Imagine the complexity involved in creating an 18th-century rococo ball gown, with its reams of ribbons and layers of lace and petticoats, or an intricately pleated Fortuny evening ensemble. Then think about making them out of paper. At Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, “Pret-a-Papier” presents Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave’s take on historical fashions and haute couture designs.
Through cutting, gluing and painting, using a mix of acrylic paint, ink and metallic powder, de Borchgrave makes us believe we’re seeing lace, brocade, silk, taffeta and embroidery. Most of the costumes, mounted on huge mannequins, are displayed in Hillwood’s Adirondack Building. The remaining works are housed in the main museum, where the objects and personal items of Marjorie Merriweather Post give context to the clothes.
A white couture gown, inspired by Charles Frederick Worth, stands in Post’s bedroom. A 1920s-style dress with lamé and kimono sleeves, much like the Callot Soeurs designs Post favored, resides in her dressing room. In her Brussels studio, de Borchgrave directs a team of 18, each specializing in a part of a costume’s creation, whether building a wire structure, painting the ground colors, crafting jewelry or cutting trimmings. We spoke with her at Hillwood on the morning before the exhibit.
“I play with paper; it was my first medium as a child. It’s a very poor [inexpensive] material, so you can use a lot of it and cut it without fear, unlike a canvas. When I was very young my mother took me to museums. I was charmed by Manet’s ‘Le dejeuner sur l’herbe’ and the colors — the green, the white, the black spots. As a child all I could see was the grass, the flowers and the animals at the bottom of paintings. Little by little I could see the people, the costumes, the space. I discovered dresses through painting, and what I liked was the shape, the sculpture, the color, the details.
“[In 1994] I went to New York City to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was fascinated by it, and by my costume-designer friend’s studio overflowing with dresses and 18th-century shoes. When you’re an artist and you’re in New York, you’re more creative. I was overwhelmed; I knew I had to go back to Brussels and do something. At the time I was working for several [design] companies but wasn’t proud of what I did. One day on the steps of the museum I told my friend I would send her a ticket to come to Brussels. ‘We have to do a paper dress,’ I said. Our first one was an 18th-century costume. Within two years, there was a room filled” with fashion history from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel.
“I don’t pretend to know a lot about history. My inspiration comes from period dresses, but they are subject to my poetic license. I’m really an artist; I sew with paint. I’m crazy about fabrics and bring them to life through paper.
“My new studio is filled with light and very contemporary; my whole team can work together there. It’s like a giant piece of white paper of 15,000 square feet. Every year we use 2.5 miles of paper. It’s interesting to see a period dress in that space. It’s a conversation between the eras.
“It gives me pleasure to share what I love. I’d like people who come to see my work to dream about the beauty, the color, the art. I want them to be inspired like I was as a child. You need to be humble in front of art. Everything has already been done, but everyone can [contribute] something new.”
On view at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens through Dec. 30.
4155 Linnean Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.