Fashion, Art & Society

by Long Nguyen

Written by Long Nguyen
I had turned my collar up after leaving the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Sunday morning Lanvin men’s show held inside the courtyard’s glass-ceiling dome. More than five inches of white snow had engulfed most of Paris as a rare winter blizzard blew over the capital late last January. As I walked along the Quai d’Orsay, following the Seine, I watched a large confection of falling snowflakes assume the aspect of flocks of migrating birds, and felt like something was happening.

With the Sunday afternoon schedule free of shows, I was racing towards the Musée d’Orsay on the closing day of the exhibition L’Impressionisme et la Mode that focused on the intricate relationship between fashion and art from the early 1860s to mid 1880s. (Currently on view as Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York with 80 major paintings, selections of period clothes and accessories, and fashion magazines and catalogues.)

Like the rapid urbanization that was transforming Paris into a world capital, fashion played a vital role in the evolving society, as a portent of modernity. Parisians artists like Monet, Manet, Renoir or Bartholomé saw the changing taste in clothes as a means to eschew art’s conventional aesthetics and created new direction by painting their subjects au naturel in full-bodied large canvases wearing sumptuous clothes that reflected the latest styles.

Depicting the pivotal experience of individual city dwellers in the rapidly developing Parisian urban environment, with lyrical verses at times bordering on realism, taking subjects that included beggars, drunkards and prostitutes, and themes ranging from lesbianism to sadomasochism, was the hallmark of Charles Baudelaire’s poetic masterpiece Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Baudelaire laid the intellectual foundation for the two decades of spectacular Impressionist art by defining modernity as ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent’ (Le peintre de la vie modern, 1864) and emphasized that an artist should be an engaged spectator—a flâneur—observing the minute details of the flow of daily life within this sprawling city setting in the midst of a major physical transformation.

Initiated during the height of the Second Empire of Napoleon III between 1853 and 1870, Baron Haussmann’s systematic urban renovation upgraded the city’s thoroughfare grid for the first time since medieval times. The network of cross-city wide boulevards and open spaces like Place de la Concorde or Bastille or squares like Place du Chatelet allowed Parisians to parade their new clothes along the many cafes and shops flanking newly constructed boulevards as well as in ballrooms and grand theaters like the Opéra Garnier. Paris became the center of urban modern life, a metamorphosis that left behind the old guard and embraced a society where the new bourgeoisie mingled with former aristocrats, painters and poets.

Department stores like Les Grands Magasins du Louvre, La Samaritaine, Le Printemps and Le Bon Marché promoted the advent of ready-to-wear clothes available for immediate consumption. Stylish clothing was the key ingredient for artists who sought recognition exhibiting their works at the Salons, capturing their subjects wearing the latest looks in the gardens, the living rooms or foyers, on the boulevard, on the porch for a family gathering or outdoor at a picnic.

The transitory nature of clothes instigated this new approach in art as artists abandoned the rigidity and formality of official portraiture in neo-classical styles that dominated the years of Bourbon and Orléans. Calculated strokes and sharp delineations of colors once regal had surrendered to looser and quicker brush strokes and mixtures of broken hues. These techniques became the signatures of painted impressions of “the moment.”

“What poet, in sitting down to paint the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman, would venture to separate her from her costume?” declared Charles Baudelaire. In effect, his fellow artists like Monet, Manet, and Morisot painted women of different social classes in clothes whose different design chronicled and reflected both the vital changes in the structure of society as well as the clothes themselves, which radically transformed fashion from the late Second Empire towards the 1880s.

