A Proustian Heroine Who Made Her Mark on Paris

Kudos to Olivier Saillard, the  director of the Palais Galliéra, the Museum of Fashion of the City of Paris, who had the idea to dedicate an exhibition to France’s greatest 19th and early 20th century tastemaker and saloniste, la Comtesse Elisabeth Greffhule, who inspired Marcel Proust’s the Duchesse de Guermantes in his celebrated novel  In Search of Lost Time.

Although, the wardrobe and accessories of the famous countess were donated in 1964 to the museum, it is the first time the museum is displaying beautifully preserved haute couture of this fashionista, née Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay (1860-1952). She was the great-grand-daughter of Madame Tallien (Josephine’s best friend) and the cousin of French dandy and poet Robert de Montesquiou (Proust’s Baron Charlus). Proust wrote  to Montesquiou : ‘There is no single part of her to be found in any other woman, or anywhere else for that matter. The entire mystery of her beauty is in the glow, above all in the enigma of her eyes. I have never seen a woman as beautiful as she.’

Born at the end of the Second Empire, the countess saw two Republics and two world wars. She lived through the Belle Époque and the Roaring Twenties, and was the acknowledged leader of Paris Society (le Tout-Paris) for half a century. She became particularly influential after her marriage to the extremely wealthy Count Henry Greffulhe. Considered most beautiful woman in Paris – to behold and to hear speak –she  held a salon in her Paris townhouse in the Rue d’Astorg, and also received guests at the Château de Bois-Boudran and at her villa in Dieppe.

While she may have been the epitome of elegance–something  the photographs of Nadar and her stunning evening gowns on display  clearly demonstrate–I was more impressed by her intellectual and musical gifts, and her  dedication to fund-raising for worthy causes in both the arts and sciences.

As founding president of the Société des Grandes Auditions Musicales, she turned charity work into public relations. With tremendous practical acumen, she raised funds, produced and promoted operas and shows, which included Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Twilight of the Gods, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Isadora Duncan.  She was also a political animal – a fierce supporter of Captain Dreyfus, Leon Blum, and the Popular Front.  A passionate sponsor of science: she helped Marie Curie to finance the Institute of Radium, and Edouard Branly pursue his research into wireless telegraphy.

Countess Greffulhe was the style-setter of her day, with glorious outfits and accessories to match. Those were the days when you had a staff worthy of Downton Abbey or its equivalent.  The show does it best to convey her highly theatrical, rare, fleeting and incomparably fascinating public appearances–adding to her mystery all the more.

Whether lavishly dressed in embroidered velvet, in clouds of tulle, gauze, chiffon and feathers, or in her Fortuny  velvet coats,  of Japanese inspired cloaks, she must have dazzled everywhere she went. She favored colors that suited her striking auburn hair and pale complexion: black, deep blue and forest green. Her outfits were carefully chosen to emphasize her slim waist and her slender figure. She understood early that with the ‘right packaging’, she might have a better shot at attracting people to the ideas that she so fervently supported.greffulhe_galliera_0569_0

It is a pity that her husband never understood her or benefitted from her keen intellect and appreciation for beauty particularly in music. Throughout their marriage he regularly cheated on her, and in the end chose a mistress he openly preferred to his wife. Yet, when he died in 1932, he did not see fit to name his mistress in his will, something that she bitterly opposed to the point of creating a major public scandal. In the end, it would be Elaine, the Greffhules’ only daughter, who would provide for the lady through a trust fund.

On display at the Palais Galliera are some fifty models with the labels of  such grands couturiers as Worth, Fortuny, Babani, and Lanvin. There are coats, indoor clothes, day dresses, evening dresses, and also accessories, portraits, photographs and films. Every item is intended as an invitation to go ‘in search of lost fashion’ and to become better acquainted with this great figure of Parisian high society, whose public image appears to be inescapably tied to her wardrobe.

I would like to think, however, that the wardrobe is an opportunity to learn more about the personality who support some of greatest talents of her time.  While clothes may say something about who we are–in the case of the Comtesse Greffhule, they afford us a chance to admire the  human soul beneath the velvets, silks and satins of haute couture.