Tilda Swinton steps into 'Impossible Wardrobe' in Paris

PARIS, Sept 30, 2012 (AFP) -Tilda Swinton solemnly unspooled a pair of century-old silk stockings from a dust cover, placed one in each gloved hand and strode down the room -- before a spellbound Paris art and fashion crowd.



British actress Tilda Swinton presents a Delphos dress created by Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny on Sept 29, 2012 during a show at the Palais de Tokyo modern art museum in Paris. PHOTO: AFP

The British actress was the self-effacing-yet-central figure of an offbeat performance that premiered on Saturday night, in which she breathes life into 57 rare treasures from the archive of Paris's Galliera museum of fashion.

Dubbed "The Impossible Wardrobe", the installation is the brainchild of the museum's director Olivier Saillard -- who acts as Swinton's on-stage assistant, handing her wrapped dresses, coats and accessories to unfurl and display.

"The performance was born of a taboo -- you cannot wear the clothes that we store in our museums," Saillard told AFP. "But you can bear them, gently in your arms," he said -- playing on the twin meanings of the French word "porter", which means both to wear and to carry.

Dressed in a plain kimono cut from ivory dust-cover fabric, her cropped blonde hair scraped right back, Swinton radiated emotion as she bore the clothes down the "runway" to a full-length mirror, and back again to be spirited away.

For the show, staged over three days at the Palais de Tokyo modern art museum, Saillard chose 57 dresses, coats and accessories, many by the greatest names in fashion history: Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior or Pierre Balmain.

A 1968 chain-mail Paco Rabanne mini-dress once graced Brigitte Bardot, while a lush ermine collar, white with black specks, was worn by the 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Other pieces had a powerful historical resonance, like an 1810 blue jacket with gold embroidery that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, and which Swinton propelled before her at arm's length as if overcome by its presence.

Some she hugged tight, like a 1790 man's dress coat, green and iridescent purple. As she carried a mid-18th-century coachman's jacket, she fluttered one hand to suggest the heartbeat that once kept it warm.

"It was strange to think that we were storing all these garments that once clothed living bodies," Saillard explained. "I thought we could make something living of the museum's collections.

"We went for very eccentric pieces, but also very simple ones, to show that the wealth of a fashion museum is not just in its ball gowns, but also in a little handkerchief, a humble little scrap of someone's life."

Like, for example, the pair of stockings from 1918, which belonged to the 20th-century socialite Daisy Fellowes. "It's a bit like a double of the self," he said.

Incidentally, as Swinton replaced the stockings on their display tray, she shook her hands as if ridding herself of too much of a foreign presence.

When Swinton first visited the museum storerooms, she said it felt like entering a morgue. But she delved into the stores over and over throughout the course of a year, as she and Saillard put the project together.

"And then you realise that it is a nursery," she told Saillard.

A well-known fashion historian, the Galliera museum director has also carved out something of a niche in fashion-related performances, including staging what he dubs fashion "haikus" on the sidelines of the haute couture shows in Paris.

When the time came to seek an actress for the project, he quickly settled on Swinton.

A trained Shakespearean actress, she has a record of art installations, including the 1995 "The Maybe" for which she spent a week asleep in a glass box, as well as friendships with fashion designers from Haider Ackermann -- who was at Saturday's show -- to Dior's new designer Raf Simons.

"She is an artist before being an actress. She can turn herself into a living base, her face can be both masculine and feminine. And she could come from any century," said Saillard.

"I couldn't see who else could do it."by Emma Charlton

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