PRINT December 1995


Couture Culture

IN 1995, THE C WORD was uttered: couture once again expressed itself, but this time with discretion. The same high style that had previously been predicated on tulle, feathers shaved and dyed, artificial flowers, and lace (haute tattoo, after all, when laid over bare skin) returned to the image of fashion, minus the vitiation of ’80s-style conspicuous consumption. If high fashion had become pompous, lampoonable by drag artists, a Cindy Sherman–esque baroque burlesque, couture assumed a new validity this year, rising above the miasma of fashion and visual-culture uncertainties that typifies our time.

When Hubert de Givenchy presented his final couture collection, in Paris in July of this year, his retirement was thoroughly different from that of his great mentor, Balenciaga, who had excused himself from fashion in 1968 with a de Gaulle–esque display of grand distaste for the styles and culture of the ’60s. Givenchy, on the other hand, stepped down with utmost dignity, producing not a retrospective but a final season that was in some sense the paradigm of what he’d been doing for over forty years. No matter that the culture of ladies who lunch continues to dwindle; no matter that his greatest clients and personifications, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn, had recently died. For his last collection, Givenchy presented pretty dresses and tailored suits that incarnated his ideal of a conservative chic, a kind of good taste easy to criticize, hard to actually create, like a Fairfield Porter painting.

Givenchy’s quintessential garment was a split-level dress akin to the split-level houses and two-toned convertibles of the ’50s. To be sure, Balenciaga had long made such garments, but not with the good-taste sensibility and persistence of the younger designer. Givenchy created day dresses with a loose top, incorporating ease and fullness, that blousoned just a bit over the waist of an attached skirt. The effect was multiple: the waist was ambiguous (thus flattering to most women), the bodice was easy and soft (thus both comfortable and not overtly sexy), and the skirt benefited from fit. We have left the Buicks and ranch houses behind, but Givenchy perdured with a clement, classy idea.

Such unerring good taste might seem distant in our errant and vulgar times, but this year couture took on the task of Diogenes to find a plain truth of apparel quality. In recent years, even haute couture had seemed to wallow in an extreme stylization probably inimical to manners and purposes. In 1995, though, Hanae Mori presented black lace worthy of Jacques Fath, and Valentino offered evening dresses with the simple drape elegance of Alix Grès or Jean Dessès. Gianfranco Ferre for Christian Dior shimmered and shaped silhouettes in the manner of Dior himself from 1947 until his death a decade later. And Gianni Versace took up the cellophane and Rhodophane gauntlet that Elsa Schiaparelli had thrown down in the ’30s, practicing a conservative couture on new materials—heavy plastic and nacreous polyvinylchloride—and achieving again what Schiaparelli had achieved: a couture art that was both ordinary and extraordinary, but that incontrovertibly evaded all pieties of a middle ground.

Chanel, too, created not only in Karl Lagerfeld’s larger, caricatural style but also in his small and precious mode, offered a cardigan that is little other than a coat dress, but so in conformity with the scrupulous fit of the mid ’90s that over the month of July one could witness it become a classic, an essential addition to the Chanel suit as a wardrobe basic, the kind of consummate act of tailoring and indulgent restraint that once typified the haute couture. Chanel also made a striped sailor sweater, not of everyday knit but of embroidery, a diffident grandeur of beadwork as painstaking as the garment’s fit is subtle. You’d look like Popeye in it, but only at first glance. It reminded me of that brilliant triumph of couture, Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress of 1965–66. The look was so simple, you could believe there was no adjustment whatsoever to the body—and even that Saint Laurent, like Mondrian, had created on the flat plane. In fact he had incorporated a scintilla of ease for fit and shaping. The dress might have appeared the perfect denizen of the white cube, but all the while it was compliant to anatomy. Meanwhile his tawdry imitators came out with clumsy, boxy dresses unfit for grace or gallery.

If the haute couture reasserted itself in 1995 not through let-them-eat-cake flamboyance, but by applying its opulent techniques in simple and satisfying ways, fashion in general seemed to be learning the same nonextremist lesson. The ’60s and ’70s were often invoked, but, with the exception of Anna Sui’s missionary Woodstockdom, they were seldom the real source of the simple chic that redounded in, for example, the elegant sheath dresses produced by Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Saint Laurent. Whether worn by a gym-built Wonderwoman or the revenant graceful lady of the ’90s, the sleeveless sheath suggested the simplicity of our time, but also the intelligence of a woman able to wear one garment in a variety of circumstances, including office, outdoors, and parties. Initially prized for its versatility, the sheath dress returned for the same reason, now wholly incorporating the activities of working women.

If fashion is any model, our decade, which has defied coherence and description, is finally coming into focus. Hierarchy, long rightly mistrusted (the ’80s didn’t help, with their reactionary politics and florid laissez-faire esthetics), may be reasserting itself in a world bereft of Babe Paley or Gloria Guinness. We are holding up new models to the mirror. Thus, British Vogue headlined in September, “At last! Smart is back.”

What does it mean to visual culture that fashion has sought the elegant once again after a period of literal and figurative hyperbole and bombast? If I see fashion correctly, a sea change in its nature insinuates that lives are different. Actually, bodies themselves are shifting: the aerobically exaggerated, somatically overcompensating ’80s are over, whether we are looking at women or men. Sly Stallone has been replaced by Jim Carrey. Body-for-body’s-sake narcissism may have run its course or treadmill, as Village Voice columnist Michael Musto perhaps signaled when he chided gay men this summer for their masquerade of the gym.

Equally important, the body politic is changing. The faux democracy that began with designer jeans in the ’70s and that finds its apogee in the Gap is waning. Jeans, especially those by the creator, Levi, are as pleasing as any great art. They are perhaps even better than some arts for being worn comfortably. But there is a more privileged possibility, one not incompatible with wearing jeans on some occasions: the wearing of extraordinary clothing, and the experience of couture’s and fine menswear’s distinguishing traits of fit and ergonomic grace. We know that we want to wear jeans, and that the Gap is basic and great, but isn’t there an esthetic other? None dare call it “quality,” especially in this context, where it might sound Greenbergian even if what I’m talking about has little to do with absolutes and more with the complex negotiations of varied determinants that inform all fashion. But there is something else out there and up there: what fashion people used to call “style,” a condition for which “quality” may remain the best esthetic approximation and for which “dignity” applies in the declension of decorum.

Is this our fin-de-siècle madness, to want something absolute and singular in our grippingly commonplace world? As the century of the dynamo comes to a close, do we still yearn for the Virgin? Expense is not the goal, but without some things that are opulent and discriminating we have nothing to offer but one-dimensional cultural studies, the connoisseurship of the ineffably crass. As Calvin Klein’s splendid, significant, irrevocable August campaign reminded us all , fashion is a fabulous mediaphilic visual culture. Its popular mode is mass marketing and advertising, purveying fragrances, making bus shelters beautiful, yielding an urban landscape vital in a Jane Jacobs way. I am not asking for another layer that is more genteel and patrician, or for a return of WASP ladies to privilege, pretense, and power. I am asking for a layer in which we can see not only Corbu’s white city but Jacobs’ functional place, in which we can incorporate our discrepancy just as readily as we demand diversity. Inherently stratified, fashion is an art that is consumed by and seeks more than one market. Can one want surcease from O.J., Ricki Lake, Demi Moore, and Newt Gingrich without succumbing to indifference or elitism? Fashion, the laminated art, provides more evidently than ever a model.

In fashion, this was the year of the c word , “couture.” It was also the year of a four-letter fashion c word , “chic.” I know I never said “chic” before and now I’ve said it. I even desire it.

Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.