Shimmering costumes in soft blue, green and violet for forest nymphs designed by Christian Lecroix for the Ballet La Source on display at the Centre National du Costume de Scène. (courtesy of National du Costume de Scène)
Christian Lacroix lavished 2 million Swarovski crystals on costumes he designed for the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of La Sourcein 2012. Over 80 of his sumptuous costumes are now on display at the Centre National du Costume de Scène in Moulins sur Allier, a charming town just two and a half hours south of Paris by train.
I have visited many costume collections but this was the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is no wonder French designer Christian Lacroix is so famous for his flamboyant designs, dramatic creations, and spectacular use of colour.
Shimmering costumes in soft blue, green, and violet silk are contrasted with hand-embroidered brocade in vibrant Mediterranean colours. The Swarovski crystals adorn the costumes of royalty but also represent dew on the dresses of forest nymphs.
The leading man’s silk tweed coat is hand-embroidered both inside and out, though the audience never sees the lining. Lacroix commissioned the extra inside decoration because he felt it would make the dancer feel more like a powerful king.
The costumes, though made for the stage, are not cheap gaudy outfits pretending to be opulent, but are instead magnificent hand-crafted costumes created in the spirit of haute couture. I gained an insight into the exacting work that goes into creating a collection of this quality from short videos shown around the exhibition.
Lacroix’s team is seen sourcing fabric, sewing, painting, developing make up, making headdresses, and endlessly adjusting costumes so they perfectly fit the dancers. The commentaries are in French but the images tell most of the story. Each of the eight rooms has descriptions of the costumes in English.
On the walls are Lacroix’s initial sketches of the images he wanted to create. Sample boards then show us the fabrics he used to bring them to life. Ballet is strenuous and, during the season, three different people perform each role. This means three versions of every costume are needed however expensive to produce. I was surprised to learn that Lacroix designs each of the three versions slightly differently so no dancer feels his or her costume has come off a production line.
The videos reveal tricks of the trade used to create the ballet costumes. Elaborate necklaces must not move as dancers leap in the air, so they are sewn onto flesh coloured net and attached to the wearer’s costume. As headdresses must be light to wear, their framework is often made from piano wire and guitar strings. The skirts of Cossack dancers, though faithfully mimicking ethnic designs, are made from antique red and gold Indian saris combined with bold furnishing fabric.
Ballet costumes lavishly decorated with Swarovski crystals by Christian Lecroix for dancers at a King’s palace. Every outfit is made to couture standard and individually fitted to the dancer. (courtesy of National du Costume de Scène)
Tremendous care and attention has also gone into displaying the costumes in a grand building that was once 18th century military barracks. Each room has a stage where mannequins are positioned as if in dance. The original choreographer was even brought in to check their positions for authenticity. To show quite how well the costumes fitted the dancers, some mannequins were cast from the bodies of the dancers who wore them on stage.
The museum, which also holds costumes by Yves Saint-Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier, would not reveal the cost of the collection, but it must have been phenomenal. It therefore came as a surprise to me to learn the costumes will never be worn again. Once the ballet’s short season ended, the outfits were dispatched to the museum to join the 10,000 stage costumes already stored there. The costumes are considered a work of art for future generations to admire, but never wear.
Next page Leaving the exhibition, I set off to visit another of Moulins sur Allier’s interesting museums, Maison Mantin.
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Leaving the exhibition, I set off to visit another of Moulins sur Allier’s interesting museums, Maison Mantin. It is a 19th century house that is part Neo-Gothic château, part English manor house, and part seaside villa – a strange style highly prized by some of the bourgeoisie of the time.
It was built in 1893 for Louis Mantin, a wealthy Frenchman, as his home and a place to display his collection of 17th and 18th century furniture, Aubusson tapestries, gilded Cordoue-style leather panels, and marble sculptures. Mantin particularly collected furniture, perhaps because his father was a cabinet maker, but also had a weakness for rare, exotic or quirky objects – stuffed animals, medallions, watch holders, postcards, prehistoric axes, keys, and bells.
