Recently I read that Patou now sells clothes with a QR code for the customer to scan to discover the story behind the item. I am clearly not the only person who enjoys a tale with my threads. Commercially this has to be a good move. On a practical level, it can help to satisfy our concern to live sustainably by assuring us about how our clothes were made and who made them. But the urge to tell stories about our clothes runs deeper than that to questions of not only how but why.
As a long-term vintage shopper, I have become accustomed to conducting my own research into the stories of clothes I buy. The last dress I bought was a consigned Miu Miu piece that I traced to the A/W 2011 collection. Vogue called this collection ‘a modern vintage collection that transported us back to World War II era Paris’ and ‘one of the most elegant Miu Miu collections.’
The collection was featured in UK Vogue in a sublimely beautiful shoot, styled by Lucinda Chambers, modelled by Kate Moss and photographed by Mario Testino. I clearly remember seeing these images when they first came out and being deeply affected by the elegance of the clothes.
This recent acquisition prompted a 1940s film binge: Now Voyager, Laura and then The Lady from Shanghai in which I found Rita Hayworth wearing an ensemble that was strikingly similar to some of the catwalk images from that Miu Miu collection (see top image). Was this the source of the inspiration? The costume designer for the film was Jean Louis who worked with Hayworth on Gilda and on Pal Joey.
So my recently acquired dress seemed to have come to me from 1940s Hollywood, via Milan. Having been captivated by the Miu Miu collection on sight, back in 2011 I had finally found my dream item nine years later and it is one of those pieces you instinctively recognise as being ‘you’. Discovering the context of its original presentation within a Miu Miu collection and a possible source of the inspiration for that collection, only go to make a lovely dress even more special to me.
There are powerful commercial reasons to tap into this vein but there’s something else here too. The more special we feel our purchases are, the more we will value them, cherish them and use them. The more we all do this, the less need we will have to discard badly judged and unloved items. Many items in my wardrobe are decades old and I fully expect this dress to measure its lifetime with me in a similar frame. Rita Hayworth knew a good thing when she saw it and who am I to argue?
The Palais Galliera is back (in all senses of the word) at the Musee Bourdelle for another thoughtful and inspiring exhibition, showing statuesque ensembles inside a sculptor’s studio. This time the theme is the back of the garment: for the most inventive designers the perfect place to show off virtuosic dressmaking and for the wearer the ultimate in making an exit. From the formality of court and bridal trains to structures that seem animal or bird-like, the Galliera considers the back from all angles.
The show mixes dress from the eighteenth century to the present, shown alongside stone and bronze sculptures that echo or contrast with the lines of draped and seamed cloth.
The genius is in the mix: a Maggy Rouff bridal gown alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier ‘trench coat’ evening dress; Yohji Yamamoto’s deconstructed black and white felt dress (see top image) alongside an antique gold embroidered court train. It is thought-provoking and awe-inspiring. Some of the most interesting exhibits are slightly unsettling: two antique straight-jackets are displayed alongside a Jean Paul Gaultier lace corset (see below).
Some of the pieces on show defy photography – a Martin Margiela jumpsuit/gown is so sculptural it has to be seen in 3D to be appreciated. Also notable was the preponderance of black in the show – with clothes this structural, colour and pattern seem superfluous. Without doubt the piece I would take home with me if I could was an Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture (SS 2001) jumpsuit ensemble, featuring a fierce black leather corset from which emerged a pair of opulently embroidered – what? Fins? Wings? You decide. A truly stunning piece.
It is another tour de force from Musee Galliera: sensual, thoughtful, artistic, disturbing and atmospheric. I left feeling gorged on beauty, my head spinning with ideas about my own wardobe and clothing choices. I’ll think carefully about the clothes I put on my back in future.
Two summers ago, I spent my August bank holiday weekend
making a leopard-print fedora, that I called the ‘three-day
fedora’. This summer I was
similarly-employed but on a hat that’s been 3 years in the making. Sometimes, these things just take longer
because they do….
