Lincoln Center Festival presents the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's critically acclaimed production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with costumes by Christian Lacroix, from July 20 to 24.
Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a comical exploration of character through costume and appearance. Louis XIV commissioned the play in 1670 to entertain the French Court at Chambord. The monarch specifically requested a Turkish theme, partly because “turquerie” (the imitation of aspects of Turkish art and culture) was currently fashionable, but mainly because he sought to minimize the aftereffects of a disappointing embassy from the Ottoman Empire to the French Court. In 1669 the Ottoman emperor was considering an alliance with France, and his envoy was received with the highest ceremony. The visitor, however, not only reacted to his hosts with barely concealed contempt, but turned out to be the Ottoman emperor’s gardener—not his ambassador. To make light of this diplomatic embarrassment, Louis XIV asked Molière, in collaboration with Lully, to write a piece of entertainment with a Turkish theme. Molière’s interpretation, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, is an effervescent comédie-ballet that pokes fun at social upstarts and turns turquerie into ridicule. The renowned designer Christian Lacroix created the extravagant costumes in this production. While Lacroix is best known in the United States for his namesake haute couture and ready-to-wear lines, he has a distinguished parallel career in costume design for opera and theater. His fascination in the performing arts started early; as a child, he fostered his burgeoning interest by redesigning the costumes for plays he attended. Lacroix pursued his passion for cross-disciplinary themes as a student in Art History at the École du Louvre. He wanted to focus his thesis on “returning fashions,” but was instead directed to write about seventeenth century costume. This altered the trajectory of his career and soon after, Lacroix became a fashion designer, launching his own line in the late 1980s. Throughout his career, his work has been applauded for its charm, exuberance, unexpected juxtapositions, and lavish colors. Lacroix’s foundation in historical costume and expertise in the seventeenth century are apparent in his costumes for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. They adhere to recognizable seventeenth-century silhouettes, but Lacroix’s playful streak and contemporary flair emerge in the hybrid fanciful costumes worn by the background characters.
  • As the focus of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain’s costumes are particularly effective in reinforcing the play’s comic thrust; the scene in which Monsieur Jourdain dons his newest and most fashionable attire elicits great laughter from the other characters. Lacroix’s costume sketch shows a dense block of a figure so weighted with texture and ornament that the actor’s face is barely visible.

    • This and the resulting costume are an exaggeration of seventeenth-century court apparel. The fashionable wig, long jacket, waistcoat, and silk brocade are all present, but on Monsieur Jourdain, who is a bourgeois, not a courtier, there are too many colors, too many ribbons, too much ornamentation. The opulent fashions of the era are piled on in one outfit, indiscriminately, but to great comic effect. The other male characters in the play, Cléonte and Dorante, by contrast, display more subdued styles. Cléonte wears the newly fashionable long waistcoat in a sober brown palette, and Dorante the slightly outmoded doublet of the previous reign, revealing through costume his straitened economic circumstances. Photo by Pascal Victor, ArtComArt

      • Through Monsieur Jourdain again, Lacroix plays on seventeenth-century costume conventions by presenting him in a casual dressing gown. In contrast to his other, more elaborate ensemble and the ridiculous “Turkish” costume from the play’s finale, here Monsieur Jourdain dons a very fashionable outfit authentically inspired by the so-called Orient: a fanciful hat in a floral ikat fabric and a dressing gown with wide kimono-like sleeves made with a chinoiserie-style material. During this time, a private setting allowed for less formal styles and was an opportunity to experiment with exotic dress. This outfit is fashionable and comfortable—everything his attempt at aristocratic costume is not. It is also authentically "exotic," unlike the parody of Turkish costume presented at the end of the play. Photo by Pascal Victor, ArtComArt

        • The “Turkish” deception of Monsieur Jourdain begins when Cléonte impersonates the Grand Turk’s son in order to marry Lucile, Monsieur Jourdain’s daughter. Cléonte convinces Monsieur Jourdain to change into a “Turkish” costume and strips him down to his shirt, adding a turban and face paint. The transformation surprises Monsieur Jourdain, and, in Lacroix’s interpretation, the titular character’s delusions of grandeur take place in what is essentially his underwear. In Monsieur Jourdain’s more-is-more aesthetic, nothing could be more foreign. Lacroix’s interpretation reminds us of the play’s original purpose as political satire. Turkey and the Orient in the seventeenth century were viewed by Europeans as the embodiment of absolute rule and despotism. Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme places Turkey and Turkish manners at the center of a comic plot, and Lacroix’s costumes enhance the play’s parodic thrust by presenting a grandee ruling in his underwear. Photo by Pascal Victor, ArtComArt

        Karine Prot is a fashion historian based in Los Angeles.