Clothes Sense

Vive la Haute Couture!

Reports of its demise have been much exaggerated.

The death of haute couture is a constant refrain of fashion critics. It has been coming to an end ever since it started, much like culture in general. What a killing blow was suffered by haute couture in the first decade of this century, when The Press was first invited to fashion showings! Its presence would surely destroy the secrecy between a lady and her dressmaker, which was crucial to individual distinction. More than half a century later, the ascent of ready-to-wear dealt another allegedly fatal stroke to haute couture, as formal elegance began to look tacky, and ethnic and thrift-shop gear gained status. More recently, the street fashion called “grunge” was imitated by couture designers at five-figure prices, and again, dirges could be heard. One imagines that discriminating people in the 16th century mourned the death of high fashion in much the same way, when slashed sleeves, grotesquely imitating the rags of mercenary soldiers, came into style.

A few weeks ago, Sotheby’s held an auction of haute couture clothes, accessories, and related materials. Most of the garments belonged to elegant Parisiennes whose names and photographs embellished the catalog and who were selling their dresses to benefit good causes in the manner of Princess Diana. These clothes dated back to about 1960 at the earliest and to the early 1990s at the latest. A few dresses, shown together in the catalog as a group titled “Les Createurs,” were nameless as to owners, and dated as far back as 1939. Before the auction I went to Sotheby’s, eager to view such elegant castoffs at close range. You could handle them if you wore the white cotton gloves provided by the vigilant Sotheby’s staff, who hastened over whenever you leaned your nose too near the chiffon or made too broad a gesture toward the embroidery.

I t’s more interesting to see what actual couture clients ordered and wore than it is to look at runway numbers worn only by models. One noticeable fact is that rich women, unlike beautiful models, are not all tall and thin. Displays of historical costume have always revealed the way fashion-plate chic used to be adapted by clever dressmakers for the beefy or dumpy or flat-chested, but we’re now used to thinking that fashionable bodies are molded to fit the mode, with the help of individualized exercise, liposuction, and implants. It’s not true, at least not in Paris. Some of the garments fitted onto padded mannequins showed that their wearers were of physical as well as financial substance, and these masterpieces are striking mainly as imaginative triumphs of individual fit and suitability.

The stuff was classic in the best sense, lacking quirkiness and full of internal harmony even when it was daring, always both beautiful and personal. The ensemble that fetched the highest price–$17,250 (advance estimate $1,500-$2,000; buyer anonymous)–was a formal black taffeta, strapless dress with a matching shawl-collared jacket designed by Yves St. Laurent for Christian Dior in 1958. Since it’s part of YSL’s first collection as Dior’s successor, this object has clear historic value and great elegance, but not much independent life. It needs a woman inside it, preferably the one for whom it was made–not named in this case. The same is true of the navy wool two-piece Dior dress that fetched the next highest figure ($16,000, estimate also $1,500-$2,000; sold to a private collector), another historical object representing the New Look in 1948 with a close fit, high collar, and richly draped skirt. Beautifully realized, very wearable, very simple, it should obviously be worn to lunch, not put on exhibit. I was glad to hear from the director of Sotheby’s fashion department that most buyers do wear their purchases, prepared to sacrifice currency for unimpeachable quality.

A mong the named original owners, the most palpably present in her clothes was Catherine Deneuve, whose magnetic and statuesque beauty was easy to imagine inhabiting these sweeping YSL evening dresses. Another was the dark and impeccable Parisienne Jacqueline, Comtesse de Ribes, herself a designer, whose masterpiece here must have suited her perfectly. For this dress, she first coated the torso in high-necked, long-sleeved transparent black lace. Covering the breasts was a joined pair of black velvet, diamond-shaped patches, whose bottom points met the top points of a long black velvet skirt, of which the top edge plunged in one sharp V to the lace-covered navel in front, and swept diagonally back in a bigger V to the bottom of the lace-covered spine. At their top points, the black breast-diamonds were attached to thin black ribbons that climbed over the shoulders. Two other ribbons came around from the sides, and two more rose diagonally from the hips halfway down the rear plunge, all six converging between the shoulder blades with a bow. Two more bows appeared on the shoulders and two more correspondingly at the hips where the lower two ribbons began. Like almost everything in the whole group, this amazing dress combined complexity and simplicity, sensuality and decorum, refined wit and strong impact. French haute couture has been famous for achieving this combination for 140 years, solidly backed up by visibly inventive tailoring and visibly exquisite fabrics and craftsmanship. The result is an undeniable beauty whatever the mode, a beauty specifically meant to render the individual wearer beautiful, too.

By contrast, the current show at the Fashion Institute of Technology, called “50 years of Fashion: The New Look to Now,” mainly focuses on the impact of the garments themselves. The show, an instructive panorama of shifting taste in the last half-century seen through the innovative work of designers from England, Japan, Italy, and America interspersed with French examples, demonstrates how changing perceptions of high fashion have slowly altered its character. Fifty years ago, the close-range visual value of haute couture clothes emphasized their rarity and the rarity of their wearers, faintly implying that they were all hereditary nobility in the daily habit of entering well-appointed, finely proportioned rooms. Fashion shows were designed as exclusive events. Fashion photography aided that impression with formal views of nameless, thoroughbred models. Since then, all fashion has gradually become a branch of popular entertainment that involves everybody in its creation of vast revenues, through carefully fostered connections with all kinds of celebrity and fantasy.

Designers like John Galliano have the media image of star performers. The clothes, too, have the fantasy look of things not made with hands, things always more fleetingly pungent or allusive than they are authoritatively beautiful, visions that float across the TV screen on the bodies of the fantasy figures for whom they have been designed, costumes for one performance. Just as with actual costumes, the deep thought and careful work are undiscernible and no part of the appeal; everything must look easily conjured up and as easily swept away. photos suggest the same thing, with nonthoroughbred models lolling and crumpling their clothes as they gaze straight at you, a strap slipping down, unless they’re poised in fragile tinseled drapes and staring from under dream headgear. Fashion journalists covering the couture are careful to explain the precise tailoring and the deft application of the paillettes, since most of it isn’t meant to register on the scanning gaze. The throwaway aspect of popular inexpensive fashion, now normal since nobody learns to sew, has lent its look to the costly couture, which more and more seems incompletely imagined and only half realized.

B ut real quality does show at close range. At FIT there is a 1986 hooded and trained evening dress by Azzedine Alaia, made of slinky green acetate knit that molds the body better than a glove, with similarly canny curved seaming. Set into one of these audacious seams is a zipper that begins between the breasts, snakes up over one shoulder, slithers diagonally down across the back and swoops forward over one hipbone to continue diagonally downward in front again … darling, help me with my zipper, won’t you? At any distance, it’s invisible on this sleek sea creature.

Evidence accumulates that the creation of sartorial beauty will never end. It will only shift ground. Talent will arise to cut anew and drape afresh, to hang the mirror in another place, to unsettle us again and again, and to keep reclothing us and righting our minds.