A Review of Pulp Fashion at the Legion of Honor

by Ingrid Mida

Isabelle de Borchgrave, Marie de’ Medici (detail), 2006, inspired by a 1595 portrait by Pietro Facchetti in the collection of the Palazzo Lancellotti, Rome. Photo: Andreas von Einsiedel

Recreating life-size historical costumes out of paper, acrylic paint, and other mixed media materials has been the focus and passion of artist Isabelle de Borchgrave life for over 15 years. These extraordinary trompe l'oeil masterpieces bring to life costumes that are rarely seen in museum collections or exist only as images in historical artworks or literary descriptions. A retrospective of Isabelle de Borchgrave's work called Pulp Fashion is currently on at the palatial Legion of Honor, Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco.

This Belgian artist trained in painting and drawing at the Centre des Arts Decoratifs and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and worked as a designer and textile artist for 30 years. When her children were young, Isabelle de Borchgrave often made costumes for them out of paper and over time began to accept commissions for paper costumes. But it was a chance encounter with Canadian costume designer Rita Brown in 1994 at the Metropolitan opera in New York that led to the next stage in Isabelle's career. The two women began a playful collaboration that saw the creation of a series of reproductions of historical costumes made out of paper initially based on the pattern books of Janet Arnold. These gowns were shown previously in an exhibition called Papier a la Mode.

Worth evening gown and shoe, 1994, based on an 1898 dress designed by Charles Frederick Worth in the collection of the Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Andreas von Einsiedel

Included in the Pulp Fashion exhibition at the Legion of Honor are selections from Isabelle de Borchegave's most important bodies of work presented in six sections. Opening the exhibition is a recreation of the artist's studio complete with drop cloths and works in progress as well as a looped video showing the artist at work as she manipulates paper to create the look of fabric - crumpling, pleating, braiding, feathering, and painting the surface. An adjacent gallery showcases her earliest work of historical dress recreations with Rita Brown from Papier a la Mode. In it, she presents eight gowns constructed out of white paper to illustrate the changes in silhouette in women's fashions over time as well as the draping of a wedding veil recreated out of lens paper. The Fortuny Room is enveloped by a magical recreation of Fortuny's exhibition tent from the 1911 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and also includes gowns, shoes, and other objects inspired by the work of the Spanish born fashion designer. The Medici Room includes life-size recreations of the women and children of the Medici family based on historical paintings as well as three extraordinary paper ruffs. And finally the Collections Connections Room includes the recreation of five new dresses inspired by the museum's painting collection. Included in each gallery throughout the exhibition are textiles or objects from the museum's collection to add context to Isabelle de Borchegrave's work.

There is no doubt as to the extraordinary skill and talent of Isabelle de Borchegrave and her studio of assistants. These trompe l'oeil fabrics, lace, trims, shoes, accessories and objects recreated out of paper are breath-taking to behold. All around me people exclaimed their surprise and admiration for the gowns on display. It takes a closer look to notice the development in the artist's ouevre. In the artist's earliest works the gowns were presented on standard mannequins but as the years progressed, the artist began to make the mannequins herself allowing her to refine the look and pose of the form and making it a more complete artistic presentation. The Fortuny Room exemplifies a complete installation and the entire room embodies the Fortuny spirit with even a recreation of his closet. Some of Isabelle's most spectacular work is featured in the room of women of the Medici. This work is mounted on life-size paper mache figures and includes eye-popping details of lace ruffs, jewelery and rich fabrics. To me, the most spectacular figure is the sculpture of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1667-1743) who is the only figure not in a standing pose. In a seated position, her lavish gown spills over her legs and her train trails behind to breath-taking effect.

Installation by Isabelle de Borchgrave photographed inside Palazzo Fortuny

There are five gowns that were specially created by the artist for the exhibition after studying the collections of the museum. And while these gowns show Isabelle de Borchgrave's extraordinary skill with paper, I wished they had been displayed alongside the paintings within the museum itself, instead of in the special exhibition gallery. The museum itself is so beautiful and so palatial that the placement of the sculptures in the painting gallery would have injected a new vibrancy and modernity into the corners of the museum.

Pulp Fashion: the Art of Isabelle de Borchegrave will be on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through June 5, 2011.

Ingrid Mida is an artist and writer whose practice explores the boundary between fashion and art. She has a studio in Toronto and is represented by Loop Gallery. Ingrid is the author of the widely read blog Fashion is my Muse and will be the keynote speaker for the Costume Society of America - Midwest Region Annual Symposium in the fall where she will speak about the intersection of art and fashion.