I bought the felt hood in August 2016 at Ultramod,
Paris’s dream haberdashery. I must have
been possessed by late-summer colour frenzy because I immediately loved its
fuzzy raspberry tone even though I had no idea what I would do with it.
A year later, I pulled it out again and started experimenting with shapes and trims, but now with a darker feel using antique jet fragments. I could not make a decision so instead I made the leopard fedora. The raspberry hood kept calling though and I got as far as stiffening the hood and preparing it for blocking before I again, got blocked and there it stayed for months.
Then, on the verge of giving it away, I changed my mind and started trying ribbon trims – teal, folkloric gold, blossom pink – before eventually coming back to black jet. I had a recent market find: an antique fragment that had the perfect taper.
Once I got started, the hat chose the shape for itself. While my leopard fedora fell naturally into its dimpled crown, this one stayed resolutely but softly, a cloche. Sometimes the hat just tells you what to do with it if you let it.
The Wallace Collection’s current display of Manolo Blahnik’s shoes – An Enquiring Mind – is a show of pure genius. The magnificent collection of paintings, furniture and ceramics is the perfect setting to highlight the breadth and depth of this shoemaking genius’s inspiration.Most impressive of all is the sensitive and careful placing of each style of shoe to form perfect clusters to complement the art around them. The notes to the exhibition enlarge on this and the outcome is that there is something to delight the eye whichever way you direct your gaze.
In the East Drawing room, under the magnificent painting, The Riches of Autumn (Jacob Jordaens, 1593-1678) we find a collection of shoes and boots in the richest black velvet , luscious golden satin, beaded and feathered and displaying all the abundance of the season.
The Great Gallery features a teal lace stiletto picking up the colour of the peacock’s tail in Peacock and other Birds (M d Hondecoeter, 1636-1695). A cluster of pastel satin shoes and mules, delicately laced with pearls and rosettes is the perfect companion to The Infanta Margarita Maria (after Velazquez, 1599-1660), picking up the silk of her gown and her jewels.
There is humour too. What better to accompany Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1584-1666) than a reinterpreted cavalier’s boot, its cuff dropped from knee to ankle. The positioning of boot and painting suggests the subject is enjoying the joke too.
The high point of the display is the Oval Drawing room – a small room of Fragonard and Boucher paintings that houses a selection of shoes made for Sophia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette. Here, Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour (1703-1770) presides over shoes that look as light and fanciful as macaroons. Though Pompadour lived a generation before Marie Antoinette (and seems to have been significantly more politically astute), she would surely have appreciated the power of these shoes to maintain court hierarchies.
Thank you, Wallace Collection for a beautifully conceived show, perfectly juxtaposing painting and craftsmanship. It is thought-provoking for sure but it also manages to capture the sheer joie de vivre of the art of artisanship, seasoned with a dash of wit. This is the perfect way to show fashion and we need more like this. And I need some more Manolos…..
Fancy a pair of Louboutins? Or a Lanvin vest dripping with flapper-style beading? Or perhaps a butter-soft Chloe perfecto in lush olive suede is more your thing? Then you need to know about Dress for Success and their pop-up shop in Covent Garden’s Neal Street. It opened today and will be there dispensing gems like these to lucky clients until Saturday 19 August. Miss it at your peril.
Even better, you can feel good about every purchase you make because Dress for Success is a charity doing wonderful work. If you’re reading this blog then I don’t need to tell you about the power of clothes to make a person feel confident, strong and ready for challenges ahead. But clothes can also be a source of anxiety. We’ve all known the problem of having nothing to wear, despite a wardrobe bulging at the seams and rails buckling under the strain of too many hangers. But for some women, the problem of having nothing to wear is real, especially when it comes to facing the crucial test of a job interview. Dress for Success has their backs because it not only clothes them but preps them for the interview, boosts their confidence and – once they’ve been offered the job – provides them with a capsule working wardrobe.
