The emergence of the Parisian department store coincided with the city securing its place as the pre-eminent centre of world fashion. One woman, writes ALICE CAVANAGH, wore clothes so sensational that, over a century later, we’re still discussing them.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, one figure embodied the magnificence of Parisian fashion more than any other. Her name was Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe.
‘There’s an apocryphal story about the Countess, that was used in an early draft of Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time,’ says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. ‘The character of the Duchess de Guermantes, who is based on the Countess, says: “I shall know I’ve lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me in the street.” Her companion replies, “Never fear my dear, as long as you dress as you do, people will always turn and stare.”’
Greffulhe was more than just a pretty clothes horse. Just as she patronised the ateliers of the great couturiers, she championed the work of Wagner, Stravinsky, Strauss and the Ballets Russes. Her salon, in her townhouse on Rue d’Astorg in the 8th arrondissement, was the place to be seen for aristocrats, intelligentsia and great artists alike.
A few years after the turn of the twentieth century, the Tsar of Russia made time during a diplomatic trip to pay a visit to the Countess Greffulhe. As a token of his admiration he presented her with an elaborate dark violet velvet coat with gold embroidery, of a kind traditionally worn by the Russian nobility. The Countess had it whipped up into a cape, which she wore to a charity event at the Opera Garnier. This garment, with more than fifty others, remains intact to this day, having been carefully wrapped and preserved deep in the vaults of the Palais Galliera, Paris’s pre-eminent fashion museum.
If Paris was a stage, Greffulhe was determined to be the only star of note — even at the wedding of her only daughter. She arrived early and waited outside the church to draw attention to herself. Her dress, now known as the ‘Byzantine’ dress, was by the House of Worth, one of the most famous grand couturiers in Paris. An astonishing ensemble, it was cut from gold lamé silk taffeta and overlaid with creamy silk tulle embellished with beads, paillettes, and gold metallic thread. A fur trim around the skirt’s hem made for a regal finish. She wore a feather-and-sable-covered hat featuring a great big winking diamond.
If overshadowing her daughter was the intention, then the outfit was a great success. ‘We don’t really know what the bride wore, as no one really talked about her,’ says Alexandra Bosc, a curator at the Palais Galliera.
Greffulhe’s era was that of the Belle Époque, a watershed moment for fashion, which had become a popular pastime for both countesses and commoners. This was the era of the Grands Magasins and confection — clothes that could be bought ‘off the rack’, a precursor to ready-to-wear that offered the latest trends to everybody. Now, more than ever, the upper echelons of society had to stay one step ahead.
Enter the great couture houses: Worth, Callo, Doucet, Fortuny. Most are now forgotten except as names sewn inside ghostly, archived relics such as the Countess’s gowns. Greffulhe frequented their salons but she was an unusual client in that she often gave couturiers creative direction, and not the other way around. ‘She had very different taste to other women, she knew what looked good on her and didn’t necessarily follow the fashion of the time,’ says Bosc.
The Countess knew which shades best complemented her auburn hair and dark mesmerising eyes. Deep forest green and lilac were running themes. Indeed, it was while socialising in a lilac dress at her cousin Robert de Montesquiou’s party in Versailles in 1894 that she first caught the eye of young Marcel Proust, there on a society assignment for popular newspaper Le Gaulois. Her gown, which featured a pattern of orchids and was covered in a fine layer of mousseline fabric, had an almost vaporous quality. Proust wrote to Montesquieu of the encounter: ‘There is no single part of her to be found in any other woman ... The entire mystery of her beauty is in her glow, above all in the enigma of her eyes. I have never seen a woman as beautiful as she.’
From that day on Proust devoted himself to becoming part of the Countess’s inner circle, sending her letters of admiration, to which she rarely responded. He even requesting a portrait of her, which she also refused. ‘She really didn’t like him or appreciate him — she found him far too flattering and aggressive,’ says Steele. ‘She was the star and he was not,’ agrees Bosc. That Proust went on to be, well, Proust, may have surprised and perhaps even irked her a little, but then it was he who exalted her to legendary status.
ALICE CAVANAGH is an Australian writer living in Paris. She writes for the likes of T Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Vogue. Although she writes about clothes, she doesn’t love shopping for them. When she does, she visits the studio of Parisian brand CristaSeya.