Mantin was keen that future generations would be able to get an insight into the privileged, culturally rich life of the 19th century bourgeoisie. When he died in 1906 he left his house to the town, but it was not possible to open it to the public for over a hundred years. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, who rose strong and healthy when the Prince kissed her, Maison Mantin was in poor condition when awoken from its long sleep. Nearly 3.5 million euros (£ 2.85 million) were spent painstakingly restoring it to its former glory.
Every room is laid out as it was in Mantin’s lifetime. I smiled to see the black top hat beside the front door and found it easy to image him working at his solid desk (though could not appreciate why he kept a human skull on it). I could see him visiting his mistress Louise Alaize in her cheerful cerise Louis XV style bedroom or sharing their large double-ended tin bath. In the dining room I was amused to see the patriotic display of red, white, and blue light bulbs in Mantin’s huge Empire chandelier.
I used an English language audio guide rented from the tourist office to explore Moulins sur Allier’s compact historic centre. The town dates back over a thousand years and had its golden years in the 15th and 16th centuries. Ancient wooden buildings stand beside elegant 18th century town houses. Maison Mantin snuggles up to the ancient castle later used as the town jail. The cathedral’s 81-metre-high black and white twin towers strain upwards to heaven while saints and animals carved in stone peer down from its complex roof. Tradition has it that in 1429 Joan of Arc stayed in one of the well-preserved timber-framed houses.
Place de l’Hotel de Ville in the heart of the old town with timber-built medieval buildings, attractive 18th and 19th three storey houses and a wealth of cafes. (Susan Clayton)
On Thursdays and Sundays the town square fills with stalls selling cheese, locally grown vegetables, crusty bread, and all manner of useful things. One stall is even given over to selling cotton handkerchiefs.
I was not tempted by the regional delicacies of potato pie and scratchings bread at lunchtime, instead opting for the “plat du jour” at the 1899 Art Deco “Le Grand Café” in Place d’Allier. It is an elegant mirrored bistro with a stained glass ceiling that is well placed for a spot of people watching. Coco Chanel used to sing there long before she opened her fashion house in Paris.
Small shops line the twisting narrow streets of Moulins sur Allier. I bought local Saint-Nectaire cheese to bring home, though it meant running the gauntlet of a particularly rude shopkeeper. I had intended to buy some of the region’s semi-sweet gold sprinkled chocolates but the shop was shut for lunch when I called. I was disappointed yet rather pleased to find that the French tradition of a long leisurely lunch is alive and well in this ancient town.
The next day I considered visiting local vineyards and cheese makers but instead walked the 6 kilometre tree-lined “Beaver Trail” that runs beside the river Allier. I spent a happy hour throwing sticks into the water and watching them move in the current. To my surprise they kept moving upstream.
I also walked in the Forêt de Tronçais, first planted in 1675 to provide wood for the French navy. Covering 10,500 hectares, it is now one of the largest oak forests in Europe. The hour-long drive to the forest took me through two pretty stone-built villages, Bourbon-l’Archambault and Souvigny. Another pleasant trip was to Vichy for a luxurious massage at the Spa Hotel Les Celestins.
The three-bedroom guest house I stayed in, La Maison XVIIIe, was built in 1790 as the town house of the aristocratic De Cichi family. It remained in the family’s ownership until six years ago. I loved the grey panelled breakfast room with long eau de nil curtains and a grand piano, but took equal delight in the crusty “pain ancient” bread and selection of homemade jams.
My short break to Moulins sur Allier was a great success. What I cannot understand is why, before I visited, I was so unaware of the place and its riches. The town has a fascinating historic centre, a unique collection of stage costumes, beautiful homes, wonderful countryside, and great shopping. What more could anyone want?
National Centre for Stage Costumes: www.cncs.fr
Lacroix exhibition is open until December 31st.
Costumes of Power exhibition is open from January 26th to May 31st, 2013.
Maison Mantin: www.mab.allier.fr
La Maison XVIIIe B&B: http://lamaison18e.canalblog.com
Susan Clayton is a freelance travel writer based in London.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter