Based on a mantua — a T-shaped gown popular in European courts from the 1730s to the 1750s — a super-wide-hipped dress flaunts a brocade pattern of flowers and leaves rendered in paint. The center of the bodice, known as a stomacher, gets its lacy, beribboned look from crumpled, fan-shaped pieces of paper.
Most designers setting out to create a ball gown start with paper — to sketch a concept or make a pattern. Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave doesn’t stop there. For the past two decades, de Borchgrave has used her painter’s aesthetic to form just-larger-than-life clothing from ordinary paper.
“I play with a brush and paper; eventually it becomes this big thing,” she says. More than 25 of the artist’s fashion-meets-fantasy works are scattered throughout Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens through the end of the year as part of “Pret-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.”
Hillwood, the feminine, Russian- and French-art-filled final home of cereal heiress/art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post, proves an ideal showcase for de Borchgrave’s pretty, tactile creations. After all, the crumpling, brush-stroking and pleating the artist and her atelier do to create the faux frocks, shoes and menswear are as much a fine craft as the techniques used to make Post’s stash of Fabergé eggs, Flemish tapestries and carved Parisian chairs.
“We never count the hours it takes to do a dress,” says de Borchgrave, but it’s a minimum of a month-and-a-half’s work for several people to conjure up pieces like the ones headlining at Hillwood.
The fashionable works, most with a historical bent, are strewn throughout the mansion or displayed in the snug Adirondack Building in the estate’s garden. Inside the house’s pavilion room, a cerulean gown made for this show echoes the one worn by a 19th-century Russian countess in a portrait on the wall. Side by side, the pairing evokes a ghostly double take.
“The dress comes from the painting, an illusion of colors and fabrics you see there,” says de Borchgrave, who also molded ballet flats and a tiara mimicking the royal’s getup.
Other frock stars summon Marie Antoinette (a pink, ruffled concoction with punched paper “lace”) and the flapper era (“Boardwalk Empire”-worthy gowns in red and black). Menswear is represented, too, in a French-style frock coat in blue and yellow.
“We draw on a large library of books and research,” says the artist. “I look at history and paintings, and then I exaggerate a little bit, make things bigger or bolder. But it’s not Mickey Mouse — it’s serious. I give people a tableaux, a dream.”
Rhapsody in Blue
At Hillwood, the 19th-century Russian painting “Portrait of Countess Samoilova” inspired Belgian artist de Borchgrave to whip up a frock mimicking the one the subject wore. Every detail — the lace collar, the jeweled belt — is formed of painted, embellished paper.
“I love to do accessories in paper, but they’re harder than dresses,” de Borchgrave says. “And making a pair of shoes is difficult.”
The straight and narrow silhouettes of the early 1920s seem uncommonly well-suited to de Borchgrave’s paper couture. Flapper frocks mimic ones from couture houses such as Lanvin and Poiret. The artist works in a studio with multiple assistants, who can take weeks or months to complete a single garment.
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., check website for select Sundays, through Dec. 30, $15 suggested donation; 202-686-5807.
“I tried to give the spirit of Provencal embroidery in a very simple way,” de Borchgrave says of her Gallic peasant-style clothes, currently on display in Hillwood’s French drawing room underneath a Beauvais tapestry.