The French phrase trompe l'oeil means "fool the eye," and refers to an artistic technique that tricks the viewer into thinking that a two-dimensional rendering of an object is the real thing. In the case of clothing, it can be faux buttons, collars, stitching, pockets or other details.
Although the technique, which was used in ancient Greek paintings, has "deep-seated roots in the history of art," says curator of fashion design Dennita Sewell, many of the pieces in the exhibition have a lot more in common with recent art world developments. As an example, she mentions Roy Lichtenstein's 1968 Stretcher Frame With Cross Bars III, a humorous, tongue-in-cheek pop art spin on trompe l'oeil's more serious past.
"I looked at the way that contemporary artists have used it conceptually, like the Lichtenstein... and I think that there are parallels in [the pop art] movement that relate to the fashion," she says. "Fashion has used it more whimsically." Remember those 1970s tuxedo tee shirts? Those are a perfect example of trompe l'oeil for the masses.
Among the 56 garments and accessories in the exhibition are Rudi Gernreich's 1963 "Kabuki" wool knit dresses, complete with artificial Japanese accents; a 1920s Elsa Schiaparelli sweater knitted with a bow tie design; and a silk dress printed with crisp, perfect ruffles by Clements Ribeiro for Cacharel, from the Fall 2001 collection. An example of trompe l'oeil in 19th-century fashion is a white cotton dress printed with detailed blue bows and ruffles. The exhibit's earliest piece is an exquisite mid-18th-century mother of pearl fan, delicately painted in gouache to depict a very expensive type of lace.
Sewell explains that the exhibit will be "evoking the mood of a SoHo art gallery that has a trompe l'oeil art exhibition in it." The mannequins, standing in as art connoisseurs, will be arranged as if they are perusing the art on the walls, which will include reproductions of trompe l'oeil paintings from the 16th century to the present, along with actual contemporary paintings by members of the Trompe l'oeil Society of Artists. A boudoir scene, inspired by the work of Fornasetti, will display accessories.
The relationship between the visual and the tactile, between the artist and the spectator, says Sewell, is a "playful game . . . that raises questions about what is art and what is perception." Or perhaps, for la mode as well as l'amour, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.