What makes for a compelling catwalk vision? Fairytales can be powerful touchstones, holding profound resonance for many and offering a broad range of interpretation, from petal-strewn flights of fantasy to the darkest shades of human depravity.
Somerset House staged a fascinating conversation between curator, Shonagh Marshall and writer, Camilla Morton, each bringing their experience of McQueen and Galliano respectively and their use of fairytale and fantasy in their catwalk shows.
It highlighted the evolution of the catwalk show from an exclusive and elusive experience to an internet event available to all, and its role showcasing the designer’s concept in its purest form, sometimes bearing little relationship to more pragmatic designs that went into production.
They contrasted the two designers’ relationship with narrative. Galliano drawing on a narrative as essential part of design process, even to the extent of placing himself within the narrative at the close of his show. By contrast, McQueen used fairytales and fantasy elements to shock and disturb, heightening the effect by drawing the audience directly into the fantasy. It seems particularly timely that today we hear the news that a new translation of the Brothers Grimm’s fairytales is available, taken from their original and darkest version and including elements of human cannibalism and mutilation.
The event also highlighted curators’ role in creating narratives for exhibitions. Certainly, those exhibitions that have most impressed me have provided either a cultural or narrative context for the clothes. Part of what is so interesting about the history of fashion and dress is the way that it crosses boundaries between the purely practical, the expression of social norms or “tribal” custom, and individual self-expression. One of the most interesting aspects of the Fashioning Winter exhibition is the contrast between the nine individual displays by the different curators and how each interpreted the theme in utterly different ways.
Are the days of those fairytale blockbuster shows over now that YouTube grants immediate and global access? After all we don’t all share the same fairytales. Karl Lagerfeld is a designer working with a similar narrative approach at Chanel but clearly chooses themes that are much more global in their appeal – climate change, supermarket consumerism, etc. And will we see a new side to Galliano’s genius now that he is at the more conceptual Maison Martin Margiela?