The other museum that occupies the vast building that houses le Louvre is Les Arts Décoratifs. It has a large and wonderful collection of decorative art objects (i.e., things that might have a practical use). In addition, many temporary expositions are staged every year.* There is way too much to see in a single visit, so one of the mysteries of our stay in Paris is why I did not return to the museum until almost the end.
The main draw for me was the show called Déboutonner la Mode (Unbuttoning Style).** An entire exposition about buttons!?! Well, not exactly, because buttons have a purpose, almost exclusively having to do with fastening and decorating various items of apparel, from the skin out and from top to bottom.
According to the English language brochure: “For the first time, the “Déboutonner la mode” exhibition is unveiling a collection of over 3,000 buttons unique in the world, and also featuring a selection of more than 100 female and male garments and accessories by emblematic couturiers such as Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Patrick Kelly.
“Acquired in 2012, this collection was classified as a work of major heritage interest by the consultative commission on national treasures. Although small in size, the priceless materials and skills involved in making these pieces dating from the 18th to the 20th Century can make them fully-fledged objets d’art.
“Produced by artisans ranging from embroiderers, soft furnishers, glassmakers and ceramicists to jewellers and silversmiths, they crystallize the history and evolution of these skills. The button has also fascinated famous painters, sculptors and creators of jewellery, inspiring them to produce unique miniature creations for the great couture houses.”
>> In the 18th c. the height of men’s fashion was l’habit à la française, a vest, coat (habit), and breeches. Embroidery was done on the fabric before cutting. Buttons, functional or not, were arranged by a strict code indicating status. Their manufacture was also strictly controlled, divided among guilds according to materials and techniques, e.g., patenôtriers (rosary makers) made bone buttons, and only silversmiths could use precious metals. By the end of the century a man’s coat typically had 10 buttons down the front, 2 on each cuff, 2 at waist level at the back, and 2 hidden in the fold of the tails. Only 2 or 3 at breast level had buttonholes.
>> Meanwhile, women’s clothing almost completely lacked buttons, until English fashions became popular, and women’s clothing became inspired by men’s. One of the earliest examples was the redingote, reserved for riding in England, but worn as a full length day dress over a thin linen skirt in France, where the button code was followed. [I could not get a good photo of an old redingote; this is a reprise by Jacques Heim, spring/summer 1938, with fewer buttons.]
>> During the 19th c. men’s fashions became increasingly sober, without embroidery or fancy buttons. George “Beau” Brummell set the style. Buttons still played a role: vest styles changed frequently, and little buttons emphasized their lines. Occasionally, gold buttons were allowed.
>> The Montgolfier brothers’ 1783 ascent in a hot air balloon inspired la ballomania. Paintings, fans, cups, chairs, and many more items featured balloons. These 6 buttons are made from a variety of materials.
>> Stamped metal buttons made in the late 19th c.
>> Art Nouveau buttons made around 1900.
>> A selection of buttons from Yves St Laurent.
>> By the late 1800s buttons had migrated from men’s to women’s garments. They were usually placed straight down the front, lending a balance and symmetry. On the left: button boots and button hook, button cards, and long gloves on the pillar; cape, coat and dress behind.
>> A sheer vest/blouse with decorative, though restrained, buttons, early 20th c.
>> A crêpe, tulle, and silk satin dress with machine made lace and artificial flowers. The front buttons are decorative; a series of hooks and small buttons is used to fasten it.
>> Summer dress by Paul Poiret, 1920, of ottoman, gold lamé, and passepoil satin; conical buttons of paste glass.
>> Pant suit made by Elso Schiaparelli, winter 1937, for Marlène Dietrich, of silk cloqué with metal buttons.
>> Cocktail dress by Hubert de Givenchy, c.1953, of machine embroidered tulle and satin, with satin-covered buttons. I think the closures of top and skirt are by zipper.
>> Dress, fall/winter 2011-2012, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. It follows the letter of Coco Chanel’s mandate (“No buttons without buttonholes!”) but I’m not sure she would agree that the spirit of the law has been followed.
>> Two samples of artists and artisans inspired to make buttons: silver by silversmith Georg Jenson in the middle, ceramic by Dada and surreal artist Jean Arp on the right.
This posting barely skims the surface of the show. All of the information panels (but not the individual descriptions) are in French and English. The display of buttons in different materials matches the material with another object, e.g., a leather shoe with the leather buttons, a porcelain vase with porcelain ones, etc. Techniques are explained. Panels about couturiers discuss how they used/use buttons. The final room looks at artists and artisans and the buttons they make.
*In the fall of 2013 I saw a fascinating exposition all about the underpinnings of what we wear: the cinchers and padders that make us look thinner, more curvaceous, wider here, narrower there…
** Until 19 July 2015