So if you’re in London drop into the shop and snap up some Louboutins. Or even better, donate some clothing or volunteer your help. As a volunteer for them myself I can’t remember a time when I had so much fun, met so many wonderful people and laughed so much. So beware: you may get much more out of this experience than those fabulous Louboutins.
What does a good coat do for you? The coat in the Gordon Conway 1929 illustration above ticks most of the boxes: the wool fabric delivers warmth, weatherproofing and comfort; the lavish collar looks glamourous and wonderfully cocooning; the colour gives an instant shot of pzzazz to cheer up the dreariest winter day; and the silhouette is svelte and elegant. For an expensive purchase like a coat it is essential to know what suits your shape and your needs – long and voluminous can be great on the tall but overwhelming on the petite; the camel coat is a classic but there are thousands of colour variations that will flatter (or not) different skin tones; luxury fabrics can be delicious to wear but may not withstand the worst winter conditions. Choose wisely and you’ll have a friend for life: in my own case it’s an ancient single-breasted Burberry heavy tweed overcoat, so old even the tweed is wearing thin, but it still keeps me warm and dry and still attracts compliments. I won’t ditch it until it actually falls into shreds.
The development of the overcoat has been strongly influenced by military uniforms, so its no conincidence that around this time of year the fashion magazines will be running their annual features showing military-style greatcoats against dramatic landscapes. We can all conjure the image of Napoleon on campaign in Russia, or more recent images from Grace Coddington’s stunning work for Vogue setting rugged tweeds against highland heathers. Masculine styles worn with a feminine touch are a perennial classic and most of the masculine styles referenced by designers today have evolved from nineteenth and early twentieth century military and sports tailoring. Most famously of all, Burberry and Aquascutum developed trenchcoats to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. The style evolved from the nineteenth century military greatcoat but with additional, practical details – shoulder straps to hold epaulettes and D-rings to attach maps.
Country sports also played their part, giving us the shooting jacket, a multi-pocketed, belted tweed; the redingote – a long fitted coat deriving from “riding coat”; the frock coat – a waisted and flared-skirted coat, deriving from the frock coat with tails used in dressage or without tails as used in show jumping and hunting; and the polo coat is a double-breasted over coat with a half belt at the back, popularised in Jazz Age America and since then by classic labels like Ralph Lauren. There were also variations on the basic styles: the Ulster coat has a short cape over the shoulders for extra rain protection (think Sherlock Holmes); the Chesterfield is a Victorian double breasted style that has become a modern classic of city-wear.
The twentieth century has seen much greater diversity of design in women’s coats. As fashion design emerged as an industry in its own right, coat design became more trend-led, designed to complement the entire outfit. So in the 1920s coats became low-waisted and bat-winged to sit comfortably over low-waisted dresses with fringing or draping.
In the 1930s Jean Patou introduced a more womanly, curvaceous line closer to the body. It is a silhouette that is already emerging in the 1929 Gordon Conway illustration at the top of this post and is highly reminiscent of the look adopted by Hollywood screen sirens.
The 1940s brought rationing and Utility. In response to shortages, the government commissioned fashion designers to produce clothing designs for mass production that used fabric with maximum efficiency. People were encouraged to re-use and re-purpose existing clothing and so female coats became more fitted to the body, shorter and in some cases closely referencing masculine styles – especially when an absent husband’s wardrobe was available to be raided.
Was this where the fashion pendulum started to swing, as each succeeding trend reacts violently against its predecessor? Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ turned the tables on 40s austerity with circle skirts and a tiny-waisted profile that brought back some longed-for glamour. So as the 1940s became the 1950s, coats had to accommodate this return to volume with swing styles, flaring out from a narrow shoulder.
