Is it an ism or is it Art?
The Legion of Honors’ High Style exhibit is our first experience of a new breed of costume/fashion/apparel collections curated from the hallowed houses of great couture over the past century. It is part Historical record, part social commentary, part visual theater, part nostalgic fantasy. This particular snowball began its descent downhill when American Vogues legendary editor, Diana Vreeland took over the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum. Having practically invented the way we look at fashion, her collaborations with the great photographers of her time came to define the “look” of what we considered "beautiful" in fashion. And from there, what we went out and bought to put on our bodies in order to feel attuned to the context of our times.
With her trademark energy and focus and "tell it to someone who cares" attitude to criticism, she set about re-defining how we look at the output, the 'oeuvre‘ of the stellar few who do elevate the industry of putting clothing on our backs, to an art form.
But is it Art?
It is certainly a crowd-puller, as can be witnessed by the resounding successes of the various Met Galas and the amount of celeb press coverage these events garner. Our present Vogue editor, the ubiquitous, omnipotent Anna Wintour has taken on her predecessors’ mission and run with it to great effect. My guess is that New York provides enough of an “in crowd” to sustain an intelligent contextual discourse and sufficient audience to the glitz and glamour of celeb culture to continue to fuel the fascination. Have a look below at this years Costume Institute Benefit and the Art pieces that were created for the Red Carpet.
We bring this up because we would like to set the stage for comments from you, our readers. But also because this Blogging JackRabbit, having spent years in the fashion industry, found that wandering the hushed and softly lit rooms at the Legion of Honor, amongst whispering crowds staring at ghostly stilled mannequins, to be a decidedly weird experience.
I came out of it humming to myself a song from the 80’s that I had not thought of, probably since its brief appearance on the very obscure South African Punk scene in 1984. Check out this culturaly significant album that raised the question:
Which brings me to the very articulate and succinct Jennifer Homans, whose article, written for the New Republic, discusses just such issues and goes into the topic with great depth. She also turned me on to the late great Anne Hollander ‘s book "Seeing through Clothes." Aptly described as “magisterial” it’s a must read for anyone who takes their fashion seriously.
All that being said, High Style, is a great time capsule. The exhibit spans a time period from the crumbling of the Old World through two World Wars and the messy, hopeful birth of the New. The arc of change to women's attire from the muted refinement of the Belle Epoque to the siren clang of the movie star 50’s is a wonder to behold. Nowhere is the social and sexual revolution that women have experienced over the last century more obvious than in the wild pendulum swings of fashion. ‘We’ve come a long way, baby,” and it shows.
Another thing that struck me whilst walking those rooms past name tags and dates was the wealth of personal history and the sometimes bitter and self-destructive struggle for creative expression that went on behind the closed doors of these great Couture Houses . There have been a slew of Movies made recently about the troubled lives and struggles of a few of the better known, Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, Valentino and Dior.
In the exhibit, the great Elsa Schiaparelli, whose biographer described her as “never truly happy“ A workaholic who had to close her House down after the War because the scandal of her supposed collaboration with the hated Vichy government and the Nazis clung like a cloud of gloom. Yet she was more popular than her rival Coco Chanel in her heyday and went further and was more daring than any of her peers in innovation and originality.
Chanel herself, famous for her driving work ethic and emotional coldness.
And then, in the last few rooms the "enfant terrible" to cap them all, Charles James.
Like many of these designers who helped define what it meant to be “modern” he grew up firmly rooted in the aesthetics of the old world. A child of privilege, James grew up in a generation shattered by war. A contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, both of whose works also evoke that sense of loss and longing for what was lost, James is that strange thing. He is an artist whose work bridges time zones but manages to say something about a vision completely his own.
He is not a well known name. At his most popular his clients were the stratospheric-ally wealthy elite, yet his influence was vast and continuing.
He is a designers designer.
For Cristobal Balenciaga, he was “the only dressmaker who has raised fashion from an applied art to a pure art form.” James Galanos said, “a single James creation is worth the whole output of a 7th Avenues years work.” And, for Christian Dior, James was simply, “the greatest talent of my generation.”
He is described as technically brilliant, spending days over the placement of a single seam, he stated, "cut, in dressmaking is like grammar in a language."
He has been described as architectural. He in fact named what he was doing the calculus of fashion. He wished to teach others to become fashion engineers, and indeed, looking at his pieces is like looking at small scale Frank Gehry constructions, and never more so than when watching the computerized construction and de-construction clips that were included within the show.
Each garment exists “on its own” to quote Jennifer Homans, the necessity for a body to inhabit it seems merely incidental. And this indeed was his undertaking. To him, the female body was “intrinsically wrong,” and his task was to re-shape it by engineering a garment that was more like the carapace of an insect than something that we would recognize as clothing. The clover leaf ballgown weighs ten pounds and makes its wearer literally unapproachable. But such was his technical expertise that these massively draped and manipulated gowns barely touched their wearers’ skin. A cushion of air sat between them and the garment itself.
This is Grand Theater in the same way that the Sun Kings’ curled wigs, satin and laces were intended. A deliberate and deliberated statement about power, status and physical presence. A rather strange, distant and cold form of eroticism too, all these perfectly sculpted gowns, like so many small planets orbiting the sun of their creators central idea.
We should close with a look at the quintessential photo of Charles James’ work, shot by Cecil Beaton.
We are in a fantasy of Versailles. It is a strangely painterly setting of a refined and remote bygone era. The gowns are both of the future and the past at the same time and yet have very little to say to the present they inhabited. Charles James was a paradox. One can certainly admire his technical genius but I'm not sure one would want to inhabit his universe.
The whole experience left me feeling profoundly grateful for the likes of Scott Schuman and Garance Dore who have democratized and humanized both high and low fashion and placed the wearing of clothes firmly where we see it and experience it. On others, as we go about our daily business, as a form of communication, self expression, fun and joy between equals.
Will we continue to see these exhibits. Absolutely. They are thought provoking and informative.
But the question remains: Are they an ism or are they Art?
You tell us.