Friday, February 12, 2010

(Fashion) History Repeats Itself

Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress and jewelry designer, in a portrait by painter Bernard Boutet de Monvel.

I've been reading about the recent couture shows in Paris. I have to say, I miss the show of Christian Lacroix, the heavenly French designer who whipped up the most fantastic clothes, and recently went out of business.

John Galliano for Christian Dior presented some very Fifties-ish designs that featured a narrow waist and then billowing silk skirts. When I saw it, it reminded me of the tableau of Charles James dresses which opened the recent "Model as Muse" exhibition at the Museum of Metropolitan Art. Here is my photo from my visit last year:

Charles James was the artistic American couturier who was renowned for his sculptural gowns which combined colors in unexpected ways. The heiress and jewelry designer Millicent Rogers was a great client of his. She is pictured at the top of this post in clouds of Charles James' silk which worked well with her strong, bold, abstract jewelry designs.

Then I read on Hamish Bowles' entertaining blog, The Hamishphere, that, yes, in fact John Galliano was inspired by the museum exhibition for his recent Dior couture collection which included complicated ball gowns in structured shapes – a rich confection of lustrous fabrics and jewel colors.
(photos from

This collection goes back to Charles James and it goes back to Christian Dior himself who in the Fifties presented the New Look. After the austerity in France of World War ll, Christian Dior created a popular dress silhouette with a narrow waist and a full skirt featuring yards of fabric which spoke to prosperity and abundance: The New Look.

Now, this is the interesting part. In the Fifties, after closing down her fashion house during the war, Coco Chanel returned to the world of fashion. Chanel of course had already revolutionized fashion earlier in the century. In a reaction against stiff and formal Edwardian clothes, Chanel invented comfortable separate pieces – jackets, pants, tee shirts – which followed the lines of the body and allowed for easy movement.

In the Fifties Chanel was again shocked to find women constrained, this time by the corseted waists and crinolines skirts of Dior's New Look. Her answer to it was a new invention: the Chanel suit. Made out of a lightweight tweed, the suit jacket skimmed the body and was edged with embroidery or pearls; it could easily be slipped off and worn over the shoulders like a cardigan. The slim skirt stopped at the knee, assuring that the modern woman could run to catch a cab and sit down in an office chair.

At the recent couture shows, a day after the Dior show, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel presented this:

A crisp refreshing tonic, a slice of lemon to cut through the sweetness. Hamish Bowles reports that the edges of the fabrics were unpicked and then woven back together so that there appeared to be no seams. Now that's a modern approach, just as Mademoiselle's new suit was in the Fifties.

The Chanel jacket still skims the body.

Evening dresses seem to float.

Karl Lagerfeld is going for a real weightlessness here. Beautiful and wearable.
As in the past, one collection evokes opulence while the other looks to the future.

In Memoriam: While I was thinking about this post came the news that the amazing English designer Alexander McQueen, age 40, had committed suicide. In 2007 his great friend English stylist Isabella Blow died from suicide. It's so sad. Beyond the tragic loss of life, the world of fashion needs so much these fantastically eccentric and imaginative English talents who really work outside the bounds and take us all beyond the basics.

1 comment:

Helen James said...

What an interesting post x