The Washington Post

Pulp Fashion

Using paper and paint, artist Isabelle de Borchgrave conjures couture’s glam past

Based on a mantua — a T-shaped gown popular in European courts from the 1730s to the 1750s — a super-wide-hipped dress flaunts a brocade pattern of flowers and leaves rendered in paint. The center of the bodice, known as a stomacher, gets its lacy, beribboned look from crumpled, fan-shaped pieces of paper.

Most designers setting out to create a ball gown start with paper — to sketch a concept or make a pattern. Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave doesn’t stop there. For the past two decades, de Borchgrave has used her painter’s aesthetic to form just-larger-than-life clothing from ordinary paper.

“I play with a brush and paper; eventually it becomes this big thing,” she says. More than 25 of the artist’s fashion-meets-fantasy works are scattered throughout Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens through the end of the year as part of “Pret-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.”

Hillwood, the feminine, Russian- and French-art-filled final home of cereal heiress/art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post, proves an ideal showcase for de Borchgrave’s pretty, tactile creations. After all, the crumpling, brush-stroking and pleating the artist and her atelier do to create the faux frocks, shoes and menswear are as much a fine craft as the techniques used to make Post’s stash of Fabergé eggs, Flemish tapestries and carved Parisian chairs.

“We never count the hours it takes to do a dress,” says de Borchgrave, but it’s a minimum of a month-and-a-half’s work for several people to conjure up pieces like the ones headlining at Hillwood.

The fashionable works, most with a historical bent, are strewn throughout the mansion or displayed in the snug Adirondack Building in the estate’s garden. Inside the house’s pavilion room, a cerulean gown made for this show echoes the one worn by a 19th-century Russian countess in a portrait on the wall. Side by side, the pairing evokes a ghostly double take.

“The dress comes from the painting, an illusion of colors and fabrics you see there,” says de Borchgrave, who also molded ballet flats and a tiara mimicking the royal’s getup.

Other frock stars summon Marie Antoinette (a pink, ruffled concoction with punched paper “lace”) and the flapper era (“Boardwalk Empire”-worthy gowns in red and black). Menswear is represented, too, in a French-style frock coat in blue and yellow.

“We draw on a large library of books and research,” says the artist. “I look at history and paintings, and then I exaggerate a little bit, make things bigger or bolder. But it’s not Mickey Mouse — it’s serious. I give people a tableaux, a dream.”

Rhapsody in Blue
At Hillwood, the 19th-century Russian painting “Portrait of Countess Samoilova” inspired Belgian artist de Borchgrave to whip up a frock mimicking the one the subject wore. Every detail — the lace collar, the jeweled belt — is formed of painted, embellished paper.

Sole Sister
“I love to do accessories in paper, but they’re harder than dresses,” de Borchgrave says. “And making a pair of shoes is difficult.”

Gatsby Glamour
The straight and narrow silhouettes of the early 1920s seem uncommonly well-suited to de Borchgrave’s paper couture. Flapper frocks mimic ones from couture houses such as Lanvin and Poiret. The artist works in a studio with multiple assistants, who can take weeks or months to complete a single garment.

French Connection
“I tried to give the spirit of Provencal embroidery in a very simple way,” de Borchgrave says of her Gallic peasant-style clothes, currently on display in Hillwood’s French drawing room underneath a Beauvais tapestry.

 Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., check website for select Sundays, through Dec. 30, $15 suggested donation; 202-686-5807.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Rudi Greenberg · July 11, 2012