A red bolero jacket and an oversized oval black satin skirt in James Tissot’s Portrait de Mlle L.L. (1864); a flared billowing green and black silk stripe skirt and a black fur trimmed coat in Claude Monet’s Camille (1866); or the four women in large long sleeves crinoline cotton summer dresses gathered around a small shrub in Femmes au jardin, 1866 depicted the early 1860s fashionable exaggerations of flared silhouettes, stiffened petticoats or the conical shaped giant skirts reinforced by the rigid crinoline. A brown long sleeve silk taffeta with lace application flared dress (Robe à crinoline 1860-1865) from Les Arts Décoratifs, stood in a glass case near the gold frame canvas

“The modern painter … is an excellent couturier,” wrote the novelist Joris-Karl Huysman in Le Voltaire, 1879.  Indeed.

By the 1870s, the inconvenient size of huge dresses and skirts were deemed démodé. The crinoline supported silhouettes yielded to a more simplified crinolette or a bustle support that pared down and flattened at the front and sides and left a small volume of fabric gathered in the back and fell to the floor.

Black and white were the colors of choice for these new bustle silhouette dresses (often embroidered) as seen worn by the actress Ellen Andrée in Édouard Manet’s La Parisienne, 1875, or in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Lise à l’ombrelle, 1868 where the artist’s young mistress had on a lacy dress with a black satin waist belt. Surely the cotton piqué dress on Berthe Morisot in Manet’s Repose, 1871 was the height of this new style.

The allure and fast pace of a dynamic Paris in the late 1870s required clothes that encouraged greater mobility. The bustle-enhanced silhouette fell out of style as a streamlined ‘princess style’ cut along the body’s natural contours admonished any encumbrances and extra volumes. Albert Bartholomé painted his wife, Prospérie de Fleury, standing in a light violet dress composed of two pieces—a bodice tunic with three-quarter sleeves and pleated ruffles at the back and a slim striped skirt with the original outfit displayed next to the painting Dans le serre, 1871.

Art was the most important but not the only means that documented the evolution of fashion in the late Second Empire. The proliferation of illustrated fashion magazines amplified the influence of fashion. La mode illustré, Petit courieres des dames, Journal des jeunes personnes, L’observateur des modes were among the revues that chic Parisians consulted to update their style. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé edited his own fashion magazine—La dernière mode—where he wrote under the various pseudonyms Zizy, Miss Satin or Marguerite de Ponty. In fiction, Gustave Flaubert wrote in his 1856 masterpiece Madame Bovary that his heroine remained fascinated by the fashion magazines.

I exited the sumptuous museum and strolled across a snow blanketed Quai with the Louvre barely visible across the Seine and wondered about the role of fashion today in fostering and mirroring societal changes. These were thoughts occasioned by the spring couture show season starting later that evening.

In lieu of paintings, today we have a million bloggers instantly photographing anyone willing to dress often in a silly manner for a quick pose. These blogger-photographers have littered the entrance to each fashion show venue like ants following the smell of sugar. Street style today lacks the sophistication and the forceful quality that made fashion so much more important in the late 1860s.

Perhaps fashion today is caught up in a different verity—a set of circumstances inherently opposite the past. Fashion seems ubiquitous now but it feels a great deal less influential in people’s lives than it did in these spectacular masterpieces of impressionist paintings. Today much of fashion is mere bromide—perhaps a torrent of banalities multiplied to the exponential degree. But there are exceptions, like couture.

At a time when fashion is more of an online experience, couture still requires an appreciation for age-old techniques. Couture is about taking the ultimate risk—extravagant frocks made with experienced handiwork. But this extravagance is irrelevant in the web age because the appreciation for what’s beneath the surface of fashion is non-existent.

Barely a decade ago, Paris couture was on the verge of possible extinction as many storied French houses closed their doors.  Despite the greatest odds—which included a prolonged worldwide economic downturn (la crise as commonly known here is still getting worst with French unemployment hitting 11.9% in January)—couture has endured every possible threat since. Just in the past two years, couture could be said to be actually thriving. There are new customers flocking from Russia and Asia, and with the arrival of Raf Simons at Dior, the artistic side of couture seems guaranteed.

