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Paper Dresses, Beautiful Art

Paper dresses on display at the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens now through December.

Think paper dresses are for paper dolls? Think again.

Over the weekend 25 gorgeous, exquisite dresses—in all colors, and in styles ranging from 18th-century French court ballgowns to flapper frocks from the 1920s—went on exhibit at the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens (4155 Linnean Ave. NW, Washington, DC), a historic house museum.

And, all of the dresses—and their accompanying shoes, purses, shawls and jewelry—are made of paper.

The exhibit—"Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave"—is the museum's first special exhibit featuring a living artist, said Kate Markert, the executive director of Hillwood, which was once the home of heiress, socialite and art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post.

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The dresses are made out of white paper that has been painted, crushed or folded and ironed, explained Liana Paredes, the director of collections at the museum and the exhibit's curator.

In her studio in Brussels, de Borchgrave has been creating these fantastic works of art for more than 15 years.

"Inspired by the rich history of fashion represented in European paintings, famous costumes in museum collections, and designs of the grand couturiers, de Borchgrave has turned her passion for painting to the recreation of elaborate costumes—crumpling, pleating, braiding, and painting the surface of simple rag paper to achieve the effect of textiles and create the illusion of haute couture," according to a museum statement.

"Hillwood founder Marjorie Merriweather Post absolutely loved the lavish apparel of the Russian imperial family and 18th-century French aristocracy, and was equally passionate about modern couture," Markert explained.

"This is all seen in the objects and personal items she collected and left for the public to enjoy at Hillwood, making it a perfect venue to showcase Isabelle de Borchgrave's exquisite works of art."

Most of the dresses are on display in a separate building on the museum's estate, but some are exhibited inside the elegant mansion. There's a Second Empire ballgown in Post's bedroom, Provençal costumes in the parlor and—in the home's Pavilion, which showcases many of Post's Russian artworks—a Russian bridesmaid's dress pairs nicely with large-scale painting A Boyar Wedding Feast.

One dress was commissioned by the museum especially for its collection: a re-creation of the blue gown featured in Karl Briullov's The Countess Samoilova. The painting is one of the museum's most well-known pieces.

Each dress took about four to six weeks to create, with de Borchgrave directing a team of about 10 assistant artists per dress. The dresses were sent to Hillwood in big wooden crates (many dresses coming from a recent exhibit in San Francisco), but still required several hours of careful ironing to be ready for display. The entire exhibit took about five days to set up, Paredes explained.

The irony, of course, is that paper can be about as disposable as the latest fashion fad, and historic costume collections are often dull, lackluster and threadbare, making it hard to imagine rich ladies donning such dusty duds.

"Prêt-à-Papier," however, achieves the opposite effect with only paper, paint and glue. Gleaming and glowing in the light, the dresses look as if they were freshly dispatched from the dressmaker's shop, and ready to be debuted at the evening's ball.

The exhibit closes on Dec. 30, 2012. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed on national holidays. The suggested donation by visitors is $15, by seniors 65 and older is $12, by college students is $10 and by children age 6 to 18 is $5. 

J.Choi Family June 19, 2012 at 10:58 PM
very interesting exhibit by Isabelle de Borchgrave my daughters are in heaven.

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