Madame X painting returns to Pageant of the Master lineup as show starts – Orange County Register

Ten years ago, Elise Allen didn’t know what she was getting into when she volunteered to be part of the cast at the Pageant of the Masters.

“I totally went in blind,” the San Clemente mother of two said, adding all she knew was that it was a seven-day commitment every other week for July and August. “I had never even seen the show and had no idea of how it worked or what the pieces would be.”

Allen was chosen to portray Madame X, a painting by the late American artist John Singer Sargent. The experience hooked her, and when she was offered the part again this year for the pageant’s 91st show, titled À La Mode: The Art of Fashion and opening on Friday, she didn’t hesitate.

In the artwork, Allen is made up to portray Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a young French socialite known for her beauty and the topic of gossip for her infidelities. The somewhat controversial Sargent painting debuted in the Paris Salon in 1884.

In the painting, Gautreau is shown wearing a black satin dress with jeweled straps. One strap hung off her shoulder when Sargent first painted her in his private studio. When the painting debuted in Paris, that image caused such a stir that Sargent later redid the piece with the strap back on her shoulder.

“I love Sargent so much, I just couldn’t say no,” Allen said. “I love the story behind it. It’s a beautiful painting and I got to see it at the Met in New York.”

This year, 30 tableaux vivants, or living pictures, will be created when cast members including Allen appear in paintings, sculptures or renderings based on their measurements.

There will also be other surprises longtime pageant attendees may not expect to see, including the recreation of a giant high-heeled shoe made by Alexander McQueen in 2010. The shoe comes from the McQueen’s Angels and Demon collection.

The show is produced with two casts of 150 people who rotate each week. The volunteers, wearing costumes, makeup and headpieces, pose in the artwork, doing their best to stand perfectly still for more than a minute. Allen is part of the blue cast.

The show — a tribute to fashion in art — is produced by Diane Challis Davy, the pageant’s longtime director who developed her passion for fashion as a college student studying stage costume design.

“I love costume history,” Challis Davy said, adding that she has designed costumes in the past.

Other artworks that will appear in the pageant are by French artists Édouard Manet and James Tissot and British painters Thomas Gainsborough and David Hockney.

There will also be brooches, pendants from early 1900s jewelers and figurines by artist and designer Erté. Legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head will also be recognized with sketches and movie posters from her collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock, Challis Davy said.

“Modern fashion shows are very theatrical, and designers are always pushing the envelope of outrageousness and showmanship,” Challis Davy said. “The 2019 Dolce and Gabbana runway show was an extraordinary spectacle. I’ve also been inspired by the annual Met Gala ball and shows like ‘Project Runway’ and ‘Fashion Police.’”

Challis Davy, who produced her first pageant in 1996, said fashion is an art, and she appreciates all the craftsmanship and hard work that goes into designing, pattern making, stitching and embellishing.

This year’s production also required Reagan Foy, the pageant’s costume director, to step up her own creativity.

“At the pageant, most of our costumes are usually painted cotton muslin, so it will be a special pleasure to let her work with a variety of luxe materials,” Challis Davy said. “I think we are both pretty excited about the opportunity to showcase some show-stopping outfits.”

Some of Foy’s unique creations will be part of the show’s opening act: a fashion show. The styles shown on stage come directly from paintings later displayed as living pictures.

Madame X is making a return, Challis Davy said, because it fits perfectly into her tribute to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that ends Act I.

“It’s an iconic black dress and the whole scandal of Sargent and how he painted it and how the strap slipped off the shoulder,” she said. “It was a 20th-century wardrobe malfunction, and it fits perfectly into our theme.”

Challis Davy said she is excited that Allen — who has volunteered at the pageant almost every year since her debut in 2014 — is returning to play the part.

“She looks great in it,” Challis Davy said. “She has her movement down perfectly.”

If you go

What: Pageant of the Masters

When: 8:30 p.m. nightly through Aug. 30

Where: Festival of Arts, 650 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach

Cost: $35 and up


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