the choice of a dress, of a social gathering, in the orchestration of a dinner party and the outfits to be shown there, something more meaningful.

Because “the presentation of self in everyday life”, to quote the title of an essay by Erving Goffmann published in the mid-1950s, is loaded with meaning. Extending the theatrical metaphor, the sociologist invites you to see in everyone an actor, aware of the scenery they create and the scenic performances they deploy. In other words, the development of these images of the self, of the self in the company of others and of selected things, constitutes a visual culture that can be studied just as well as a work of art. Within these worlds and appearances lie just as many stories and deep aesthetic convictions.

For the centenary of the villa designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, it is through this a priori humble prism that we intend to rediscover Marie-Laure de Noailles. Her dressing room dispersed to date, the physical and symbolic space of the wardrobe is reconstructed through images: amateur shots, by family or friends, posed, painted, photographed, or even drawn portraits for fashion magazines. It is in this rich iconography, through the diversity of media, that an inventory is being undertaken. Clothes, accessories, and company - all these peripheral objects take on a new importance. If not a nerve centre, they constitute the cogs and ramifications that link fashion and its worldliness to the other artistic expressions of a period. A treasure hunt through modern and everyday life.

Dual exhibitions
In a few shades of black and grey, the pencils of illustrator Carl Erickson captured the elegant nonchalance of Paris like few others. In the summer of 1929, he depicted Marie-Laure de Noailles sitting in an armchair, her hands crossed on her knees: her “dark blue” coat matched with a foulard printed dress. This is a recurring theme in Gabrielle Chanel’s silhouettes of the 1920s, in which the fashion designer took pleasure in extending the patterns of her dress onto the lining of a three-quarter length coat, worn open. Over the decade, the viscountess fully embraced the wardrobe she was designing for a new woman – confident and pragmatic. As “all wise people” know, the article points out, it was on rue Cambon that a new femininity was forged, and a new wardrobe designed. But the attentive reader will not have missed the detail that alone serves as the backdrop to this portrait. Behind her head, topped with a hat adorned with a brooch, is the outline of a painting. Braque, Lhote? This little patch of cubist painting serves to identify Marie-Laure de Noailles as a major collector. But more than just a background, the fragment of painting is also in dialogue with her appearance. In the eyes of Richard Martin, the radical changes in women’s fashion over the first decades of the twentieth century, in particular the transition from the S-shaped silhouette to the tubular silhouette, were inseparable from the culture of Cubism, which disseminated its principles and above all new ways of looking at and representing the human body. “Chanel is surely practising Cubism in fashion” as the exhibition curator intended to demonstrate, insisting on the rupture introduced by the use of knitwear in the design of garments. Her interpretation of these formal and structural similarities nevertheless raises a hypothesis: that of the adequacy of the different components of a universe within their materials, volumes, or assembly methods. In a sense, this is also what links the sports outfit worn by Marie-Laure de Noailles when she posed in the salon Jean-Michel Frank designed in Place des États-Unis in 1926. The parchment panels and straw marquetry designed by the decorator echoed the material simplicity of her jersey dress – a knitted yarn with two-coloured geometric compositions, counter to any superfluous ornamentation. A new relationship with the body, in its clothes and its habitat, was therefore asserted. The striped shorts and vests worn by both men and women in the film Biceps et bijoux, made by Jacques Manuel in 1928 at the villa in Hyères, evoke a form of heliotropism that is perfectly corroborated by the terraces and large bay windows.

The shooting of Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un poète in 1930, which the Noailles family funded, marked the beginning of a new decade. The arbitrary division of years nevertheless corresponded to a perceptible change in women’s silhouettes. The length of the lace dress worn by Marie-Laure de Noailles for her role as an extra in the film followed this logic, replacing the shorter, straighter shapes of previous years. Pale blue and black, the wide stripes with which Gabrielle Chanel composed this evening outfit easily fit into the contrasting imagery of the poet-filmmaker: they also symbolise, like concentric rings, the networks that Cocteau brought together, which this time associated the customer and the dressmaker in the same position and the same role as patrons of the artist.

In 1933, again for Vogue, George Hoyningen Huene had Marie-Laure de Noailles pose in front of a painting by Christian Bérard: it was her own portrait, which she had commissioned from the painter whose work she and Charles collected. This “dual exhibition”, as the magazine termed it, played on the transition between the painted and the photographic image, but also evoked other elective affinities. Bérard, who let his creativity flow from sets to theatre costumes, was also a prolific fashion illustrator. A close friend of the Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, he made a drawing of the viscountess for the American magazine in 1935. Leaning against a column, wearing a black and white velvet dress designed by Jeanne Lanvin, Marie-Laure de Noailles’s so recognisable look allowed the artist to make her portrait without even drawing her face. A few brown curls were enough to give her a presence that was paradoxically so incarnate.

