PRINT October 2010


“An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion”

HISTOIRE IDÉALE DE LA MODE CONTEMPORAINE (An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion), a two-part show at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, in its first installment traced the twenty-year history of fashion’s democratization. Beginning with Yves Saint Laurent’s “Libération” of summer 1971 and running through nearly 150 fashion collections up to Jean Paul Gaultier’s irreverent cusp-of-the-’90s “Les Rap-pieuses” (The Religious Rappers), “Ideal History” marked the rise of prêt-à-porter, a moment when affordable designer clothes fit the moods and attitudes of a new consumer age before embracing the pure theater of ’80s excess—electronic hardware, deregulated financing, and postmodern art.

The first floor showcased the reinventive impulses of the ’70s, and in one darkly lit room after another créateurs (style makers, as opposed to high-fashion couturiers) reimagined and revisited the various looks of the twentieth century—sentimentally, seriously, and without irony. Tight tops, loose dresses, and flared pants recalled the Roaring Twenties, ’30s cabarets, and ’40s warrior elegance. Sonia Rykiel’s supertight knitted sweaters updated bobby-soxers’ tops of the ’50s. Saint Laurent re-created ’30s smoking jackets (but shorter and tighter), safari jackets, “cabbage” turbans, and the billowy, colorful outfits of peasants. But for all the looking back, his brilliantly original between-war silhouettes steered fashion forward, retaining a tinge of a military order while trying, as he said, to visually “shock people, force them to think”—though in retrospect, he and Karl Lagerfeld still seemed to style for the Queen of England as much as for the elites at Studio 54.

Thierry Mugler’s tenth-anniversary fashion show, Zenith, Paris, 1984. Photo: Guy Martineau.

Many ’70s designers explored color and pattern, as did the concurrent Pattern and Decoration movement in art. But a deeper underlying reference was much older, harking back, like Cy Twombly, to the classical lines of ancient Greece, to the very roots of Western civilization, though an idea of Greece as interpreted in a Roman, fetishized vein. The long dresses and wraps, such as those designed by Madame Grès, resembled Attic drapery, with models posed like figures in friezes, graceful and indifferent, one arm akimbo. Issey Miyake, an outsider and avatar of the coming Japanese fashion invasion of the ’80s, appropriated the Greek turn particularly ingeniously. His 1976 “A Piece of Cloth” collection was a “manifesto fashion show,” in exhibition organizer Olivier Saillard’s words—covering bodies without obscuring them, recalling classical togas, saris, and kimonos.

Miyake’s innovative wraps and pleated fabrics accommodated the decade’s “back-to-basics” and “unisex” trends and its revisionist environmentalism, with shirts packaged in tubes and futuristic hard-plastic bodices shaped like second-skin shells. But the overall atmosphere of the time was one of another world’s idea of adulthood. This was best reflected in the videos from the runways and backstages on view in “Ideal History,” which looked less like raunchy spectacles than like old home movies—no special effects, tattoos, or implants. Models played actresses trying to look like thirty-year-old Marlene Dietrichs rather than fourteen-year-old Lolitas. The looks and bodies were classically balanced and proportioned. The créateurs of the ’70s manifested the way middle-class consumers dreamed about the past and how they wanted to look at the moment, draped in ready-to-wear designer clothes and revealing a power to shop just as that power began, in the wake of the 1973 OPEC crisis, to wane precipitously.

Without realizing it, designers were creating looks for consumers at the fading moments of telephone wires and ribbon typewriters, at the end of the heavy-metal industrial age and the dawn of the information age—a time in history when the middle-class idea of being educated, being stylish, and reaching for success and security came under lasting threat. As the late ’70s ushered in a global conservative turn, ’80s sentiments introduced fashion that was more baldly aggressive to match the cultural and political upheaval that would end the way the modern world had been equipped and dressed, drastically, forever, and for all.

A montage of Thierry Mugler’s ready-to-wear shows throughout the 1980s.

The era of Reagan and Thatcher was not about the stately and orderly city-state; it was about the barbarians at the gates. Thus the silhouette reversed: Shoulders got big, and cutting patterns narrowed from the waist down. (From the seat of fashion, however, those barbarians included commercial designers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, whom the French would never label créateurs—and who of course weren’t so much as alluded to in “Ideal History.”) Fashion’s créateurs looked to the anarchistic excesses of punk, New Wave, and New Romantic music, which befit the irony and mistrust of the early ’80s—with its anger about failed wars and fears over the slumping economy and that new word stagflation, during a time that sexuality was given a voice in fashion but would just as soon become a threat with the appearance of the AIDS virus. Créateurs turned toward the extravagant, visual dazzle of the hippest of clubgoers: Thierry Mugler’s garments and corsets for what he called an “unnatural anatomy”; Gaultier’s insolent anticonservative cone bras; Claude Montana’s wide-shouldered coats, made with purple-dyed leather; and Azzedine Alaïa’s short and tight power dresses all seemed to have in mind the “post-human” replicants from Blade Runner. But another stark, perhaps sectarian trend, largely influenced by Japanese designers like Miyake, Kenzo (Takada), Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Yohji Yamamoto, reimagined the older assumption that clothes should conform to the lines of human anatomy. These designers used soft, patterned fabrics and a lot of black—the color of seriousness and control, which was donned by the art world en masse.

The last work in the show—the futuristic sportswear of Gaultier’s Richard Lindner–inspired “Les Rappieuses”—coincided with another economic slump. Corporate music and movies were being personalized in indie rock and cinema, and Martin Margiela began to humanize Gaultier’s pushy ironies about popular dress. The second “volume” of “Ideal History” will begin with the Belgian designer’s work—by which time the classics were a dead issue.

Jeff Rian is a writer living in Paris.