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c.2012 New York Times News Service
PARIS — "These walls have a soul," said Axelle Doue, a model who was once the muse to designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, sitting beside a makeshift runway amid the battered old concrete and columns of a gallery in the Palais de Tokyo museum.
''But you know," she said, "clothes do, too."
It is true, as fashion historians would attest, that clothes tell a story. But what they can actually tell us, long after their owners are gone, is a matter for interpretation, which turns out to be something of a specialty of Doue.
On Friday morning, she observed a dress rehearsal for a performance piece created by curator Olivier Saillard, in which actress Tilda Swinton, wearing a plain white robe, the kind once worn by the models in the couture salon of Yves Saint Laurent, walks on the runway, holding — but never actually wearing — articles of clothing from the historic archives of the Galliera, the Paris museum of fashion.
Back and forth, 56 times, in heels the color of sandpaper, Swinton walked during this rehearsal, and again at performances Saturday and Sunday night. Amazingly, each time was different as she created a sort of dialogue with the former owner of each garment, using specific gestures conceived by Doue, who has collaborated with Saillard on previous performances.
''The clothes told me what I have to do," Doue said. "Without the gesture, a coat or shoes or a dress cannot live."
Swinton thrust her arms the wrong way through the short sleeves of a small, plain navy dress, holding it aloft, making the dress, whose provenance was the wardrobe of the Duchess of Windsor, appear to fly. She pinched a coat with military filigree, which belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, at the shoulders, looking down on it. She held a pair of silk stockings as if they were entrails. She carried two Chanel tweed suits still on their hangers, a jacket, a blouse and a skirt against each of her sides, creating the impression of a bustle skirt. She pressed a chain-mail minidress to her chest, stopping every few feet to thrust her hip. It was a Paco Rabanne dress once worn by Brigitte Bardot.
Separately, a film created by artist Katerina Jebb, showing Swinton interacting with the clothing, was playing in a neighboring gallery during performances throughout the weekend as part of the Autumn Festival in Paris. The show, which concludes Monday night, was called "The Impossible Wardrobe."
In fashion exhibitions, clothes are almost always shown on mannequins, frozen in time. You rarely get an idea of what they might have looked like in motion, their sleeves inhabited by human flesh, their hems slapping against knees, or the sense of just how much that human body types have changed over the course of the 20th century.
In a way, Swinton's performance gave these objects new life, even emotions. Saillard said he chose her because of that ability, and because her appearance — her white skin and hair — while striking, can also, at times, be as plain as beige, like the edifice of a museum.
''She is like a pedestal for our collection," he said.