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Pulp Fashion

Visions in Paper

Elaborate costumes and elegant gowns are a feast for the eyes, the endless variety of lines, fabrics, and embellishments parading forth from the designer’s lavish imagination. Now imagine some of the most classic and complex fashions in the world made not from velvet and silk and lace, but from paper. This, in a nutshell, is Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.

At the mention of paper gowns, I must admit that Dior and Chanel are not the first things that usually come to mind. But in Pulp Fashion, Isabelle de Borchgrave has elevated the flimsy tissue paper structure from the doctor’s office to the level of high couture — literally putting to paper the designs of Dior, Chanel, Fortuny, and many others. Who knew that paper could drape gracefully, glow with a satiny sheen, or cling fetchingly to the female form?

Elegantly draped satin, diaphanous folds of transparent lace, thick brocades pooling at one’s feet; somehow all of these effects are achieved with nothing more than paint and paper. In “In White” and “Papiers a la Mode,” de Borchgrave creates a brief history of fashion from around the 17th century (with an Elizabeth I court dress inspired by at 1599 painting) up to the present (a crisp Christian Dior suit). Tiny flowers, bold geometric shapes, twining lines, and even wild animals adorn the ensembles, borrowed from fashions of centuries past. Between the navy blue and white Charles Frederick Worth gown and the several colorful 18th century evening dresses, women’s fashion of the past four hundred years is pretty well covered.

In another room, the creations of Mariano Fortuny receive homage, the signature flowing pleats and high waists gracing mannequin forms posed carefully about an intricately cut out tent. Here, tiny paper cylinders are spaced evenly along the edges of garments, and even the cords and belts twining about the waist are constructed from paper. Reminiscent of the ancient Greek chiton, the dresses flow with crisp pleats and lovely folds.

However, it is perhaps “The Medici” that is most awe-inspiring. Pearls, beads, cords, bows, and lace embellish the already fantastic creations, displaying an almost obsessive attention to detail. Inspired by portraits of this prominent 16th century family, the works here reveal an ability to manipulate paper and paint to create elaborate illusions of complicated patterns. The lace collars alone illustrate several different techniques for achieving various effects with great success. In addition to painting in elaborate lines and cutting out patterns like snowflakes, de Borchgrave has laid strips of paper on its side in curves and curlicues, similar in construction to corrugated cardboard.

Though these extravagant Medici dresses are possibly the most well-known of de Borchgrave’s works in paper, her painterliness shines most brightly in the simple robes of “The Artist’s Studio.” Simple and square in shape, the robes are not the technical feats of construction of the other works in the exhibition. Yet, it is the simplicity of their construction that allows the viewer to more fully appreciate de Borchgrave’s careful eye for color and pattern. Bright, bold hues and stunning flowered and ikat patterns flow across the paper, clearly broadcasting the artist’s background in painting.

The draw of this exhibition is not just the beauty of the costumes but the medium in which they are created. The originals with the details of stitching and embellishment and the true sheen of velvet and satin would be more exciting — if it were only about the costumes. But Pulp Fashion is also about pushing the limits of paper, both in terms of manipulating its physical properties and of creating illusions of texture. De Borchgrave’s attention to detail and eye for pattern and design have created some truly stunning pieces.

Legion of Honor
February 5, 2011-June 5, 2011
Tickets: Free to $15