Geneva Anderson digs into art

Paper Dresses inspired by Renaissance finery: Isabelle de Borchgrave’s Pulp Fashion opens Saturday at the Legion of Honor with demonstrations and workshops

Isabelle de Borchgrave, Eleanor of Toledo (and detail), 2006, inspired by a ca. 1545 portrait of Eleanor and her son Giovanni de’ Medici by Agnolo Bronzino in the collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: René Stoeltie

Fashion is all in the details…exacting tailoring, the perfect line and lush materials all working to create a statement.  Very few people would make an immediate connection between the legendary fashions of Italy’s Medici courts and paper but Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave is renowned for doing just that.  She re-creates and paints exquisite life-size historical costumes from paper, taking her inspiration from European paintings, iconic costumes in museums, photographs, sketches, and literary descriptions.  Pulp Fashion:  The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave  features 60 of de Borchgrave’s exquisite creations and opens this Saturday at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and runs through June 5, 2011.  The artist will be at the Legion on Saturday demonstrating her techniques for transforming paper into couture for all interested.

Isabelle de Borchgrave, sketch for Eleanor of Toledo, 2006, inspired by a ca. 1545 portrait of Eleanor and her son Giovanni de’ Medici by Agnolo Bronzino in the collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: Courtesy Créations Isabelle de Borchgrave

The Legion of Honor is the first American museum to dedicate an entire exhibition to de Borchgrave, who is revered in Europe.  Pulp Fashion falls under the Legion’s Collection Connections series that invites contemporary artists to reinterpret traditional objects from the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collections, giving visitors a window into the ways that artists and cultural institutions intersect.  When Borchgrave visited the Legion of Honor last summer, she selected four paintings from the Legion’s legendary European painting collection that communicated an interesting fashion statement to her and they became the inspiration for 5 historical dresses created especially for this exhibition and shown for the first time.  The paintings are: Massimo Stanzione, Woman in Neapolitan Costume, ca. 1635, Konstantin Makovsky, The Russian Bride’s Attire, 1889, Jacob-Ferdinand Voet, Anna Caffarelli Minuttiba, ca. 1675, and Anthony van Dyck, Marie Claire de Cory and Child, 1634.    

Pulp Fashion includes quintessential examples in the history of costume—from Renaissance costumes of the Medici family and gowns worn by Elizabeth I and Marie-Antoinette to the designs of the grand couturiers Fredrick Worth, Paul Poiret, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel.   Special attention is given to the creations and studio of Mariano Fortuny, the eccentric early 20th-century Italian artist, who is both a kindred spirit and a major source of inspiration to de Borchgrave.  De Borchgrave is not creating exact copies of these historical dresses but uses them as inspiration, masterfully working the paper to a desired effect of her choosing.  She pleats, hand paints, and manipulates the paper into recreations of designs from fashion greats and periods, achieving with paper what many designers never fully achieve with fabric.  The exhibition is presented in six sections:

Isabelle de Borchgrave (blond) and studio collaborators at work on a piece inspired by Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanor of Toledo, 2006. Photo: Courtesy Créations Isabelle de Borchgrave

The Artist’s Studio is recreated to provide insight into de Borchgrave’s creative process.

In White showcases the purity of craftsmanship in a selection of nine dresses devoid of color. 

Papiers à la Mode features iconic looks from key periods in fashion history; gowns worn by such legendary historical figures as 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 is an immersive environment created under a feather-light paper tent populated by recreations of Mariano Fortuny’s famed pleated and draped gowns.

Isabelle de Borchgrave, Maria de’ Medici, 2006, inspired by a ca. 1555 portrait by Alessandro Allori in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Andreas von Einsiedel

The Medici is the artist’s most extravagant series, with elaborate velvets, needlework lace, ropes of pearls, and intricate coiffures transformed into paper sculpture.

Isabelle de Borchgrave was formally trained in painting and drawing at the Centre des Arts Décoratifs and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and began her artistic career designing dresses of hand-painted fabric for special occasions.  For more than fifteen years, she has been producing a completely original body of work, often in paper, that is very difficult to categorize.  Historical dresses are used as inspiration as de Borchgrave masterfully works the paper to a desired effect of her choosing.  She is also a designer and interior decorator who finds an inexhaustible source of inspiration in paper.  She has designed exquisite paper products for Caspari, posters for Wild Apple and in March 2007, she launched a line of paper party décor, called Isabelle Party with Target stores.  

With her trompe l’oeil paper gowns in Pulp Fashion , she invites her viewers to explore her imaginary world and to then use their own creativity to form their own illusions.  As de Borchgrave explains, “Although my inspiration springs from the period dresses in the great museum collections, this is just a wink at history.  My work is a confluence of influences—paper, painting, sculptor, textiles, costume, illusion and trompe l’oeil.”  

Pulp Fashion brilliantly reflects the sensibilities and excesses of several eras, providing a vivid picture of how styles have changed but that exquisite craftsmanship is always revered.

Isabelle de Borchgrave, Maria de’ Medici (detail), 2006, inspired by a ca. 1555 portrait by Alessandro Allori in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Andreas von Einsiedel

Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave this Saturday:  This Saturday, February 5, 2011, from 11a.m. to 11:45 a.m., as part of the exhibition’s opening day celebration, Isabelle de Borchgrave will be at the Legion and will complete a painted dress pattern before your eyes.  This process will reveal the painstaking detail that goes into each of her creations and the creative magic that transforms a simple material like paper into the most luxurious of garments.  Free with museum  admission.  

Pulp Fashion Workshop for Children this Saturday:  Also, on Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m., de Borchgrave will lead a hands-on workshop for children.  They will learn to transform simple paper into splendid textiles.  This workshop space is available on a drop-in basis.  Space is limited and participation will be on a first come first served basis.  Free with museum admission.

Exhibition Catalogue:  FAMSF curator Jill D’Alessandro has contextualized de Borchgrave’s work against the rich tapestry of art and couture history in the exhibition catalogue Pulp Fashion: the Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.   The catalogue, rich with illustrations and photos, examines how de Borchgrave brings long-lost fashions to life through an intricate process of tailoring, crumpling, braiding, pleating and painting paper.   A special section focuses on the making of a new work inspired by a seventeenth-century Italian portrait in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  The catalogue is available in the special exhibition Museum Store (hardback 104 pages, $29.95) or for pre-order online through

Details: The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco.  Open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., with admission ranging from $6 to $10.  For information, visit   or call (415) 750-3600.  


February 1, 2011 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment