Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper

From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

Ellen Gutoskey (left), Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (left), François Boucher (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

Ellen Gutoskey (left), Pietro Facchetti (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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.

Based on a costume by Léon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky in La Péri, 1912Ellen Gutoskey

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.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began a fascinating moment in food history: an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.