Saturday, July 9, 2016

Paris 2016 - Museum of Decorative Arts (Temporary Exhibits)

As discussed in my previous blog, the Museum of Decorative Arts consists of a permanent collection primarily focused on French furnishings and decor dating from the 12th Century through the 21st Century.  In addition to this, rotating temporary exhibitions are held to display subsets of the museum's vast inventory of fashion, toys and graphic arts/advertising.  During our visit in July 2016, we were fortunate enough to attend exhibits called "Fashion Forward - 3 Centuries of Clothing", "Barbie" and "Caricature Posters of 1850-1918".  These exhibits in general, and the Barbie exhibit in particular, were some of the best curated shows that we have ever attended, in terms of breadth, depth and comprehensive explanations of what we were seeing and why it was important.

The fashion exhibit was titled "Fashion Forward, 3 Centuries of Clothing".  Around 300 pieces were selected from the collection of 150,000 items, in order to chronologically present examples of French design from the 18th Century to today, highlighting key moments in fashion.  The fashions from the mid 1700s during Louis XVI's reign through Napoleon's reign in the early 1800s are elegant and regal in appearance.  Dresses worn in the royal courts were made of silk, taffeta and satin, often decorated with ornate embroidery and beading.  Accessories on display included folding hand fans, long gloves, purses, slip-on shoes, broaches and pendants.

By the mid 1800s, the fabrics are less ornate in both the women and the men's wardrobe and the bustle comes into style, providing a framework to expand the back of a woman's dress, forming a protrusion at the lower back.  In terms of accessories, the fans of the 1700s century have been replaced with pretty parasols while several examples of purses looked like headbands or scarfs to me.

During the Belle Epoque period (1871-1914) the dresses no longer sported the bustle, but developed a more streamlined, bell shape and used softer fabrics.  The designs were probably influenced by the Art Nouveau movement which partly coincided with this period.  I loved the pumpkin-coloured evening dress by Callot Soeurs (1909-13) with the beautifully embroidered bodice and hem.  The silk kimono came into style during this period and was worn as dressing gowns for ladies of the Belle Epoque.  Painted wax fashion dolls by Lafitte-Désirat were used to model miniature versions of fashions created by designers during the 1910s.  The dolls are given hair styles of the times and wear wool, fur, leather and feathers in their hats.

The clothes of the 1920s-30s reflected the advances of women's roles in society following World War I, resulting in fashion styles that represented their desire for equality.  The dresses became much shorter, climbing from the ankle to mid-calf.  Waistlines were dropped and the forms of day dresses and evening wear were worn more loosely, allowing for easier movement.  Influences from the Art Deco movement crept into some of the designs in terms of bold colors and geometric shapes.  The hot pink evening cape with the gold star burst design by Elsa Schiaparelli (1938) was just stunning.

Following this wonderful tour of fashion through the centuries up to the 1930s, we entered a large room where we were bombarded with a cavalcade of haute couture spanning the remaining decades from 1940 through to the current day.  The earlier works were by designers including Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, and John Galiano while the more recent creations were by names such as Christian Lacroix, Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada.

Some of my favourite dresses included the one that looked like a bright red heart by Commes Des Garçons (2015), which stood next to an interesting painted leather jacket matched with a printed twill shirt and pants by Icolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton, the Christian Dior evening dress (1953) with the embroidered flowers and greenery, and the Karl Lagerfeld (for Chanel 1996) gold evening dress matched with a contrasting sheer grey shawl. I did not catch the names of the designers, but I liked the bright fushia evening dress with a modern spin on the bustle, and the soft orange gown with the ballerina-like tulle material at the bottom.

There were also designs that ranged from interesting to strange in my mind.  There was the Spanish matador pantsuit and Picasso-inspired dress by Yves Saint Laurent (1979), the outfit that looked like my flannel pajamas, a couple of "space-aged" designs, and the dress made of small sheets of credit-card sized metal linked together by metal chains.  But the weirdest outfit for me was the sweat suit dress with hoodie that was even more peculiar when viewed from the back.  We were really impressed with this temporary fashion exhibit of the Museum of Decorative Arts, which was more comprehensive and better curated than the one we saw in the Galliera Museum, despite that museum being entirely dedicated to fashion.

Also excellently curated was the even larger, more impactful and totally comprehensive toy exhibition simply titled "Barbie" since this iconic doll is universally known and needs no further description. Developed by Mattel in 1959, the Barbie universe has grown and morphed with the times, reflecting changes in social, cultural and sartorial norms throughout the years.  To give the Barbie doll context, a brief history of dolls is provided and some early dolls were displayed.  It was noted that in the 18th and early 19th centuries, dolls were considered valuable ornamental items, or were created as tiny mannequins to show off wardrobe designs, as were the Lafitte-Désirat that we saw in the fashion exhibit.  It was not until 1870-80s that dolls with child-like bodies, faces, and clothing were first developed and even then, they were only available for the wealthy.  From then until the invention of the Barbie in 1959, dolls were meant to be cradled and cuddled like babies, allowing young girls to simulate the role of their mothers.

