From rags to richness

The fashion world’s starkest contrast in styles will soon be playing out in a cinema near you. On one side, there’s the hyper-embellishment of designers such as Balmain, Gucci and Valentino. On the other, there’s the minimalism of Céline and Jil Sander. In cinemas, the trailers for Baz Luhrmann’s glittery Great Gatsby (due out next spring) contrast with Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, the latest cinematic interpretation of Victor Hugo’s tale of the downtrodden in 19th-century France.

Gatsby showcases the sartorial sumptuousness of the Gilded Age at its glitziest. In Les Miz, however, the four female leads – Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks and Helena Bonham Carter – model the plain, functional clothes of the urban poor: from drab street urchin rags to unfussy factory uniforms and paper-thin chemises in practical, muted earth tones. Which is not to say that Les Misérables is without modish appeal – au contraire.

American Vogue devoted 10 pages of its December issue to the film, its stars, and their costumes; while style websites are already analysing how to “dress as your favourite character from Les Miz”. As designers continue to take inspiration from Hollywood and vice-versa, you can bet your Christmas stocking that the movie’s look will become one of 2013’s most influential.

But then, plainness has long been a high-fashion aesthetic. In France, in particular, simplicity of dress has a long and paradoxically extravagant history. In the 1770s, Marie Antoinette rebelled against the restrictive formality of Versailles by donning fresh, unstructured white-muslin chemises modelled on colonial wives’ Caribbean plantation wear. Along with homespun straw hats, fichus and aprons, these get-ups were well-suited to the queen’s “rustic” whims: milking cows and tending sheep (whose fleece was perfumed and dyed pink). But they represented a shocking departure from the traditional robe à la française, whose voluminous panniers, long trains, frothy lace sleeves, and elaborately brocaded, beribboned and bejewelled silk surfaces were meant to signal the wearer’s exalted rank. In forgoing these elements, Marie Antoinette was thought to be undermining the ancien régime’s entire social hierarchy.

But it was not just the casualness of the queen’s faux peasant clothing that attracted criticism. Its high cost sparked controversy too: though muslin and linen weren’t as luxurious as the Lyonnais silks worn at court, being foreign-made textiles, they were improbably expensive. Even worse, they were imported from two of France’s longtime enemies: England and Austria. The queen’s rustic attire was seen to be both profligate and anti-French: grave offences at a time when so many of her subjects were wretchedly poor, and when the debt-ridden kingdom’s future looked bleak. The queen was given a nickname that would haunt her to the guillotine: Madame Déficit.

Anne Hathaway in ‘Les Misérables'

A similar sartorial scandal erupted in 1884, when one of Paris’s richest noblewomen, the Princesse de Sagan, hosted a lavish bal des paysans in her palace in Saint-Germain. The extravaganza’s 1,500 guests were drawn not from the peasantry (les paysans) but from the aristocracy, whose jaded members found it diverting to masquerade as their supposed inferiors, albeit in pricey, picturesque variations on the theme.

Edouard Drumont, a right-wing commentator, was horrified and warned that by donning the glad-rags of the lower orders, the Sagan revellers had dishonoured themselves, condemning France to lawless mob rule. Indeed, some years later, anarchists bombed the Sagan palace; the princess’s “peasant” whimsies had apparently offended revolutionaries and reactionaries alike.

Since then, landmark poverty pastiches have included Coco Chanel’s luxe-pauvre (as Paul Poiret dubbed her utilitarian jersey and tweed creations), and Yves Saint-Laurent’s peasant skirts – experiments taken even further in 2000 by John Galliano’s infamous Dior “Homeless” collection, which featured ensembles apparently lined with “insulating” bits of silk newspaper, and makeshift belts and bracelets wrought from haute garbage and empty liquor bottles.

At the time, Galliano’s collection, lampooned as Dérélicte in the satirical film Zoolander (2001), was attacked for its callousness. Yet that hasn’t dimmed the anticipatory buzz about the elegantly threadbare outfits in the new Les Misérables movie.

Helena Bonham Carter in ‘Les Misérables'

In Hugo’s novel, factory girl Fantine wages a courageous, ultimately hopeless battle against brutal injustice and exploitation; to feed her daughter, she is forced to sell her hair, her gold locket (her sole treasure) and her two front teeth. As portrayed by Anne Hathaway and costumed by Paco Delgado, though, Fantine looks suspiciously chic.

While toiling at the factory, she wears a sharp royal blue smock with a matching, neatly structured hood that echoes Balenciaga’s minimalist 1960s bridal veil, recently reprised by Nicolas Ghesquière in his spring/summer 2012 show. Fantine’s off-hours clothes include a fetchingly plain gown of pale pink. Even when she hits rock-bottom, losing her jewellery and her hair, she evinces a stark gamine glamour. Her buzz-cut accentuates her bone structure. The scooped neckline of her sober, rust-coloured dress flatters her long, locket-less neck.

Nor does Fantine have a monopoly on stripped-down style. Eponine (Samantha Barks), her riches-to-rags nemesis, trudges through the Parisian grime clad in an artfully tattered olive-green top that represents a distinctly high-fashion version of the “peasant blouse”, paired with a YSL-style rust-coloured skirt of the same genre, and cinched at the waist with a wide, distressed leather belt.

By contrast, Helena Bonham Carter’s Madame Thénardier appears almost opulent, given the intricate embroidery on her blood-red jacket. The jacket is, however, missing a sleeve: a punkish, Vivienne Westwood-like touch that works well with the crazy quilt of her skirt, not to mention her mud-brown fingerless gloves, Medusa hair, slouchy socks and beat-up leather boots. Even as it telegraphs hardships endured, the ensemble almost demands a return of grunge to the catwalk – a development already discernible in Dries Van Noten’s spring/summer 2012 collection.

Such flights of luxe pauvre sartorial fancy are likely to send designers scurrying to the drawing board and trend-conscious consumers to the shops. It’s an unsettling prospect, given the virulent condemnation of social and economic iniquities that made Hugo’s novel a tragic classic. Although in her signature anthem “I Dreamed a Dream” Fantine sings of a better, more caring and equitable world, odds are that fashion fans viewing her performance may find themselves drifting into a different dream-world: one where impoverishment and deprivation are rebranded as consummate chic.

Caroline Weber is the author of ‘Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution’ (Picador) and an associate professor at Columbia University

‘Les Misérables’ opens on December 25 in the US and January 11 in the UK

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