Tuesday, February 23, 2016

La comtesse de Gruffulhe or what to wear to an apotheosis

La comtesse by Helleu
all images Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
Elisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay,
La comtesse de Greffulhe, 

This grande dame has appeared in these pages once before, she who inspired Proust for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past. Despite the novelist's immortalization, she hadn't been a personality much in view. But these days my post is being clicked on wildly all because of a certain exhibit about her wonderous wardrobe. 

I had written about the Comtesse Greffulhe with for starting point a fait divers concerning 
her home. Her monumental apartment as seen during WW II, was a phantom ship during war days. It was so difficult to heat that she had René Prou design a small, utilitarian cabin that was plunked smack dab in the middle of her fine salon with its moldings and towering ceilings 
just so she could keep warm. 

Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay 1860-1952 
photo Otto Wegener 

And here she is, 
staring out of a photograph that was unknown to me before from the exhibit poster -bien emmitouflée- all wrapped up in a coquettish way that has the immense charm of the unexpected from a woman of her rank straight out of the Belle Epoque. 
Clearly, she the comtesse de Gruffulhe never liked to be cold!

photo Otto Wegener 
A sense of mise en scene.
If I had read about her before, studied her a bit, I hadn't realized just how important her image was to her before seeing the revealing exhibit at the Palais Gallièra,  La mode retrouvée: les robes trésors de la comtesse de Greffulhe -

photo by Paul Nadar

 nor how calculated it all was.

Her extensive use of photography can only be compared to that of the Comtesse de Castiglione, that other image-controling comtessse who was her elder by 23 years. If the fascinating comtesse of Castiglione was melodramatic, la Greffulhe played more in the register of subtlety and refinement. And as a reigning queen of the social scene, she staged her performances with a perfectionist's sense of detail in her costumes. She would arrive late, limit the time of her appearances in breath-taking toilettes that were out-of-time and place, then disappear. What is precious is rare! As for the photographs, they were mostly for herself - and posterity. She framed them for her home, but gave away very few.

© Pierre Antoine
Her wardrobe was the cornerstone of her persona. All the trips to all the best couture houses of the time were more to assure, she said, of what she would not wear, Worth often worked with her  to create the gowns she felt suited her best, and peu importe if no one else was wearing a princess bodice those days.  One dress by Worth was cut from a giant-scale Renaissance patterned silk velvet; he also devised a cape with the gift from the Czar Nicolas II of a Bokhara brocade. The Comtesse was eccentric, strange but always distinguished.


 The exhibit also demonstrates a certain penchant for Fortuny and Babani.

Robert de Montesquiou by Boldoni source Wikicommons
Robert de Montesquiou, also proustified as Charlus, was a true kindred spirit. This uncle of very nearly her same age, encouraged the young Elisabeth in her obsession with finery and in carving out her own style.  As Alexandra Bosc states in the exhibit catalogue, it is probable that, like dandies of the day, Countess Greffulhe attached metaphysical value to the elegance of dress, seeing in this "cult of self" the manifestation of her inner being,

© Pierre Antoine
"Mirror, mirror on the wall..."

Baudelaire said in Le Peintre et la vie moderne that she had
"a burning need to be an original."

The label of his fur-trimmed gown of gold brocade reads Worth, but it was actually designed by the young Paul Poiret when he was employed by that couture house. I recall from reading Poiret's memoirs that he, for one, did not appreciate this client. The Comtesse wore this opulent robe Byzantine to her daughter's wedding at La Madeleine
to which she contrived to arrive early,
that is, before the bride was present.
The papers of the day cooed that it was hard to judge which young lady was to be married and described the gold gown in minute detail hardly mentioning the wedding dress.

It must have been unbearably hot to be the daughter of such an original at times.

© Pierre Antoine

Marcel Proust, however, looked on the Comtesse, imperfect and narcissistic in her search for perfection - with awe and tolerance. Had she found a way to deal with the deception that came so quickly after her marriage and her husband's outlandish philandering? To Henry Greffulhe, she was a trophy, but the hunt was what mattered the most. Mr Proust wrote her a letter from which there is just this thought provoking snippet in the exhibit catalogue,

et je sais tout ce qu'il peut y avoir de héroïsme dans la  beauté
and I know all there can be of heroism in beauty.

dress from 1925 couturier unknown
Metallic lace forms an Egyptian inspired pattern
So she always dressed with care throughout her life,

© Pierre Antoine
 turning to
Jeanne Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Maggy Rouff... and the color black.

photo rmn

Reports say that the Comtesse stayed supple and svelte through yoga and healthful lifestyle, always seeking to improve herself physically, mentally and spiritually. All this is not to say that Elisabeth Greffulhe thought only of bettering herself. She was utterly devoted to music and was a strong patron of the arts. She supported scientific advancement and charitable causes of her time. She also founded a Spiritualist institute that still active today.

© Pierre Antoine
gown by Worth
The scenography takes a daring turn and goes so far as to suggest the Comtesse Greffulhe's death.  Her earthly body is replaced by a gown laid upon a bier; it is so fresh, so tender - dare I say, young? -  she is a dress of chiffon and taffeta decorated with orchids.

I wonder if she also wore Worth's scent, Je reviens?

photo La style et la matière
Elisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay,
La comtesse de Greffuhle 

1860-1952

© Julien Vidal / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
 images Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
gown by A. Beauchez 

and resurrected in 2016


... une grâce qui trouble à l’égal d'une émotion artistique. Toutes les choses s'adoucissent autour d'elle en une délicieuse âme qui résume dans les plis de sa robe.

...a grace no less disturbing than an artistic emotion. Every thing around her sweetens in a delicious spirit that can be summed up in the folds of her dress.
Portrait de Madame
Marcel Proust

La mode retrouvée: les robes trésors de la comtesse de Greffuhle

The exhibit will travel to New York's FIT museum in September 2016


see also:
 the catalogue of the exhibit beautiful and fascinating here 
La comtesse Greffulhe : L'ombre des Guermantes by Laure Hillerin
La comtesse Greffulhe by Anne de Cossé Brissac


all images Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
except where noted

4 comments:

  1. Wondrous post Gesbi. She was ahead of her time.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Donna. She was good at working on her image in her day. It's only right that she come back to us now through the clothes she took such pains to perfect.

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  2. These beautiful garments, and the care the wearer bestowed upon her look, puts us modern gals to shame.

    You are fortunate to have viewed this exhibit gésbi. Unfortunately, it arrives in the US on the opposite side of the country to where I live, otherwise I'd enjoy it very much.

    All this talk of Proust makes me want to nibble on a madeleine.

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    Replies
    1. I was interested to see this personality whom I felt I knew a bit have such a full coming out to the general public - well, more or less! With your love of fine tailoring, I'm sure you would be interested.

      I'll think I'll have to put the kettle on now!

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