Pulp Fashion: Isabelle de Borchgrave, SF

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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A court dress for Elizabeth I replicated in paper by Isabelle de Borchgrave
Photo © by Emily Mendel

Pulp Fashion
: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave

The San Francisco Legion of Honor
Feb. 5 to June 5, 2011

Isabelle de Borchgrave is a contemporary Belgian artist who recreates exquisite historical three-dimensional costumes entirely from paper.

Her first U.S. exhibition, “Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave,” is on view at the San Francisco Legion of Honor until June 5. It’s quite a coup for the museum, and follows a number of well-received exhibitions in the Museum’s Collection Connections series.

Though de Borchgrave is a painter by training, textiles and paper became her métier 17 years ago. Working in collaboration with leading costume historians and young fashion designers, de Borchgrave and her team create a world of gorgeous finery from simple rag paper.

Taking inspiration from the rich portrayals in early European paintings, iconic costumes and fashions in museum collections, photographs, sketches and even literary descriptions, de Borchgrave’s exquisite paper pieces achieve the effect of textiles by crumpling, pleating, braiding, feathering and painting the surface. The creations are not simply paper copies of the originals. De Borchgrave brings artistry to her works by exploring the minds of the artists who created or depicted the gowns and imagining the psyche of the women who wore them.

In addition, she does not literally duplicate patterns. Instead, she masterfully works the paper to a desired effect. With her trompe l’oeil gowns, she invites her viewers to explore her imaginary world and to create their own illusions. In this way, de Borchgrave transports her audience to another time and place.

De Borchgrave, 64, who led the press through a preview of the exhibit, is stylish and effervescent. Her expressive face and hands were in constant motion as she discussed her art. Her costumes are larger than reality, she explained, because “bigger is a better reference.”

Her family, the de Borchgraves d’Altena, is old and noble, yet she has designed paper goods for Target, Villeroy & Boch and Caspari (yes, you’ll find some in the gift store). The commercial licenses help fund the creation of her paper dresses, each of which takes a month to create.

“Pulp Fashion” is presented in six sections:

  • The marvelous “Artist’s Studio” is a three-dimensional paper recreation of de Borchgrave’s own studio and provides insight into the creative process of de Borchgrave and her team.
  • “In White” is a selection of nine lovely dresses, all in subtle shades of white, including pink white and blue white.
  • “Papiers à la Mode” features the iconic looks from key periods in fashion history including gowns worn by legendary historical figures — Elizabeth I, Madame de Pompadour, Empress Eugénie and Marie-Antoinette. Famous designers such as Charles Fredrick Worth, Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel are represented by signature pieces.
  • “Fortuny,” based on the works of Mariano Fortuny, the eccentric early 20th-century painter and designer, is an immersive environment created under a feather-light paper tent populated by re-creations of Fortuny’s famed pleated and draped gowns. One can see that Fortuny has been a major source of inspiration to de Borchgrave.
  • “The Medici” is the artist’s most extravagant series, with elaborate velvets, needlework lace, ropes of pearls, and intricate coiffures magically transformed into paper sculpture. These costumes can be seen from front and back in order to appreciate their elaborate construction, de Borchgrave explained.
  • “Inspiration.” During a visit to the Legion of Honor in the summer of 2010, de Borchgrave selected four paintings from the museum’s European painting collection as the inspiration for her latest body of work: Massimo Stanzione’s, “Woman in Neapolitan Costume” (ca. 1635), Konstantin Makovsky’s “The Russian Bride’s Attire” (1889), Jacob-Ferdinand Vote’s “Anna Caffarelli Minuttiba” (ca. 1675), and Anthony van Dyck’s “Marie Claire de Cory and Child” (1634). Some of these works are less successful than others. “The Russian Bride’s Attire” seemed a bit stilted whereas de Borchgrave captured the essence of “Marie Claire de Cory and Child.”

Although her works are enchanting, they may appear at first to be merely frivolous costumes. On closer inspection, one can see that they are remarkably intricate—an entirely original art form from a unique talent. De Borchgrave successfully blends many complex disciplines—paper, painting, sculpture, textiles, costume, installation, illusion and trompe l’oeil. As you explorePulp Fashion,” you may find yourself repeating the phrase, “No, that can’t be paper.” Yet it is.


©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved.

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