“We invent nothing,” said Christian Dior, the man who revolutionised fashion in the twentieth century, “we always start from something that has come before.” This refreshing admission seems an appropriate place to begin discussing the round of fashion shows dominating Australia’s art museums this summer.
The essential exhibition is Fashion Icons: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Having absorbed a bit of history it’s safe to proceed to The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the National Gallery of Victoria; and Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.
Sydney, oddly enough, seems to be immune to the fashion bug – a fact that will disappoint members of the public, and please those diehard art aficionados who believe frocks and accessories have no right to share museum space with paintings and sculptures. The argument is a simplistic one: the visual arts are a serious cultural endeavor while fashion is frivolous and ephemeral.
Fashion’s detractors see it as a nakedly commercial enterprise, while still believing in the spiritual credentials of art. Many feel that fashion is nothing more than a parasite, borrowing ideas and motifs from artists in a purely exploitative manner.
Such criticisms have had little impact on museums that have enjoyed huge audiences for fashion exhibitions over the past couple of decades. The paradox of fashion is that it is a truly popular artform that owes its appeal to its exclusivity. Very few people can afford the outfits peddled each season by the leading Parisian couturiers, but this doesn’t dampen the fascination those big brands exert on the public imagination.
Nowadays, by means of cable TV and the Internet, millions of people can view fashion events that were once the preserve of the aristocracy and the mega-rich. The rapid flow of information allows small designers, bloggers and consumers to respond to new trends almost as soon as they appear. The styles that appear on the catwalks are quickly copied and fed into the boutiques and chain stores.
Considered purely as an industry the global fashion business is worth more than a trillion dollars. The mere act of purchasing clothes, no matter how cheap or utilitarian, means that fashion touches our lives in some way. We may not aim to make a statement but we cannot help being socially defined by our clothing choices or our uniforms.
Before the Second World War fashion was the second largest industry in France. Its prestige gave the German occupiers the idea of transporting the entire couture business to Berlin, before being persuaded by designer, Lucien Lelong, that it was an impractical scheme. The couturiers battled on through wartime austerity and the puritanism of the Vichy government, but by the end of hostilities the industry was as depressed as the French population.
Everything changed on February 12, 1947, when Christian Dior opened his fashion house with a range that became known as the New Look. It was a case of ‘back to the future’, as Dior restored the feminine element to a fashion industry that had grown mean and drab. The new outfits had cinched waists, full skirts, and an emphasis on the bosom. They were made from luxurious materials used with a generosity that some found scandalous.
The New Look was a cultural and sociological sensation. Within weeks French seamstresses were trying to emulate Dior’s style, while rival fashion houses hastened to adapt their designs to the growing demand. There were instances in which women wearing the New Look were attacked by angry housewives who tore their clothes to shreds, seeing such conspicuous beauty as an affront to the French war effort.
Dior became an addiction for the world’s wealthiest, most fashionable women who might wear three outfits in the course of a single day. Some clients bought hundreds of dresses, others would agonise over a single expensive purchase. When American buyers took the designer to their hearts his worldwide fame was assured.
Fashion Icons begins with Dior’s New Look and ends with a remarkable flat dress by Comme des Garcons from 2012. The show tells the story of 65 years of fashion by means of a hundred key pieces selected by curator, Pamela Golbin, of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
It’s a tale of evolution and contradiction as designers learn from each other, or take a completely contrary course. Some, such as Karl Lagerfeld, in his creations for the house of Chanel, have become skilled at doing both at once.
The first item in the show is Dior’s Bar suit – a work of classical, black-and-white elegance acclaimed as the very “essence” of the New Look. At a glance it announced that glamour was back, and Paris was back.
As Dior admitted there was little that was genuinely new about the New Look. Many of the elements of the style had been anticipated by other designers including Chanel and Balenciaga, perhaps even Dior’s friend and contemporary, Pierre Balmain. Dior’s triumph was a triumph of timing and marketing. He announced a return to the French traditions of great luxury and made sure that his first audience included the most influential grand dames of high society, and the key fashion writers. Exclusivity was a crucial factor, with not a single centime being spent on vulgar advertising.
The idea of “luxury” ignited a ferocious longing in the hearts of all those women who had suffered through the years of the Occupation. Although few Frenchwomen could afford an original dress by Dior he was acclaimed a national hero.
Fashion Icons does justice to Dior’s importance but demonstrates that he was only one of many talented couturiers at work in Paris. Dior himself expressed veneration for Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Spanish designer whose artistry is represented in this show by an elaborate silk taffeta Evening Gown of 1954; and an equally complex Evening Ensemble of 1961, in a completely different style.
Fashion was dominated by ideals of feminine elegance until 1965, when the “Courrèges bomb” was detonated. Although André Courrèges had worked for Balenciaga he was a trained engineer who brought an entirely different mindset to the problem of the Eternal Feminine. Courrèges took his inspiration from women’s growing sense of independence, being the first to put his models into trousers and mini-skirts. The look was sporty and colourful, although intended as eveningwear.
The main innovation was that this clothing was comfortable and easy on the body. The corsets, waspish waists and heavy fabrics of Dior and his peers had been abandoned, and Courrèges was hailed as a ‘liberator’ of women.
He would not be the last to be given this title. From this point on the level of innovation and competition among designers begins to escalate as they vie with each other to make increasingly radical outfits intended for the catwalk rather than the high street. The least practical of all are probably the metal tube dresses of Bernard and Francois Baschet, which appear in William Klein’s satirical film about the fashion world, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966). More wearable but hardly less amazing are Pierre Balmain’s 1977 overcoat and motorcycle helmet made from ostrich skin.
One of the pleasures of this show is to watch the alternation between Baroque extravagance and the most severe minimalism, between sportswear and eveningwear. At the furthest end of the spectrum, with designers such as John Galliano, the clothing becomes a collage of clashing styles and historical references. In the hands of Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, outfits take on a strongly sculptural dimension.
It’s worth noting that many acclaimed designers, including Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, were artists who found an outlet for their talents in the world of couture. When Saint Laurent borrowed from Mondrian or Picasso, this must be seen as an act of homage, from one artist to another, rather than a simple appropriation. Not even the most skeptical of viewers could walk from one end of Fashion Icons to the other without recognising that in the world of high fashion commerce has acted as the handmaiden to creativity.
Fashion Icons: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide,
Until 15 February 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 13th December, 2014