Dior directing a fitting in his studio, from Christian Dior and I, Christian Dior, 1957
JFK and Jackie Kennedy on Inauguration Day, Getty Images
It was only a matter of time before fashion reacted again and the 1960s brought minimalist, space-age designs. Balenciaga, star couturier of the 1950s led the way with rounded, cocoon-style coats and Paris picked up the baton as Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent delivered neat coats in the high-waisted princess line. Think YSL’s iconic designs for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Givenchy’s beautiful orange coat for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Oleg Cassini’s neat ivory coloured coat for Jackie Kennedy to wear at her husband’s Presidential inauguration. These coats were the perfect complement to the pared down miniskirts and slim trousers of the decade.
The 1970s brought a certain nostalgia to coat design, from YSL’s 40s-style fox fur chubbies from the notorious 1971 collection to full length capes and great coats to balance bell-bottoms or maxi dresses that emerged in the middle of the decade. Perhaps in reaction to the ‘soft-focus’ style of the 70s, the 1980s came in with a harder edge and a sharp shoulder as designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana worked on an inverted triangle profile
Where do you go to escape the constant cycle of trend reversal? The 1990s brought us deconstruction and the rise of the avant garde Belgian designers* and the Japanese designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. In Martin Marigela’s hands the classic camel coat was subverted, the collar attached inside out. The result is a piece that looks as if it should be familiar but unsettles the eye (see above).
Today? Globalisation has brought an “anything goes” attitude. So draw from the best of the past, work out what suits you but beware of adopting any look too literally. Find your style and personalise it, have fun and experiment.
*NOTE: The ‘Antwerp Six’ were Walter van Beirendonck; Anne Demeulemeester; Dries van Noten; Dirk van Saene; Dirk Bikkembergs; and Marina Yee. Though not strictly speaking one of the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela had graduated from the same fashion school but, rather than show under his own name in London as the Six did, he instead moved to Paris to work for Jean Paul Gaultier.
New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology is currently showing items from the Countess Greffulhe’s incredible wardrobe, on loan from Paris’s Musee Galliera. I went, wondering what relevance these nineteenth century gowns could have on twenty-first century fashion but I came away deeply inspired, and particularly by the power of the sleeve.
Much has been written about the Countess as the inspiration for Proust’s character, the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but in fact her wardrobe spans a wider period leading up to the Second World War. During her life she not only commissioned gowns from the leading couturiers of Paris, she actively collaborated with designers like Worth, Fortuny and Poiret in the design process. She particularly championed female designers during the 1930s – Jeanne Lanvin, Louiseboulanger and Nina Ricci and the FIT has some beautiful examples of these on show.
But back to the sleeve. The Countess’s nineteenth century Worth gowns all drew dramatic impact from their leg-o-mutton sleeves – a long sleeve, tapering from a dramatically inflated shoulder down to a tight wrist (see below for a similar Worth gown). Sleeves like this will flatter the waist and the neck, slenderising and drawing the eye. Highly fashionable during the Belle Epoque around the turn of the twentieth century, they fell out of favour in the 1920s as fashion moved to more minimalist shapes.
The Countess clearly appreciated the leg-o-mutton sleeve and it features on almost all of the earlier gowns. She even defied trends of the 1930s to use them in a show-stopper of a gown commissioned from Maggy Rouff and this one just stopped me in my tracks.
It was constructed in the simplest, unembellished black silk velvet, with a high neck, fitted bodice and a straight, full length skirt. Its full dramatic impact came from the leg-o-mutton sleeves. As a design it was timeless, in fact it recalled some of today’s designers, like Victor and Rolf and Oscar de la Renta, that have made similarly dramatic use of this type of sleeve.
Maggy Rouff (1876-1971) learnt her skills as a couturier working with her mother at the house of Drecoll. She founded her own house in 1929 and quickly established a reputation for producing exquisite evening wear. This was often cut on the bias, orientalist in influence and owed its dramatic power to cut and sculptural elements rather than embellishment. Seeing the gown on display at FIT, it seems a tragedy that Rouff is not better known today. Perhaps that is because her house did not survive long after her own retirement in 1948, closing in 1956. Whatever the reason, it would be wonderful if one of the major fashion museums would devote a show to this designer who was clearly influential in her time as well as being one of the pioneering female designers of the early twentieth century.