Barbie was the brainchild of Mattel executive Ruth Handler, who watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, pretending that they were adults as opposed to children.  After some difficulty, Ruth convinced Mattel to create a physical "teenage fashion model" doll with protruding breasts and a tiny waist, which girls could dress up and use to act out their potential future lives.  Barbie allowed the girls to imagine themselves as successful, free, independent women as opposed to the traditional stereotypes of being wives, mothers and home makers.

Named after Ruth's daughter Barbara, the first iteration of Barbie had blond hair tied up in a classic pony tail and was dressed in a striped strapless swimsuit, black mules, sunglasses, and hoop earrings.  A brunette version was also released at the same time.  The intent was to sell not only the doll but also different outfits for her, each giving Barbie a different persona and identity.  Barbie's hair also changed with the times, in terms of length, style and colour.  By 1961, influenced by Jackie Kennedy, Barbie was sporting much shorter hair and came with multiple wigs of different styles and hair colours.  A later version sported extremely long, wavy hair.  One of the most important features and greatest achievements of the Barbie doll is her mobility.  The original Barbie could move her arms and legs, allowing her to walk, sit, or wave.  Later versions were given joints at the elbows and knees, allowing the doll to perform Yoga and gymnastic moves.  Barbie was given an entire history including a birth date of March 9, 1959 (the day the doll was launched), a full name of Barbara Millicent Roberts, and parents George and Margaret Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin.

In 1961, Ken Carson (named after Ruth's son) was the second doll added to the line, in reaction to a strong demand for a boyfriend for Barbie.  This allowed for more play options including sporty and romantic dating scenarios for Barbie and her beau.  But continuing the theme of Barbie's free spirit and independence, Ken never became her fiancee or husband and was never the dominant figure in their "relationship".  Barbie actually "left" Ken for Australian surfer Blaine in 2004, mimicking other real-life celebrity breakups, before reconciling with her original boyfriend in 2011 after a prolonged period of "wooing" on Ken's part.   What a great marketing ploy to raise interest in the dolls and promote a new one to be purchased!

Barbie's universe was expanded to include a slew of family, friends and pets who were all made into dolls (although her parents were not and only existed in Barbie-based books).  Her 14-year-old sister Skipper was added in 1964, followed by younger siblings including Tutti, Todd, Stacie and Krissy, as well as cousins (Francine), aunts and uncles.  Barbie had many friends with her first best friend Midge Hadley created in 1963, followed by many others including Stacey, PJ, Steffie, Christie, and Teresa.  Many of the family and friends were given family, friends and boyfriends of their own, thus further expanding the Barbie realm.  Barbie has over 40 pets including multiple cats, dogs and horses, and even a panda, lion cub and zebra.

No one can fault Mattel for not trying to be inclusive or embracing diversity when it comes to producing Barbie products, sometimes with varying degrees of success.  In 1997, they created a wheelchair bound friend of Barbie's named Becky but unfortunately and inexplicably, only produced her for several years despite good sales.  One plausible (but denied) reason was that wheelchair Becky did not fit into any of the other accessories like the Playhouse or car.  Since 2009, Mattel has developed new Barbies to represent different ethnicities, including 14 different faces, 8 skin tones, 18 eye colours and 23 shades of hair colour, as well as through the use of cultural wardrobe, makeup, accessories and hairstyles.  Some of the dolls don't actually look much like the ethnicity that Mattel was aiming for, since the same basic faces were reused and just tinted with different skin tones and given different hair.
Long criticized for creating an unrealistic, unhealthy body type for girls to aspire to, in 2016, Mattel continued its quest to stay relevant with their customer base by introducing Barbies with new body types including tall, petite, and curvy/heavyset.  I guess each of these new body types will require their own set of clothes as well since the clothes for original Barbie will not fit.  This generates even more sales opportunities for Mattel.

Where Mattel really excelled in fueling the imaginations and sparks of possibility of Barbie's young owners is in her depiction in a myriad of careers and professions that evolved in step with the social norms of the working woman over the decades.  Starting with tradition roles of the 1960s such as homemaker, babysitter, stewardess, nurse or cheerleader, Barbie moves into roles where she is the athlete as opposed to cheering on the male athlete, and then moves further into typically male dominated roles such as fireman, Canadian Mountie, and even President of the USA.  Her many careers spanned the fields of Education, Medicine, Military and Law Enforcement, Politics, Public Service, Science and Engineering, Transportation, Arts, Sports and more.  Through it all, Barbie is always pert, cute and impeccably dressed.

