John Galliano for Christian Dior, dress, fall/winter 2000-2001 haute couture, France. Photograph © Guy Marineau (all images courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

When walking into Paris, Capital of Fashion, currently on view at The Museum at FIT, I feared an experience of bells, whistles, and fawning over France’s supremacy in the spheres of fashion and culture. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Spread between two galleries Paris, Capital of Fashion, thoughtfully curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, traces the ascent of French fashion and its subsequent preeminence for the past five centuries (although though the majority of the examples date from the late 19th and 20th century). The first gallery analyzes the impact of Paris in a global fashion market and its ongoing interaction with — and, as the exhibition brochure states, “soft power” over — other fashion capitals. The main gallery, by contrast, is a pure celebration of Parisian couture.

Emile Pasquier, green and brown changeant velvet and green faille ball gown, 1889-1890, France; The Museum at FIT.
“Französische Modenherrschaft über Europa” (French Fashion Domination over Europe), etching by Christian Gottlieb Geyser after Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, circa 1780, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, HB 25963, Kapsel 1267 ©Germanisches Nationalmusuem, photograph: Monika Runge. Light box and graphic imagery provided by Leach, a subsidiary of Chargeurs. Pink and green lace patterned silk robe à la française, 1750s, probably France;The Museum at FIT.

Yves Saint Laurent, dark green haute couture silk taffeta gown, 1972, France; The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mary Russell. Stephen Burrows, rayon jersey color blocked evening dress, 1973, USA; The Museum at FIT. Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert, red silk satin dress with black belt, fall 1952, USA; The Museum at FIT. Jacques Fath, red taffeta haute couture evening gown, circa 1953, France; The Museum at FIT.

Of course, the exhibition is full of pretty and frilly things, as Steele emphasizes how it all started at Versailles. Entering a secluded, sanctum-like section of the main gallery, which feels like a Sofia Coppola or Baz Luhrmann movie, we witness the legacy of the French royal court in fashion and fashion-adjacent visual culture. The few Versailles-era garments (a dress, a corset) are accompanied by costume designs from the 1930s, courtier-inspired women’s suits by Nicolas Ghesquiere, and one garment by John Galliano for Dior’s Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 collection; titled “Freud or Fetish,” the collection was influenced by excess and fetishism, which included a wink to the French aristocracy in its prime and its downfall.

Jean Paul Gaultier, dress, fall 1984, France; The Museum at FIT, P92.8.1 Short orange shirred velvet “corset” dress; strapless sheath with exaggerated cone bust shaping; boned and shirred along full length seams; lacing at CB.

Spread across the sections including “The Cult of the Designer” and “Fashion, Art, Luxury” are what come closest to real-life Disney princess ballgowns: a 1866-67 creation designed by Charles Frederick Worth; a scarlet evening cape by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from 1927; a Grecian goddess-style ivory silk jersey gown circa 1945 by Madame Grès; and two Christian Dior creations from the 1950s, a black minimalist gown from Dior’s famous 1955 Y-line and a pale blue ballgown adorned with pink flower buds. 

However, the garments in Paris, Capital of Fashion do not all conjure an image of ivory tower luxury. Beginning in the late 1800s with Charles Worth, Paris managed to remain a “capital of fashion” thanks to the influx of foreign-born and immigrant designers. Jewish-Egyptian immigrant Gaby Aghion, who founded Chloe in 1952, pioneered what she called “luxury pret-à-porter” — fine ready-to-wear fashion. Her label became iconic under such creative directors as German-born Karl Lagerfeld and, later, British designers Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. Modernist designer Bouchra Jarrar, who worked for Balenciaga, Lacroix, and Lanvin prior to founding her own label, combines high fashion with function; the show features a beaded top adorned with rooster feathers, worn with plain white trousers.

Claire McCardell, black bias-cut rayon and silk crepe faille evening dress, circa 1939, USA; The Museum at FIT, Gift of Denise Otis. Elizabeth Hawes, striped gray silk evening dress and bolero, circa 1932, USA; The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mrs. Dudley Schoales. Licensed copy of Lanvin for Bergdorf Goodman, black tulle embroidered with stacked black paillettes, circa 1935, USA; The Museum at FIT, Gift of Caroline Rennolds Milbank. Unauthorized copy of Vionnet “Little Horses” dress, turquoise rayon crepe beaded sheath dress, circa 1926, USA; The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mrs. J. Mirsky. Lower East Side clothing stores, circa 1910. Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images. Light box and graphic imagery provided by Leach, a subsidiary of Chargeurs.

Agnes-Drecoll, evening dress, circa 1934, France. Collection of Newark Museum, Gift of Mrs. Wells P. Eagleton, 1940.

While issues of diversity are not broadly addressed in the exhibition, Olivier Rousteing, a Black designer from Bordeaux who was appointed creative director at Balmain at just 25, is represented by a sculptural minidress made with raffia and rhinestones. In addition, the exhibition includes a partial recreation of the 1973 “Battle of Versailles” fashion show, a fundraiser for repairs to the palace in which American and French designers faced off. The Americans runway featured 11 Black models, an unprecedented number at the time.

What stands out in the most positive way is that Paris, Capital of Fashion avoided acknowledging the way Instagram and social media have reshaped the fetishization of Frenchness in a way that is visually dull, reductive, and borderline racist in its lily-white idea of Frenchness.

In all, Paris, Capital of Fashion is a comprehensive visual compendium that can help audiences understand the way fashion became foundational to the identity of the city. Perhaps this can become an ongoing series celebrating fashion capitals worldwide, whether established or emerging.

Christian Dior, blue embroidered silk shantung haute couture dress, spring/summer 1952, France; lent by Hamish Bowles. Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior, “Soirée de Paris” black silk velvet haute couture dress with replica silk satin sash produced by Christian Dior, fall 1955, France; Kent State University Museum, Silverman/Rodgers Collection (Gift of Marti Stevens) 1983.1.1253ab. Jean Paul Gaultier, haute couture ensemble, black silk crepe dress and gold lamé overdress with paniers, spring/summer 1998, France; lent by Jean Paul Gaultier. Christian Dior, “Mystère de New York” black haute couture chiffon over silk faille dress, 1955, France; lent by Hamish Bowles. Balmain, “Chateau Haut Brion” haute couture red silk satin dress, fall/winter 1955-1956, France; lent by Hamish Bowles.

Silk satin damask and braided silk whalebone stays, circa 1740–60, France; Les Arts Décoratifs, collection Mode et Textile, PR 995.16.1. Articulated pannier, leather covered Iron with fabric tape, circa 1770, France; Les Arts Décoratifs, depot du musée national du Moyen Âge-Thermes et hotel de Cluny 2005, Cluny 7875. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, red haute couture “Ile enchanté” embroidered silk satin bustier dress with bracelets and embroidered shoes, fall/winter 1987-1988, France. Lent by CHANEL Patrimoine Collection, Paris.

Gabrielle Chanel, evening cape, 1927, France. The Museum at FIT, 96.69.15 Calf length evening cape in doubled scarlet silk crepe de chine crinkled and “smocked” along curved edges of cocoon silhouette, crimson feather trim forming “shawl collar” and wide hem band.

Paris, Capital of Fashion continues at the Museum at FIT (227 West 27th Street, Manhattan) through January 4.

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.