Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper
When you walk into the exhibition space at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film right now, you’re met with a breathtaking homage to the history of fashion. Mannequins are dressed in everything from the court gowns of Queen Elizabeth I to the crinoline tutus of the Ballets Russes, and the overall impression is one of almost otherworldly beauty.
From across the room, you can see silk pooling at the feet of some figures, while light glances off the beaded bodices of others. But if you get within about a foot of the mannequins, you might notice that it isn’t silk at all—and those aren’t beads, either.
Actually, it’s paper.
The all-paper ensembles in the “Fashioning Art From Paper” exhibition were created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who decided at age 14 that she would very much like to leave traditional school behind and study drawing instead. Her parents agreed, and de Borchgrave spent the next three years sketching nude models at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Though she tells Mental Floss that the repetition no doubt taught her how to draw, the rest of her arts education was left mostly up to her.
So she visited museums, letting the art inform and inspire her own work, and she soon developed an interest in fashion that she’s been cultivating ever since. To de Borchgrave, her lack of formal training in fashion is a creative asset.
“I never studied fashion—that means I stay really free,” she tells Mental Floss. She began making vibrant hand-painted dresses and other outfits, which she’d either sell or wear herself.
Then, in 1994, a fateful visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked an idea that would alter the course of her career. After seeing a retrospective for French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, de Borchgrave—who, at that point, had been drawing on paper and painting on fabrics for years—began to wonder how she’d recreate certain designs using only paper and paint.
“I was so touched by the beauty, by the elegance, by the fabrics, and I wanted to have everything for me,” she says. It seemed like the perfect way to remain in the realm of fashion, while liberating herself from the demands of consumers. And, in theory, her paper reconstructions of garments really are just for her.
“When I finish a dress, I put it in a room. I don’t show it to anybody,” she says. “But I feel better, because I have done something I can be proud of.”
Over the last few decades, however, word has gotten out about the extraordinary paper gowns, and they’ve now been displayed in museums all over the world. At the SCAD FASH exhibition, the ensembles are divided into categories that each reflect a different era and inspiration, spanning about 500 years of fashion history.
Several ensembles from de Borchgrave's first sculpture series, “Papiers à la Mode,” are included in the exhibition. To create "à la Mode,” she collaborated with theatre costume designer Rita Brown to determine how best to manipulate paper, paint, and glue to mimic fabrics and patterns from the late 16th century all the way up through the 1920s. Though the more delicate fabrics might require specialty paper—for some lace trimmings and veils, for example, she orders a thin, gauzy paper from England—she primarily works with an inexpensive paper usually used for wrapping chocolate in Belgium.
Recreating ruffled collars, gold embroidery, and intricate designs with paper and paint seems difficult enough even if you could inspect the original garments with a magnifying glass and your own two hands—but de Borchgrave doesn’t often have that luxury. While some of her sculptures in "Papiers à la Mode" are modeled after actual clothing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and other costume collections around the world, many are based on paintings alone.
Queen Elizabeth I’s court dress, for example, framed with lace and decorated with various flowers and animals, was inspired by Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of the queen from 1599.
And after seeing François Boucher’s 1756 painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV and something of a French fashion icon herself, de Borchgrave constructed her own version of the resplendent ribbon- and rose-adorned gown.
As illustrated above, de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t always exact reproductions of the originals, and they’re not meant to be; instead, she aims to capture the spirit of each style, giving herself the freedom to alter patterns or add embellishments wherever she sees fit.
Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to wander the exhibition without being awestruck by how closely she’s managed to replicate some of the outfits. This is especially true of the “Splendor of the Medici” series, which celebrates the lavish finery worn throughout the Renaissance by Florence’s (and later Tuscany’s) most famous ruling family.
Sometime between 1593 and 1595, Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, posed for a portrait by Pietro Facchetti while wearing a gown with rich gold pattern down the front and a magnificent lace collar. If you didn’t know any better while looking at de Borchgrave’s rendering, you might think that very dress—right down to the “pearl” embellishments—had survived these last four centuries.
And then there’s “Les Ballets Russes,” a whimsical, vibrant series that reimagines the unconventional costumes worn by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company established in 1909 that featured some of the most famous dancers and choreographers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine. Much like how de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t created by a career fashion designer, the costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes weren’t designed by actual costume and set designers. Instead, founder Serge Diaghilev commissioned artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to come up with them.
Working off photos and the artists’ sketches, de Borchgrave gives the bold, eclectic performance attire another life in the limelight. And here, in particular, you can see the manifestation of all her early days spent drawing human models. Though these mannequins are made only of wire, de Borchgrave has set the costumes on them in such a way that the figures actually seem like they’re dancing.
Even if you can’t picture yourself headed to your office wrapped in yards of tulle and taffeta, there are likely elements from de Borchgrave’s work that you do see in stores these days, from bright floral patterns to large, front-facing bows. After all, as de Borchgrave says herself, styles simply never stop coming back.
The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, located on Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is exhibiting “Fashioning Art From Paper” from now through January 12, 2020, and you can purchase tickets for $10 each here.