The Barbie product line consists of much more than just the dolls.  Barbie's innumerable accessories include multiple homes and apartments, and vehicles including different models of cars, a camper trailer, bicycle, motor scooter, jeep, golf cart and even a horse and carriage made for a princess.  There is furniture to fit the various homes, cookware and every conceivable type of sports equipment including skis, a tennis racquet, kayak, jet ski, paddle boat, swimming pool and more.

The next section of the exhibit showed the manufacturing process for the dolls, starting from hand-drawn sketches through to 3-D renderings of prototypes through to the final product.  We see samples of heads and hair strands, fabrics and patterns for the wardrobe.  The goal is to achieve the mass production of a product that meets the functionality and safety standards required for a child's toy, as well as the sophistication and elegance expected of a collector's item.

The design and manufacturing processes continue through the creation of the packaging, which plays a central role in the marketing of the product by highlighting the doll and any accessories that come with it, including more wardrobe, purses, or jewelry.  Unique packaging is designed to reflect the contents of specialty dolls.  The "Barbie Lagerfeld" is dressed in black and white, taking inspiration from designer Karl Lagenfeld's signature style, and its packaging emulates this look.

Elaborate sets are created "to-scale" in order to showcase the Barbies for photo shoots and publicity videos.  These sets are also used at toy fairs and Barbie conventions and exhibitions like this one.  Lars Auvinen, an award winning set designer for product advertisements, TV commercials and trade shows, specializes in creating these Barbie sets.

My favourite part of this incredible exhibit is the section that illustrates how art and pop culture are reflected through the use of Barbie's image.  Artists use Barbie as a muse for their works in all sorts of different ways. Chloé Ruchon created a pink foozeball machine using Barbies as the players and called it "Barbie Foot".  Shortly before his death, Andy Warhol applied his iconic pop-art rendering techniques to create Barbie's portrait.  Olivier Rebufa also creates sets to pose his Barbies within, photographs them, then hilariously integrates his own image into his photos.

Pop culture is reflected through Barbie-like dolls created in the image of comic book characters Television characters, movie characters, iconic actors and musical artists. On display were figurines representing characters from Star Trek, the Justice League (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman), Mad Men, The Hunger Games, My Fair Lady, Grease, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind among many others.  Real life renderings were made of singers Elvis Presley and Diana Ross, and actresses Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

The marketing of Barbie has always stayed current with changes in technology, originally using TV advertisements to show the dolls in action.  Today, Barbie is heavily represented within social media, with her own Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts (@barbiestyle) which are used to communicate with her fans.  With all her careers, I was thinking that I would not be surprised if Barbie had a LinkedIn account, and you know what?  She does!!

Barbie was initially designed to be a fashion model and she definitely has the wardrobe to support that goal. Since Oscar De la Renta first designed for Barbie in 1985, she has been dressed by noted designers such as Miu Miu, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, and Moschino.  Limited edition collectors' dolls were dressed in designs by Karl Lagerfled, Burberry, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier and others.  Designers have also dressed real-life models in clothes inspired by ones that Barbie might wear.  The walls of a large room that needs to be seen to be believed is covered from floor to ceiling with over 7000 pieces of miniature clothing including dresses, skirts, pants, blouses, tops, jackets, shoes, hats, bags and jewelry that are sorted by shades and colours.  Barbie's clothing followed the trends of the decades, from the mini skirt to tie-dye hippie prints to power suits to jeggings and so on.

A rotating fashion runway showed off more Barbies dressed in designer fashions.  It is jolting to think that Barbie owns more beautiful outfits than any regular person could ever imagine or hope for.   In some respects, you could say that this is as much a second fashion exhibit as it is a toy exhibit.

Through the 5+ decades since her creation, Barbie has acted both as a mirror of social change and as a cultural icon that influenced the world around her.  Known around the world, her likeness or persona has been featured in books, TV shows, movies, video games, and art pieces, while her brand has been used to sell apparel, cosmetics, and accessories.  This amazing exhibit did an excellent job at illustrating Barbie's importance and legacy and confirming that she has been so much more than just a toy.

The graphic arts / advertising exhibit was called "Caricature Posters from 1850-1918" and marked a period in time when the poster was not considered an art form but rather functioned as a medium for advertising and political satire.  There was not much English description available for the posters.  So while the advertising ones were straight forward and easy to discern with products such as Nil Cigarettes, Remington typewriters and Michelin Tires, the political posters were harder to understand without more context regarding French history.

After having toured three fabulous exhibits at the Museum of Decorative Arts, and after reading about previous exhibits, we definitely plan to return from for another visit on our next trip to Paris.  I just wished that this museum resided in our home city so that we could go regularly and not miss the next upcoming show.

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