When I was in Paris with my students, I sometimes had a few hours free in the mornings while they were in immersion classes. One morning, I went to an exhibit at the Palais Galliera entitled La Mode Retrouvée dedicated to the lavish wardrobe of Élisabeth, Comtesse Greffuhle. The exhibit was in its final days, so I feel lucky that I was able to get there before it closed.
Greffuhle was a complex and creative person. She established a Salon patronized by intellectuals and artists. She supported the arts, with her money and her patronage, including Diaghilev and the Ballets russes. Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane was composed in her honor, and she was a gifted pianist in her own right. Marcel Proust based his Duchesse de Guermantes on the elegant Comtesse, as it said in the exhibit information, “Her appearance became a literary style.” She wasn’t just interested in typical “female” topics but also in science and politics. Greffuhle worked on behalf of the vindication of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason because he was Jewish. She played a key role in the foundation of Marie and Pierre Curie’s Institut de radium, today’s Institut Curie.
The Comtesse was also very fond of fashion and used it to control how she was perceived. She often wore deep green to enhance her auburn hair and magnificent eyes. She was not a passive consumer of fashion, but instead she shaped it to her will. After a meeting with a group of couturiers who thought they’d really impressed her with their presentations, Greffuhle said, “Faites-moi tout ce que vous voudriez…qui ne soit pas ça!” (Fet mwah too suh kuh voo voo-dree-ay…key nuh swah pah sah), which means “Make me anything you want…as long as it’s not that!”
When she was photographed by Nadar, she brought props to the studio, such as a urn of lilies (she was often compared to a lily or a swan) and a full-length mirror. She controlled the poses so that she was seen to best advantage. Her will left strict instructions about how she was to be dressed for burial, including which rings were to be placed on which fingers. A box containing her most precious mementoes, including the letters from her mother, were to be buried with her.
At a time when capsule wardrobes are all the rage, I loved Greffuhle’s list of “indispensable accessories,” which went as follows: “Large hat – lightweight, halesque – absolutely necessary. Summer veils – choose them before leaving – thin- opaque veils are suffocating when made of silk. Bring nine different thicknesses – thin – thicker – thick…” As affluent as she was, she didn’t hesitate to remake old gowns into newer styles. Another gown, referred to as une robe à transformation had interchangeable bodices to get more wear from the skirt.
I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated by the exhibit. Groups of small school children sat with rapt attention in front of the mannequins, raising their hands eagerly to answer questions about the beautiful dresses. I wish I’d seen it with enough advance time to tell others about it. Did any of you have the pleasure of seeing it? It’s even made me want to give Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu another try.