PARIS — Indeed, sometimes the best things in life are free.
One hundred of the world's most beautiful designer creations are on display at the Paris Haute Couture exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville, the Neo-Renaissance city hall that houses the offices of the mayor and city council. Best of all for a tourist watching his or her euros, admission to the exhibit doesn't cost a thing, although you need to be careful about your manners.
I was in a hurry to get to the exhibit, which is on the back side of the grand Neo-classical building constructed in 1873, and breathlessly asked a security guard if I was in the right place.
"Hello," he said, admonishing me in his particular French way for neglecting to acknowledge him first.
"Bonjour," I said, and he warmed up.
What's most striking is how a well-made dress remains timeless. A slinky yellow slip dress made by Vionnet in 1935, daring for its time, would still draw admiring stares today.
It's a good rule to remember while traveling in France. If you attempt a simple "Bonjour" upon entering a shop, restaurant or museum, the French are friendly and accommodating. If you don't, they consider you an ugly American and won't give you the time of day.
The exhibit, presented by Swarovski and the City of Paris, celebrates the work of some of the world's most interesting designers in the last century. Gabrielle Chanel (no one in this exhibition calls her "Coco"), Yves Saint Laurent, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Madeleine Vionnet are among those represented in the collection. Olivier Saillard, director of the Musée Galliera fashion museum (which is closed until September for remodeling) and curator Anne Zazzo chose the looks from among 20,000 pieces in the archives; some gowns have not been seen in public in 40 years.
What's most striking is how a well-made dress remains timeless. A slinky yellow slip dress made by Vionnet in 1935 was certainly daring for its time and would still draw admiring stares today. The intricate weaving of the bodice of a dress by Madame Grès in 1942-43 remains modern when juxtaposed with a Givenchy black cocktail dress with cutouts from 2010. A 1928 dress by Paquin and a 1968 Saint Laurent dress are similar —both richly embroidered but simple in style.
Two of the 100 pieces are by disgraced designer John Galliano, who headed Dior from 1996 until 2011, when he was fired after an anti-Semitic rant. No matter what you think of his behavior, Galliano reminds us in this exhibit that he is an unparalleled designer. His over-the-top "Sheherezade" jeweled orange robe with high collar (1998) and a dreamy purple gown made of miles of fabric (2008) are two highlight of the collection.
Other looks that caught my attention were a kicky metal mini-dress by Paco Rabanne (1968-69), a dramatic black gown with a bustle covered in crystals by Mugler (1992-93) and a Jean Paul Gaultier denim jacket with long frayed satiny fringe sleeves that nearly dip to the floor (2002).
Also eye-catching is an all black-and-white section of the exhibit in which a classic Chanel suit in creme with black accents, designed by Chanel in 1960 and which she often wore, is positioned next to a black Chanel suit with white accents created by Karl Lagerfeld in the '90s. One can see how similar they are but how different, thanks to the interpretation of two fashion masters.
The “Paris Haute Couture” exhibition runs through July 6 in the Salle Saint-Jean of the Hôtel de Ville.