The best exhibitions, of fashion or anything else, leave one mulling new ideas and thoughts for days after seeing them. This one does just that and for me, it was not only a reminder of the dramatic potential of a sleeve, but also a clear demonstration of the value of knowing what suits you and defining your own look.
If you are in New York, see this show before it closes on 7 January 2017- as usual with M Saillard’s and Ms Steele’s exhibitions it is thought-provoking, inspiring and beautifully displayed. And, M Saillard, Ms Steele, if you see this, please give us a Maggy Rouff show to remind us all of the dramatic flair of this overlooked female designer.
The fashion industry is in turmoil. The internet and social media have transformed the traditional show schedule to the point where designers divide between those showing collections ready to buy and those showing to the traditional schedules, six months in advance. It can feel at times as if the poor consumer is existing in a vortex of trends, spinning faster than we can respond. Where did it all start?
London’s Fashion and Textile Museum might just have the answer. Their current Jazz Age exhibition focuses on exactly the point at which Coco Chanel was transforming Paris Ready-to-wear; Hollywood was starting to exploit the commercial possibilities of fashion in films and London was injecting glamour into the traditional migration between city and countryside.
First Hollywood. The film industry was undergoing its own disruption as talkies replaced silent movies and some of the greatest screen stars emerged: Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Hollywood engaged its own designers – Travis Banton, John Orry Kelly and Gilbert Adrian to craft the images of its stars (and the story of Adrian’s collaboration with Joan Crawford in creating the sharp shouldered silhouette has become Hollywood legend). The crucial aspect of the Hollywood business model was that they actively encouraged copying, even franchising out designs for others to reproduce and including ‘fashion shows’ within films. The longest shadow of that age is perhaps cast by Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco (1930) in which she sported full white tie evening dress – tail coat, topper and even the cigarette. The image remains iconic to this day and has inspired countless designers including YSL’s Le Smoking and John Galliano’s collections for Dior in SS2004 and for his own label in AW 05-06.
Back in the twenties, Hollywood commercialism was in stark contrast to Paris, where the divide between socialite and celebrity culture remained strong and haute couture designers strove to maintain their position as the fashion industry’s elite. This made them no less prey to the emergence of trend-driven design. Despite an unhappy period designing for Hollywood, Coco Chanel was influenced by trends closer to home, contributing to the ‘folkloric’ trend of the 20s through her interest in Eastern European and Russian embroidery during her liaison with Archduke Dimitri.
At the same time London’s reputation for eccentric practicality was emerging from the transformation of the country house weekend into a strange hybrid of a day spent at country sports and an evening of high glamour. Driving this trend was the tendency for aristocrats, deprived of their heirs by World War One, to sell to the newly rich. These new owners sought to maintain tradition at the same time as establishing their own social schedule and the 1920s house party was born, bringing with it trends of practical country tweeds (adopted by Chanel herself during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster) combined with evening black tie glamour. The whole scene was parodied perfectly by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies.
What was the legacy of these convergent transatlantic disruptions? Fashion magazines and illustration emerged as a powerful carrier for trends, supported by Hollywood’s push to commercialise looks premiered on the silver screen and a move towards more home sewing and home-made fashion.
So we may think the fashion industry is undergoing unprecedented disruption today but it is probably nothing it has not experienced before and from which it has emerged stronger. Bring it on and in the meantime, let’s just revel in a jazz age moment at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. See it in London before 15 January 2017 or online here www.ftmlondon.org.
Thanks to the ever-inspiring Amber Butchart and Adrian Tinniswood for the insight delivered by their lectures for FTM on Fashion in Film and Life in the 1920s Country House based on their recently-published books of the same names – both are wonderful reads and the former in particular a fantastic feast for the eyes.