But it was behind Man Ray’s lens that she became even more multi-faceted, from the photographer’s stays in Hyères to her visits to his Parisian studio.
Filmed for les Mystères du château du Dé in 1929 in her villa, and the subject of a rayograph that was also published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, her face lent itself to various visual experiments that often questioned the limits of the genre: portrait, fashion photograph or work of art? For these numerous images, Marie-Laure de Noailles revealed whole sections of her wardrobe: to her, clothing was not a field for eccentric explorations, or at least she did not disguise herself for these different shots. It was often in a daywear wardrobe that tailor-made outfits recurred faithfully, as did the names of the fashion designers whose collections accompanied her over the years, even decades. While Chanel was a constant throughout her life, a new name appeared during a shoot with Man Ray in 1931. Marie-Laure wore one of the first “Pour la ville” silhouettes that Elsa Schiaparelli had just unveiled, therefore establishing herself as a true fashion house. The affinities were numerous, if you think of the spectacular embroidered or printed compositions that Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí, both close friends of the Noailles, designed with this “artist of fashions” in the following years. But perhaps surprisingly, the viscountess did not give in to these exceptional pieces, though they asserted their surrealist inclination in such an ostentatious manner. She preferred Schiaparelli’s other characteristic silhouette, seemingly more reserved, where surprise could be found in the cut of a pocket, or the shape of a button placed on her black capes and jackets. The only departure from this rule was a snapshot taken on the spot in a green garden, showing Marie-Laure de Noailles in a blouse patterned with butterflies – as if ready to escape into the surrounding nature. This was the central motif of the Italian designer’s summer 1937 collection, a mischievous mirrored reference to Man Ray, whose photographs also captured the kaleidoscopic compositions of their wings.

At the end of the war, a new generation of fashion designers came to the fore: Jacques Fath, a close friend and confidant of Marie-Laure de Noailles, Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Jean Dessès or Hubert de Givenchy, who all assiduously frequented her salons and even more her parties. Customs and costumes have significantly changed. While her insolent creativity persisted, as demonstrated by the impetuous humour of the Lune sur Mer ball she organised in Paris in 1952, a wind of nostalgia blew over her outfits. The 1950s rediscovered a bygone spirit and a taste for historicism in the shapes, patterns, and decorations. The tone was set in a series of photographs that Willy Maywald took of the viscountess from 1948, surrounded by collections of paintings and decorative arts inherited from her Bischoffheim family. Moire silk had replaced jersey, the cinched waist and box pleats had replaced the straight line of the 1920s sportswear. Likewise, in a full-colour report for Vogue in 1956, it was draped in a satin dress and a royal blue faille stole that her silhouette stood out against the eighteenth-century panelling of her Parisian mansion. In the background, once again the paintings that punctuated many of her portraits over the years – Watteau, Delacroix and Prud’hon replaced the fragment of Cubist painting. Could this be a sign of the return of the bourgeois taste that the modern spirit had sought to combat? The history of clothing and its materials undoubtedly provides the most conclusive epilogue to this great tale of modernity. From 1954 on, Chanel’s scissors conquered the New Look. Marie-Laure de Noailles ordered no less than sixty tweed suits from the fashion designer established rue Cambon, who gave shape to this new era, but without abandoning the principles and accomplishments of the previous one. Dressed in this way, the viscountess henceforth went to Iris Clert just as she would go to meet the New Realists.

The “Garde-robe(s)” exhibition gives an account of the lost wardrobe of Marie-Laure de Noailles. More than an exercise in historical reconstruction, the installation juxtaposes past and present archives, objects, and iconography to showcase her fashion imagery. Between formal resonances and fortuitous connections, aesthetic worlds as well as friendship networks emerge, placing the fashion designers’ creations in the context of the works and spaces that witnessed their emergence - and of what they in turn inspired.

In three chapters, the narrative unfolds in a way that readily ignores historical logic. While you dive first into the artistic galaxies of the inter-war years, a founding moment in many respects of a certain sense of place specific to the century-old villa, the doors also open to let other players in.

Those who, in turn, are continuing the initial vocation of Mallet-Stevens’s building, a place conducive to creation, to visual experimentation in their most contemporary form. We outline some of the highlights of a partial retrospective of the fashion festival, with the contribution of some of the prize-winners who, since 1985, have symbolically enhanced the wardrobe of Marie-Laure de Noailles.

The third section of this wardrobe is entrusted to fashion designers who have recently won awards at the festival, and whose audacity would certainly have seduced the viscountess. At the dawn of their work and careers, each of them perfectly embodies the creative potential of today, often beyond the medium of clothing.

Émilie Hammen
Fashion historian

Wardrobe(s) - © Villa Noailles Hyères

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