Olivier Saillard/Tilda Swinton
L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, 20th-24th November 2013, Paris, France
By Georgina Pallett
This Autumn, Olivier Saillard has overseen the re-opening of Palais Galliera, Paris’s premier fashion museum of which he is director. Yet it is a museum whose permanent collection cannot be on long-term display due to the fragility of the pieces it holds. Demonstrating Saillard’s commitment to fashion performance as an innovative response to this display problem, The Eternity Dress was performed in collaboration with Tilda Swinton at this year’s ‘Festival d’automne.’ The performance used the Maison Chloé archive to re-stage the intricate workings of the couture house as a dress was made for ‘Tilda’, who stood before us as a mannequin.
Indeed couture fittings have remained a secretive and complex process. Previously outsiders have only been offered tantalising glimpses in documentaries such as Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) which followed Valentino’s design process. The Eternity Dress has sought to rectify this gap and is part of a sustained collaboration between Saillard and Swinton.
Whereas the duo’s 2012 piece at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, The Impossible Dress was a one-woman catwalk, The Eternity Dress staged the intriguing dichotomy between tailor and model, who also happened to be an actress and museum director. Where The Impossible Dress realised the conflicts inherent in the display of clothing, in last month’s performed fitting, the apparent seriousness of couture’s skilled labour process offered surprising moments of humour. When the names of fashion houses were recited by Swinton in a tongue in cheek manner and the gaze of the audience was reflected back at her, the tensions of the fitting’s otherwise silent sobriety were exposed.
When Swinton stepped onto the podium in front of the audience, it was with a knowing look; she was aware of her centrality to the performance. As a well-known actress her charismatic presence guided us through the meticulous process of measuring, pattern cutting, toiling, draping and sample-modelling. But Swinton’s was a carefully choreographed presence, and her methodical recitations of tailoring measurements, collar styles and fashion houses (all in French) were also a playful antithesis to her better-known role as a film actress who engages in dialogue and prolonged narratives.
It was in a final retort to the rigours of the performed fitting that Saillard’s sustained concern with ‘pose’ as a fashion construct revealed itself. The auditorium of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where The Eternity Dress was staged, is encircled with Paul Delaroche’s The Hemicycle. The nineteenth-century Salon painter’s depiction of historic artists in an abundance of costumed poses could not have been lost on Saillard. It was amongst these studied gestures, that Swinton mirthfully imitated the audience’s stares and mannerisms and re-enacted established fashion poses.
However, despite its drollery, the performance was unsatisfying as its focus on unveiling the couture fitting according to the Maison Chloé archive also hinted at missed opportunities. The multiple forms the dress could take were only briefly dangled before us as the performance ploughed on towards the final piece, with a slew of different collars, sleeve-shapes and fabric rolls.
However, an archive is not just a means of re-discovery and re-creation but is also a source of unrealised possibilities and unfinished ideas. As an audience we wanted Swinton as an actress and model to give life to these couture fragments rather than letting them remain as cast-off samples. A different collar, cut, sleeve or material could have been the starting point for another character or moment, the archive of possibilities could have had a rich cast of protagonists behind it.
Yet the mannequin placed at the end of the piece labelled ‘Tilda’ was a deliberate attempt to refute such demands, as it put the muted role of mannequin ahead of that of actress. However, it also meant that the piece did not share the same questioning and curious nature of Saillard’s previous performances such as The Impossible Dress or Fashion in Motion (V&A, 2012) whose central themes had been to give the catwalk the ability to critique the fashion object.
Georgina Pallett completed an MA in the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art and now writes reviews of major exhibitions and lesser known cultural gems for her blog Cultural Demolition: http://culturaldemolition.blogspot.co.uk/
Review – Eternity Dress, Olivier Saillard/Tilda Swinton
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