Across the span of eighty years one sees clothing designs that run from such garments constructed of layers of bone, webbing, tulle, and bustles beneath yards of silk; to Halston's 1970s whisps of simply cut chiffon or crepe, draped with exquisite flair across the body.
One of the great advantages of a still show like this is that the viewer can examine as slowly and in all the detail merited, each of the exquisite items chosen for the show. Though some people sneer at the idea of fashion as art, I can't accept this as a tenable position for anyone who spends time and attention in a show like High Style. The materials used in any piece are of phenomenal quality—of a quality that they deliver significant aesthetic satisfaction in themselves. Nothing in the show—neither dressmaking fabrics, kidskin of shoes, beads of glass or stones—failed to attract the hand or the imagination of touch. Most of us see high fashion in the pages of Vogue or on televised red carpet events, where only silhouette and dramatic cut stand out; we derive no idea many sensuous elements or craftsmanship that compose the art of fashion. We see only the theatricality of color and cut.
What is missing from a show like this is the runway. How delightful it would be to see these garments in movement on people with actual skin tones (how dismal the beiges, opals, and creams look against stark white mannequins). The Clover Leaf gown by Charles James is a unique and famous design. Ten pounds of four structured layers depend from the wearer's hips. The front hem is shorter than the back so walking will be unimpeded. Does the skirt sway from side to side, from front to back, or both? (The lace on this dress is held in place by stitches only at the top and at the bottom, where it meets the band of gold, allowing it to breath and rise during movement.) The boning in the bodice holds the wearer erect. Any woman secured into such an artwork becomes one herself. The dress shapes not only her body and her bearing, but, those adjusted, her gestures and the attitude must follow.
Mme. Eta Hentz (American, born Hungary), Evening
Dress,1944, Brooklyn Museum Costume
Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
Gift of Madame Eta Hentz, 1946 (2009.300.119)
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A gown by Mme. Eta Hentz, who worked in the '40s, a generation before Charles, shows a style that depends on draping rather than construction. Her Classical Greek-inspired gown swathes the body closely, calling attention to its curves explicitly rather than by fantasy. The over-the shoulder scarf requires some technique on the wearer's part—to keep it from (or to allow its) slipping; to allow it to descend down the arm or to bunch it up for greater exposure; or to wrap it around both shoulders for comfort or coyness. In this, the woman is a liquid column and the dress's movement reflects, softens, and enhances her own. This garment does not bestow triumph on the feminine; the wearer must know, own, and display it herself. This gown drapes her preexisting regal status. It is no accident that Cinderella has never been portrayed in a gown like this.
Only Charles James is represented by enough items in High Style for us to be conscious of the important fact that the clothing in this exhibition was commissioned by clients, many of whom depended on particular designers to clothe them routinely and to craft their public personae. We are aware that certain designers are chosen by First Ladies and celebrities to outfit them for occasions. We are less aware of the many women of means (afore-mentioned included) who attend to business, luncheons, and cultural events in couture.
Unique clothing must impart or enhance the wearer's public sense of confidence. Most of us sporting ready-made can only wonder about the relationship between the dressed and the dresser, the client and the artist. A woman in the position to commission couture is an art collector, the patron of a particular creative individual she wishes to invest in, someone whose taste she admires. She is willing, moreover, to collaborate with her or him disparate ways: as a partner in the artistic process, as muse, as public face of a brand.
Affinity must bring artist and patron together, and that bond must include social daring (enthusiasm for testing the limits of current taste and style). But that would be secondary to the taste for materials, fabrication, and ideas, of which all visual artists must be possessed.
Even now, many would find the 1969 evening dress by Madame Alix Gres extreme, provocative for the lack of sex appeal and exposure one expects from evening wear and for the extraordinary, difficult-to-wear sleeves. The basic empire-waist sheath, ornamented not even by a collar, is maidenly to a nun-like extreme. Yet the sleeves are as voluminous and richly gathered as displaced skirts of a Charles James "Tree" ball gown, above while alluding to classical drapery. Difficult to tell in a photograph, the dress is of exquisite papery silk taffeta with a stirring sheen and lightness.
Shown surely not to its best effect on this stiff, colorless mannequin, is Elsa Schiaparelli's "bug" necklace. Colorful tin bugs are attached to the surface of a transparent plastic (Rhodoid) ring, giving the effect that the insects march around the wearer's neck. During the 1930's, Schiaparelli collaborated with the well-known Surrealist painters, especially with Salvador Dali, to create clothing of shocking or amusing or thought-provoking content. The necklace is from her "Pagan" series of work, which emphasized natural motifs including leaves, grapes, and ivy. Her clothing was also decorated with signs of the zodiac, musical notes, seed packs, and, famously, a lobster, after Dali.
Schiaparelli represents an extreme of couture. Her genius as an artist seems so driven by her own personality and experience, that dressing in her fashions might be close to dressing in her own, peculiar persona.
Clothing alters the person in more ways than the visual, and those of us who have the opportunity to choose our garments do so carefully. But usually
when we look in the mirror, even from several angles, we're considering whether we look fat or thin; we're not considering how our garments support the attitudes we wish to project to the world, or how to use clothing as courage to become who we wish to be.
High Style features some of the most exquisite clothes from the most talented hands and artistic minds, for whom precious materials are available. I think that we even we who sigh over the advantages of the elite can draw inspiring conclusions from the show—about how we and our clothing choices design one another.