Velvet – isn’t it just the height of glamour? Always chic but especially on-trend this winter, with Prada’s luxe midnight velvet hiking boots, Gucci’s gorgeous teal velvet bag and Demna Gvasalia’s strapless gowns for Balenciaga.
Why do we love it so? Its extreme softness and delicacy has made it a luxury down the centuries. Elizabeth I actually made it illegal for any subject below the rank of knight to wear velvet, so concerned was she about devaluing its currency as a mark of nobility.
She need not have worried: velvet has maintained it luxury edge down the centuries. When Charles Worth, the man widely credited with creating the first haute couture fashion house, opened his design salon in 1858, he quickly became known for lavish fabrics and embellishment. This richly beaded velvet jacket from Worth even draws clear inspiration from tudor style with its structure and puffed sleeves.
Velvet seems to have originated in Baghdad in the 9th century. It reached Europe in the middle ages through Venice, the main thoroughfare for the spice route between Asia and Europe. The city has maintained a close association with velvet through the ages, culminating in Mario Fortuny’s exquisite devore and printed velvet cloaks, coats and tunics, produced in the city in the early twentieth century, and recently celebrated by A S Byatt’s excellent book, Peacock and Vine. Fortuny was an inventor and an artist – fashion was only one of his talents which also extended to lighting and theatre set design. To this day, no one has managed to discover the process he invented (and patented in 1909) to create his signature creased and crushed silk “Delphos” dresses. Lucky ladies buying the dresses received them rolled and wound in boxes.
Velvet can be made from cotton and linen – typically heavier textiles – as well as in lighter silk or silk/rayon mixes. The fabric lends itself to a range of textural effects, from devore, in which the velvet is burnt with acid to create a pattern, to crushed velvet (see left). It can also be woven in combinations of colours to make it appear iridescent.
Since the start of the twentieth century velvet has featured strongly in every decade’s fashion. In the Jazz Age of the 1920s flappers wore lustrous embroidered velvet opera coats, referenced by John Galliano in his 1998 haute couture collection for Christian Dior (below).
Christian Dior haute couture 1998 opera coat from the collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris
1913 illustration of a “white velvet coat embroidered with pearls”
Art deco of the 1930s brought a more minimalist feel in which colour and design were pared back to bring out the beauty of luxury fabrics themselves, as seen below in a panne black velvet necktie trimmed with ermine.
The 1940s and 50s saw the return of colour and pattern, especially in hats as velvet was used for percher hats and half-hats. The shimmer of the fabric highlights and flatters skin tone (see above).
The greatest couturiers of those decades, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, also used velvet frequently in their collections. Dior’s H-line collection (Autumn-Winter 1954-55) was inspired by tudor court dress, while Balenciaga manipulated green velvet into a pattern mimicking astrakhan fur for this opera coat.
The 1960s saw the rise of perhaps one of the greatest designers to use velvet in his collections: Yves Saint Laurent. Who can forget his black velvet flamenco hat from the iconic portrait of Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel? Black velvet was a staple ingredient of his evening dresses and featured strongly in some of his most famous collections – as bodices in the “Russian” collection of 1976 and as knickerbockers in the “Chinese” collection of the following year.
Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel
Lou Lou de la Falaise by Pascal Chevallier
And what better lesson for us all in how to wear it than to study Lou Lou above? Velvet needs attitude for sure but it also needs a little disrespect. Pair it with jeans for Parisienne glamour, with leather for a rock chick edge, vamp it up with black jet to reference Victoriana, or go classical with contrasting white satin. No wardrobe is complete without it.
A classic image of the wide-brimmed capeline is Bette Davis in Now Voyager and Bette and her genius costumer designer Orry Kelly, knew their stuff. I’ve yet to meet the person that isn’t flattered by a wide brim. Especially when the brim is wired – it means you can play with it, shape and angle it for maximum flattering effects. Dipping it down over one eye, a la Bette, is a good way to go, as is getting the brim to run parallel with your jaw line, helping accentuate it. The capeline is a marvel of engineering – practical, ergonomic and beautiful.