Since his first show for Dior last July, Simons has recaptured the jubilee that was absent over the past few years at Dior. In that first outing, Simons delved into the archives in search of the design principles of Christian Dior, the house’s founding designer. He found a path forward in the Dior silhouettes of the A line (straight on top and flare at bottom), H line (a straight silhouette from shoulder to hip) and S line (streamlined curvature along body)—these shapes that defined postwar fashion.

Inside a tent erected at the Jardin des Tuilleries, a carefully manicured garden with crisscross pathways provided the setting for Simons’ sophomore show where the leitmotif of the garden, flower, and spring provided the ideal ambiance for a rebirth of Dior couture. A strapless Dior heritage A-line dress had asymmetrical trims. An embroidered floral corset was covered with an ice blue satin vest and worn with cigarette silk pants. The incredible lightness achieved by layering cropped vests resulted in ethereal delight and wonderment. Light strapless corsets, and slim pants or knee length skirts distilled the heavy handedness often associated with couture. Here the traditional savoir-faire met today’s exigencies.

Sitting in the wooden amphitheater built inside the Grand Palais for the Chanel show, you could feel not just Karl Lagerfeld’s triumph of innovation, creative thinking, and command of craftsmanship, but his endless passion for the art (and commerce) of couture. The omnipotence of his vision was palpable—as though the heat is when you first walk into a sauna.

Lagerfeld showed us what high fashion is about in a show that catapulted the fashion house into a league of one. Classic daywear tweed suits had added sparks in the shiny fabrics and elevated shoulders. A long dress bore rose and yellow flowers— which seemed like prints, but were in fact finely embroidered. The leather leggings boots in silver, white or black lace or black leather added a streetwear element that broke the formality of a white tier short dress.

For the finale, Lagerfeld sent out two women in white lace embroidered wedding dresses, as though releasing doves. With their hands held together and accompanied by a young boy dressed in white, it was like the nuptials of distant imaginings, fairies from another time. The beauty and the romantic gestures of the brides quieted all the shouts and murmurs currently heard in French Parliament and the pro/con demonstrations on the streets about gay unions. Gaze at the stars but keep your feet on the grounds is an old saying but one that Lagerfeld surely embraced to keep Chanel on the pulse of the moment.

Unlike ready to wear, there is greater freedom to create in couture. That’s probably what drew many young and independent designers into the field. The French designer Alexandre Vauthier has shown his ultra-sexy and radically cut couture clothes since spring 2009, each season garnering new customers. Shown in Paris since January 2011, the Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen continued with her experimental approach in collaborating with artists from many fields to foster new materials that blend with handicrafts.

“I started on my own about two years ago, fresh out of school, not knowing a thing about the fashion industry. I entered a few contests, got some great reviews and encouraging energy from people surrounding me, and one thing led to another, I ended up improvising a couture collection and show out of scratch. What I lacked in experience, I tried to make up for with tireless tenacity and faith,” the Chinese-born, Paris educated and based, Yiquing Yin said, while sitting at her design studio in the Cité de la Mode, which faces the Seine River.

“Technical knowledge, like any other is just a means to obtain more freedom, lightness, and ease in expression. You translate an idea into an object, a product, through the shortest and purest way,” she said. The effect was in the show, from purple threads woven into knots and braided into rigid coils to form a burgundy sculptured bodice dress with attached flowy chiffons, to simple white threads embroidered around a black sheath creating mesh patterns. “There’s a strong sense of contrast in my work, like armor shapes, or volume, and the lightest ethereal fabrics.”

Haute couture is enduring in this era of web and fast fashion because couture serves as the link between the past and the future, a combination critical for innovation and renewed modernity. But fashion today no longer inspires contemporary artists nor innovates art in a way clothes once did for the Impressionists painters. Then, avant-garde artists made an unprecedented and unique foray into fashion and saw that clothes can shape art and history, not just the silhouette of the body.

“The latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most,” said Édouard Manet in 1881. This, unfortunately, cannot be said today.

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