On a chilly Monday morning in Moulins, France, a small group moved through darkened rooms and gathered round a softly lit display case. Behind the glass, artfully crumbled paper covered the floor about ankle deep. In the middle rose a stack of books that was six feet high. On one side of the stack stood a female mannequin in a colorful, pleated skirt and tight, blue velvet bodice. On the other, a male mannequin slumped in plain black: a somber, and almost sad, costume. The scene was taken from the “Tales of Hoffman”, and was our introduction to the Centre National du Costume de Scène (CNCS), the National Center of Costume and Scenography.
We were there to see the temporary exhibition of 19th and 20th century costumes at the CNCS in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Opéra Comique. Located about two and half hours east of Paris in Moulins, France, the CNCS was founded in July 2006 in an old 18th century cavalry barracks.
According to Stéphanie LaPorte, our guide and a member of the Opéra Comique, the barracks were saved from the wrecking ball because of its imposing one-of-a-kind staircase. Once home to a cavalry regiment, it’s made up of a central building surrounded by two low pavilions, with three internal staircases connecting the stables on the ground floor and the dragoon’s quarters above. This was a unique and revolutionary design in the 18th century. She proudly told us that the Centre is the first and only museum devoted to the preservation of the material heritage of theatres and that they are in fact more than a museum.
The CNCS doesn’t call itself a museum, Director Delphine Pinasa explained. It’s called a “Centre” since there’s only one permanent collection (it’s devoted to Rudolph Nuryev). Instead, the CNCS mounts two different exhibitions that last six months each. (There’s a three-week break between exhibitions.) This way, the CNCS is able to preserve the fragile costumes and prevent further deterioration of the fabrics. In addition to the exhibitions, the Centre works to preserve and document the costumes in the collections.
Ms. LaPorte knew the plays and costumes and was a passionate guide through exhibits of “Carmen”, “Manon Lescaust” and “Ciboulette”. She explained that since its beginning during the reign of Louis XIV, the Opéra Comique was considered a ‘feminine’ form of theatre since the themes of most of the plays revolve around intimacy, sentiment and emotion. All of which she was able to translate in the costumes we saw.
The Centre holds about 9,000 costumes. The 100 that were on exhibit during the 300 Anniversary Celebration were among the oldest in the collection. In fact, we saw the oldest costume in the collection. According to Ms. LaPorte, the coat, richly embroidered with gold, started as a nobleman’s coat that was probably worn at court. It eventually ended up in the theatre and actors wore it to interpret noblemen.
To celebrate its 10th Anniversary, the CNCS will pay homage to Baroque music with an exhibition entitled Barockissimo! Les Arts Florissants en scène, from April 9 to September 16.
As we wrapped up our tour, I thought about how much costumes really do contribute, however unconsciously, to a better understanding of a play or a scene. After seeing the marvelous detail of the costumes and the care that goes into choosing just the right color, just the right flourish, I believe Shakespeare really did have it right: the clothes do make the man.
Centre National du Costume de Scène, Quartier Villars, 03000 Moulins. Tel: +33 (0)4 70 20 76 20. Website: www.cncs.fr