Looking for Proust’s muse in Paris.
After making a careful study of contemporary fashion plates, Baudelaire came to the conclusion that one couldn’t examine clothes apart from the individual wearing them. “You might as well admire the tattered rags hung up as slack and lifeless as the skin of St. Bartholomeu,” he wrote in his essay “In Praise of Cosmetics.” In order to “recover the light and movement of life,” clothes needed to be animated by a living body, and it was only on this living body that they were to be understood. One wonders what he would’ve made of the nascent trend of the fashion exhibition, in which the fashions of yesteryear appear on mannequins, those motionless abstractions of the human figure.
“La Mode retrouvée,” now at the Musée de la Mode in Paris, and coming in September to New York, uses clothes as a sort of Pompeiian ash in order to sketch the person who once filled them out. In this case, it’s the Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe (1860–1952), who was by reputation the most fashionable woman of her time. At her salon on the Rue d’Astorg, an integral part of the political and artistic milieux, she arranged for what was thought to be the impossible Russian-Franco alliance, as well as the reception of Fauré, Wagner, Isadora Duncan, and the Ballets Russes in Paris. Historians of the era have argued that no patron did more for music than she. And this at a time when, no matter the fact that she was married into wealth and rank, she had neither rights nor property as her own, as was the case for all women under the civil code of the Third Republic.
Greffulhe is perhaps best remembered for the strong impression she made on a young Marcel Proust while sitting in her box at the Opéra, a string of “mauve orchids [hanging] down the nape of her neck.” Legend has it that her network served as the basis for the third tome of À la recherche du temps perdu, Le Côté de Guermantes (1920/1921). The fictional Comtesse Guermantes, queen of the Faubourg Saint-Germain elite, reigns over the vacuous linguistic rituals of an obsolete nobility. Appearance was everything; in the face of republican egalitarian law, fine points of language and deportment became high-stakes systems of class signification.
It was in this context that Greffulhe carefully staged her public appearances, disappearances, and absences. “Always look at a person telling yourself: I want them to take away a memory of unmatched prestige,” she wrote in an unfinished philosophical treatise. When she did deign to show up, Greffulhe made sure to be the center of attention, even when she wasn’t supposed to be. “This wedding will always be remembered as the apotheosis of a woman with a willpower,” a society journalist wrote in 1904. “Madame Greffulhe reached the top of the steps … and was able to remain there for about a quarter of an hour, in full view of everyone.” The wedding in question was not Greffulhe’s, but her daughter, Elaine’s; the countess’s “Byzantine” dress from the House of Worth—replete with lamé taffeta, gold yarn, silk tulle, and sequin appliqué—was written up more in the press than the bridal gown. Willpower she had.
Her husband, meanwhile, consulted all his relatives about her education, and her mother-in-law never ceased to repeat that “women should stay on their pedestal” and “must never dabble in politics, a disgusting world.” Greffulhe was well aware of the constraints within which she had to operate. “Take a girl, raise her with a taste for art and beautiful things, make her think that she must be modest, and then marry her,” she wrote in 1880. “Does that then mean that her private life is that of her husband’s, too?” The vengeance with which Greffulhe curated her own image can be explained, in part, because it was the only form of capital over which she could execute actual authority. Her presence was always a performance, a self-realization in the heat of the onlookers’ gaze that was as existential as it was, according to her journals, “meditated in preparation” for every possible kind of social interaction.
It’s difficult to imagine that, at the time, this was a form of wild daring. Mere visibility for a woman used to be a form of degradation; a common pun took it that la voir (to look at her) was l’avoir (to have her), and while men of politics and letters could operate in and for the world at large, the term femme publique was used as a euphemism for prostitutes. Fashion was a long way from being taken seriously. Only when Charles Frederick Worth came up with haute couture and Impressionist artists gave up historical tableaux in order to paint their mistresses did people begin to describe clothes in artistic terms. Stéphane Mallarmé went on to direct eight issues of La Dernière Mode with the intention of studying “fashion as an art.”
While she was warned that an original cut was “absolutely forbidden,” Greffulhe, in creating her own style and then rendering it public, changed the means and modes of what clothes could be for a woman of her social standing. Intermediaries between intimate aspiration and public display, her gowns came to be the books she never wrote and the paintings she never painted—or so the exhibition catalogue says. (She did, at one point, put a dress she had painted on display, as if it were indeed a giant canvas.) Just as Proust, vis à vis his translations of Ruskin, came to believe that all reading and writing served as a sort of translation of the inner self to sentient consciousness, so Greffulhe’s fashions served to communicate her person to the exterior world—a testament to the fact that her private life was not her husband’s.
In reading Laure Hillerin’s recent biography of Greffulhe, La comtesse Greffulhe: L’ombre des Guermantes—winner of the 2015 Prix Céleste Albaret, because yes, there is a prize given out in France every year for an oeuvre proustienne—you’d think the comtesse donned her dresses in service of the music industry. I don’t buy it—style, no matter what the medium, necessitates a pleasure taken in its realization—but it’s true that music was her self-proclaimed true love. She used what the composer d’Indy described as her “magical power,” as well as twelve personal secretaries, in order to bring some of the most important artistic figures of the era to Paris, a move which was essential for their legacies. At a time when xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment ran high, she imported works from foreign composers such as Wagner, Mahler, Handel, and Richard Strauss, the concerts taking on much-needed diplomatic functions. The mechanism was the Société des grandes auditions musicales de France, an organization she founded in 1890. By reputation it had many members, but a lack of meeting notes in the archives suggests that in actuality it effectively had only one—herself. Its primary asset was her social purchase, used as a sort of cultural insurance policy.
Given all this, it’s a shame that the exhibition had to focus so much on Proust and not on this formidable energy field of a woman. He is, of course, the selling point, and will be even more so when the exhibition moves to the Fashion Institute of Technology this fall with the title “Proust’s Muse.” About three quarters of the quotes on the walls come from his books and letters, as well as those of Robert de Montesquiou, another dandy contemporary. Greffulhe’s personality is ultimately presented through the eyes of men. If anything, the exhibition reminded me of the ball Proust first imagines the Comtesse Guermantes throwing, the one where guests swirl around without bodies, haloed in the celebrated aura of their names. Proust, whose whole career was founded on the separation of the work of art from the life of the artist, is meanwhile having asthma attacks in his grave.
When writing the histories of women, an absence of literature means that the realities of the body are often mistaken as synonymous with female experience and identity. In this case, though “La Mode retrouvée” does an admirable job of delimiting Greffulhe’s figure—the mannequins are handsome, with slender wooden hands—her body, the way she wore and moved in her clothes, seems to be the crucial missing element needed to understand the effect she had. The exhibition differentiates itself by presenting someone’s wardrobe, not a brand collection, but this makes it all the more apparent that, as Baudelaire originally argued, fashion is as difficult a thing as time to regain.
Madison Mainwaring is a graduate student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, where she studies the way women responded to French Romantic ballet in the early nineteenth century. She has contributed to The Atlantic, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and VICE Magazine, among others.