NEW YORK -- The only thing more remarkable than the opulence, workmanship and beauty of 18th century French fashion and furniture is their seductiveness.
People talk about the raciness of today's starlet's barely there costumes but Marie Antoinette and her contemporaries managed somehow to exude lust from their many layers of clothing. There even was something coquettish about their decorative dressing tables that hid their beauty supplies in secret drawers.
A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called "Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century" offers a glimpse of the era's elite in all their gilded glory.
Unlike most of the Met's fashion retrospectives that are housed in the downstairs Costume Institute space, "Dangerous Liaisons" is incorporated into the French period rooms known as The Wrightsman Galleries, creating a series of scenes that all share a common story of seduction through clothes, art and living space.
"We wanted vignettes based on the attitudes of the day ... to show all the slightly naughty episodes going on," said Patrick Kinmonth, a London-based artist and opera designer who served as creative consultant.
One scene called "The Portrait" hints at a flirtation between a married man and his wife's best friend while another, "The Memento," leaves much less to the imagination as the woman offers a suitor her garter while she is stretched out on a daybed; his coat tossed on a chair in a room surrounded by mirrored walls.
It was a time when people went about their daily lives in elaborate clothes and were surrounded by elaborate ornamentation in their homes. The aristocracy lived to dress, decorate and court, Harold Koda, the curator in charge of The Costume Institute, said.
Koda said he usually is hesitant to move costume presentations into the museum's main galleries (last done in 2001 for a Jacqueline Kennedy exhibit), fearing they'd either look too artificial or offer an uncanny reality. He changed his mind for "Dangerous Liaisons" after reading Jean-Francois de Bastide's erotic novella "The Little House," which discussed how one's surroundings could attract, arouse and seduce. Even the placement of a chair was important.
In "The Portrait" scene, a woman, posing for a painter, lounges on a chaise that puts her husband and best friend - who sits on the floor playing with a kitten and most definitely is flirting - just out of view.
The husband and the friend are in complementary outfits: He wears a rose-and-gray faille banyan with a silk floral brocade, while the friend is in an ivory-and-pink striped taffeta dress.
"It's a scene. You just know it's about seduction, but the public will have to put themselves into it to understand it. The point of this exhibit isn't just to catch the eye, it's to arrest it," Koda said.
The wife wears an Orientalist muslin dress - made popular when Marie Antoinette embraced the idea of "casual," according to Koda.
"When you were having a portrait done, you wanted to look your best but you also didn't want to look dated so you often didn't choose your most formal clothes, which would have been easily identified," he explained.
Ironically, the silver embroidery on the muslin makes it the woman's attire very high-fashion piece.
In another vignette, a woman, dressed in a loose, capelike morning gown over a chemise, is getting her hair done by a flamboyant male hairdresser. An admirer pays the woman a visit while she's in this "undressed" state, which wasn't all that uncommon considering how long it took women to tend to their coiffure. Meanwhile, the hairdresser admires the admirer.
"Both are in typical 18th-century formal men's long coats with full skirts, waistcoats and britches, but the hairdresser's is flashier and more exquisite," Koda said.
"The Fainter" vignette shows eight women in a Rococo-style drawing room surrounding another woman who has fainted. The women wear embellished, embroidered gowns, some with geographical motifs. The American is a rosy beige silk faille with woven floral bouquets; the Asian is a blue and white cloth-of-silver with gold tinsel; the African has a serpentine theme.
Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's editor-at-large, finds just a few parallels between 18th-century France and modern fashion.
"The grosgrain bow on a Chloe or Prada dress, or any sort of decorative embellishment you see on fashion today, you can trace back to Rococo France," Talley said.
The idea of luxury and extravagance also is alive and well today, Talley said, but there isn't the same appreciation of beauty.
"We're so busy thinking about wash-and-wear, we forget about the refinement that comes with putting a bud vase on the table," he said.