Isabelle de Borchgrave

Isabelle de Borchgrave is a fascinating Belgian artist, who, for more than fifteen years, has created a simply astonishing and utterly original body of work. Trained in painting and drawing, de Borchgrave began her career designing dresses that were sewn from fabrics that she hand-painted. She then spent decades designing various textiles, and even ceramics and stationery. In the mid 90s, a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, revived her love of fashion, and her career changed course. She began experimenting with fashion design, but this time, through the use of paper. de Borchgrave started to recreate historical costumes – taking cues from museum costume collections, paintings, drawings, and even from literature. Her latest work is currently on exhibit in San Francisco. The exhibition, Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave is on view at the Legion of Honor Museum through June 5th.

1960s Paper Dresses

de Borchgrave’s exquisite paper creations are quite antithetical to the original paper dresses of the 1960s. In 1966, a marketing stunt thought up by Scott Paper Company quickly changed the landscape of popular American fashion. Customers who bought one of their paper products, received a mail-order coupon for one of their ‘Paper Caper‘ dresses, and within six months, the company had received over half a million orders. This kind of mass consumerism was very much a part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s, and other companies quickly took note of the popularity of these paper dresses. Although they were mostly used for advertising purposes, some thought that this kind of disposable fashion was the way of the future. Perhaps the most famous example of this, is the Campbell Soup Company’s Andy Warhol-inspired Souper Dress. Other examples include advertising for celebrities like Bob Dylan, the film stars of Universal Studios, and the presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Elizabeth I, 2001

Part of her Papiers à la Mode series, the inspiration for this piece was taken from a 1592 portrait of Elizabeth I. The painting, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, can be found at Hardwick Hall, an Elizabethan country house in Derbyshire, England.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Madame de Pompadour, 2001

A portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, was the inspiration for this piece. The c. 1755 painting by Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, can be found in the permanent collection of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The lace detail is exquisite. I can’t imagine the painstaking precision that was involved in its creation.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Empress Eugénie, 2001

Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III, and the last Empress of France, was known for her vast collection of jewels, and her influence on the fashions of the French court. Her beauty was captured in numerous paintings, most notably by the German portraitist Franz Winterhalter. While de Borchgrave named this piece after the famous Empress, the inspiration was actually taken from another painting – a portrait of Madame Moitessier by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The 1856 painting can be viewed at The National Gallery in London.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – English Sporting Costume, 1998

This piece is based on a c. 1870 sporting costume, that is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Maybe it’s hard to imagine this kind of ensemble as being sporty, but I love the lines, the blues, and the preppy, haberdashery feel!

Isabelle de Borchgrave – American Day Suit and Hat, 1998

This ensemble is based on a c. 1900 one that is part of the collection of The Museum at FIT. These kinds of tailored dresses were more similar to menswear, which was reflective of the political climate (i.e. women’s suffrage), as well as the more active lives that women were leading.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Delphos Gown & Knossos Shawl, 2006 – 2007

Mariano Fortuny, the artist and couturier is well known for having created the Fortuny lamp, as well as innovations in dying and printing textiles. He also created the Delphos gown and Knossos shawl, both based on the styles of ancient Greece. The Museo Fortuny is a museum housed in the former Venetian palazzo that was once the home and studio of Fortuny. A few years ago, they invited Isabelle de Borchgrave to create a collection based on Fortuny’s catalog of work. This ensemble is based on a c. 1930 Delphos gown and Knosses shawl that is part of the museum collection.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Pallas, 2006

This is the first in a series that is based on the decadence and grandeur of the Medici – a banking family that over several centuries, amassed a considerable fortune, and grew to become both a political and royal dynasty. After visiting Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, and seeing the fantastic paintings of the Italian Renaissance, de Borchgrave became inspired to create this series. Sandro Botticelli’s c. 1482 painting entitled Pallas and the Centaur, is the basis for this piece.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Flora, 2006

Another of Botticelli’s paintings from 1482, Primavera, served as the inspiration for this piece. The painting is an allegory for Spring, and depicts a pastoral garden scene filled with mythological figures such as Mercury, Zephyrus, Chloris – and Flora, who is represented here, by de Borchgrave.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Eleanora of Toledo, 2006

de Borchgrave’s favorite Medici painting, is this Bronzino portrait of Eleanora of Toledo and her son. She was particularly enthralled by the richness of the jewelry, noting that “all the jewelry created by Fulco di Verdura for Chanel in the 1930s was inspired by the dress in the Bronzino portrait.” Eleanora was Duchess of Florence in the 16th century, and is credited as having been the first modern consort.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Eleanora of Toledo (Details), 2006

A pervasive myth tells that this exact dress served as Eleanora’s shroud, or burial gown. When her body was exhumed in the 19th century, the dress was quite similar to the one in Bronzino’s portrait. New research has found that it was a different dress, but that Eleanora was buried wearing a nearly identical pearl encrusted hairnet.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Bianca (“Bia”) de Medici, 2006

Based on another Bronzino portrait, the subject of this piece, Bia de Medici, was the illegitimate daughter of Florence’s Duke Cosimo I de Medici. Bia was born prior to the Duke’s first marriage, but died from a fever at the age of six. Cosimo commissioned Bronzino to paint the posthumous portrait, which remains one of his finest works. In the painting, and in the paper sculpture, Bia wears a medallion with her father’s profile on it. Absent from the painting, however, is the coral amulet. de Borchgrave makes no mention of her inclusion of the coral, but it is reminiscent of several art historical themes. In ancient Rome, coral was seen as a symbol of fertility – but perhaps more relevant, is its use as a talisman or amulet.  A large number of 14th and 15th century paintings, depict children, and even the baby Jesus, wearing a coral talisman. Piero della Francesco’s painting, Madonna di Senigallia best illustrates this.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Maria de’ Medici, 2006

Alessandro Allori’s portrait of Maria de’ Medici, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, served as the basis of this piece. Maria was another daughter of Duke Cosimo, and like Bia de Medici, she died at a young age. According to legend, Maria was killed by her father – stabbed in the heart after he found the seventeen year old with her young lover. More accurate accounts suggest that she likely died of malaria.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Joanna of Austria, 2006

A posthumous portrait of Joanna of Austria, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, served as the inspiration for this piece by de Borchgrave. The c. 1586 painting by Giovanni Bizzelli depicts the Grand Duchess with her son, the long-awaited heir, Filippo. Joanna herself had a rather tragic end. Heavily pregnant, she suffered a fall that killed bother herself and the baby.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Isabella de’ Medici, 2006

de Borchgrave based this piece off of another painting by Alessandro Allori, that is part of the collection of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The portrait is of Isabella de’ Medici, and what is perhaps the most interesting, is her rather grotesque zibellino. A popular fashion accessory during the 15th and 16th centuries, and a predecessor to fox furs, zibellinos were the fur pelts of either ermine, sable or marten. Some were plain, while others were fitted with jeweled eyes and faces. Historians have often referred to zibellinos as “flea-furs”, suggesting that they were worn to attract fleas away from the body of the wearer.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Marie de’ Medici, 2006

A Pietro Facchetti portrait of Marie de’ Medici served as the basis of this piece. As the second wife of France’s King Henry IV, Marie served as queen consort, and was eventually crowned Queen of France, the day before her husband died. Marie also acted as regent for her son, Louis XIII, until he was of age to reign. Louis XIII was 9 years old at the time of his coronation. As the mother of the King, one of Marie’s projects was the construction and design of the Palais du Luxembourg – which she sought to have resemble the Palazzo Pitti in her native Florence. The Palais du Luxembourg is in the 6th arondissement of Paris, and houses the French Senate.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Neapolitan Woman, 2010

Isabelle’s latest work is based on a Massimo Stanzione painting, Woman in Neapolitan Costume, that she viewed last summer at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum. A marked ambiguity surrounds this piece, as neither the subject of Stazione’s painting nor the meaning of his imagery are known. One theory suggests that the woman is a peasant, overdressed in some sort of festival costume. Another suggests that she is a noblewoman in fanciful peasant garb. Needless to say, all of the elaborate details of her costume – the beautiful ribbons, silver embroidery and buttons, and lace collar would seem to suggest that the subject is of noble birth.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Neapolitan Woman (Details), 2010

de Borchgrave does nothing to decode the mystery of Stanzione‘s painting, but manages to recapture every aspect in exquisite detail. Aside from the elaborate lace collar, additional lace is used as trim on the woman’s bonnet as well as her bodice. The presence of the lace supports the idea of the woman as nobility – as the use of lace during this time was restricted to the upper classes.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – Neapolitan Woman (Details), 2010

To see her work in such detail is stunning. Everything is hand painted, and then, in the case of these elaborate laces, painstakingly cut out with a scalpel. I particularly love the richness of the color palette – which seems even richer in de Borchgrave’s work, than in the original painting.

Isabelle de Borchgrave – At work in her atelier

Here we see various views of de Borchgrave hard at work in her Belgian atelier. Isabelle relies on a small collaborative team, to assist with her projects. We see the team working on her latest work, Neapolitan Woman, as well as painting the elaborate gown of Eleanora of Toledo. If you’re in or around San Francisco, please visit Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave. The exhibit is at the Legion of Honor Museum through June 5th – but if you can’t make it to the exhibition, there is a fabulous book that accompanies the show.