Fashion today is true mélange: it’s mass-market collaborations at Target, it’s Madison avenue window-shopping, it’s Project Runway challenges, it’s impulsive e-commerce, it’s Fashion Week frenzy, it’s small-business Brooklyn, it’s foreign production in struggling countries. These are not equal circumstances, but what’s shared at the heart of them all is the act of making a garment. That common denominator gets lost in the muddle, sometimes, when we talk about fashion. But a performance in Paris is spotlighting just that meticulous and elegant act with Eternity Dress (running through Sunday November 24th as part of the annual French Festival d’Automne).
Olivier Saillard (director of Paris’s eminent fashion museum, Palais Galliera) and Tilda Swinton (the beguiling Scottish-born actress) perform the entire process of making a single dress— from the measuring and patterning to the cutting and sewing—directly on Swinton’s body. Eternity Dress follows a 1950s methodology, with the dress ultimately representing the history of fashion and the architecture of the craft. It’s a striking conceptual counterpoint to the profusion of fashion collections.
Saillard and Swinton collaborated for the same festival last year on a piece entitled The Impossible Wardrobe, revolving around a selection of exquisite and delicate historical garments from the Galliera’s private archives. “It was evident Tilda should be our incarnation. She, for me, is a pedestal for all the costumes we selected,” Saillard said of their collaboration last year.
There could be no better place to honor the art of dressmaking than the most prestigious art school: the Beaux Arts de Paris. Amid marbled columns, decorative wall paintings, and the grand glass cupola of the Salon d’honneur, the small U-shaped auditorium housed a rapt audience of all ages.
Swinton emerged, pale with a butter-blond crop, neutral as the blankest of canvases. She wore a wraparound lab coat, and stood on a small centralized pedestal. The dapper Saillard followed behind, a measuring tape draped around his neck. He removed her beige Roger Vivier pumps and white lab coat to reveal a denuded ballerina-pink slip dress. They then began a series of call-and-response: Swinton intoning the type of measurements in French, Saillard responding with numerical measurements as he wielded the measuring tape over her body. It was thorough and methodical, like a medical examination: a routine in which a professional inspects the body of a patient. But in another light, it was like a ballet, with the specificity of the poses and the technical terminology a display of beautiful exact movement.
The sheer arithmetic of the process came to the fore: the fastidious calculations required for the proportions of tailoring to be juste. Upon completing the measurements, Saillard and Swinton crouched down to trace out the measurements on paper, with pen and ruler, concentrating like children on a classroom project. Swinton held up the result, which Saillard then cut like a paper doll.
The cloth version was introduced and a pincushion bracelet was brought in. Saillard and two assistants adjusted and pinned the shell of the garment to Swinton’s body. It was like spying on a great couturier in his atelier.
“The entire room was still except for the careful, repeated motion of the thread going in and out of the fabric.”
Once pinned, Swinton was left alone, and she sewed the front of the dress herself with needle and thread. The music—a voiceless soundtrack by MODE-F, the music stylists responsible for many high-fashion runway shows—ceased, and Swinton sewed in silence. The entire room was still except for the careful, repeated motion of the thread going in and out of the fabric.
Once the sewing was complete, a tissue papered box was unveiled, filled with assorted white collars, which Saillard draped and adjusted around Swinton’s neck. She shed each one like a petulant child, reciting all of their names alphabetically: col marin, col Medicis. “Sans col!” she decried at the end of the charade (No collar!).
Then came the sleeves in translucent white fabric. Slid on and off her arms, Swinton pivoted from side to side to display their silhouettes across her arm, from billowing to snug: kimono sleeve, bat sleeve, bell sleeve, Dolman sleeve. Once all types had been appraised and removed, Saillard reached for long spools of fabric and unrolled them; Swinton draped each across her body, toga-style, showcasing full lengths of beautiful fabric—swathes of shimmering sun-bright yellow, delicate polka-dotted lace, rich forest-green velvet—before casting them aside as assistants carried them off. Finally, she slithered into a finished dress: the ultimate chic sheath, a collarless long-sleeved navy blue garment.
Swinton did alternating poses as she recited the fashion pantheon: Paul Poiret. Chanel. Schiaparelli. Balenciaga. Christian Dior. Courrèges. Yves Saint Laurent. Issey Miyake. Thierry Mugler. Jean Paul Gautier. Martin Margiela. Yohji Yamamoto. Azzedine Alaia. Comme des Garcons.
Then she took off her pumps, slipped into black menswear-style flat shoes, did a little two-step, and deposited a dress form (with TILDA embroidered in red thread above the left breast) upon the pedestal where she’d stood, before walking off arm-in-arm with Saillard.
What does one take away from such a performance? For one, the kind of patience and meticulousness required to make something beautiful. It was quiet, careful, slow work, which, even in the scrupulous step-by-step of the performance, was, of course, an accelerated version of the real act. Fashion is no democracy: most things are not made with this care. But to watch the process is to honor it, to think about the magic of all those accumulated gestures that go into the designs that cloak our bodies.