This weekend, I went home for a family visit, where we trundled out to DC for the Isabelle de Borchgrave exhibit at the Hillwood Museum in DC. The gardens are lovely, the house is impressive, but I think we can all agree we know why I was there:

Isabelle de Borchgrave makes dresses out of paper. And that sounds like a paper-doll thing, or a whimsical thing, until you start to examine her work and realize the thousands of hours of details put into the construction, and that as well as hand-painting the designs, she paints the fabric to imitate the play of light and shadow across the actual dress — before the dress is constructed. (There’s a little demo at the entrance to the exhibit outlining a seven-stop process, where Step 1 is “crumble and iron the fabric repeatedly until desired fabric drape is achieved,” which I would have counted as closer to twenty steps, but that’s just me.)

It was lovely.

Paper seems a natural fit for the incredibly structured gowns of the French court throughout the 18th century:

But it was in evoking slightly more delicate fabrics that the technique really amazed, such as with this 1770s polonaise-y number and 1790s zone gown:

There were other costumes scattered throughout the museum, which meant you would often walk into a dimly-lit room, see a beautiful dress, see a no-flash-photography sign, and make a lot of faces.

(Not legible, sadly, was the title card for this dress, which was quick to explain that it was a “fantasy design,” which probably referred to the use of florals over a handwavey tartan, and not actually hinting that when you turned the cuff over, it would be airbrushed with kitten-head unicorns. I think that’s kind of a missed opportunity, though.)


The colors on this couple are pretty close to the actual saturation, though I think my favorite part is the guy in the tapestry behind the gentleman’s coat. That dude is extremely angry about what he is reading, perhaps because it looks a lot like a musical score and he is not within ten feet of an instrument, and all he wanted was a nice epistolary novel or something.

Though the architectural dresses were impressive, my favorites were of the slinkier kind, like this Fortuny replica, with an overdress so tissue-thin than you could see the grain being pulled gently by the weight of the glass beads:

I also loved this WWI-era number, even thought it was tucked in a closet in the main house like it was on time-out and most of the pictures of it came out like I had tried to snap a shot of it while jogging past at 20mph:

(And, unrelated to the exhibit, one lone fabric number, trying its very hardest to be ornate and drapey, hidden away in the darkest corner of all. Don’t worry, dresses – as lovely as the paper numbers are, I’ll always come back to you.)