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.
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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