Costumes for an imaginary Hollywood

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Sitting in the tent in the Tuileries last Tuesday at the Dior show – watching model after model in 1940s Veronica Lake hair and strong-shouldered, waist-enhancing, fur-and-crystal-encrusted suits swan down the double curves of a staircase borrowed from a Norman chateau – it was hard not to be nostalgic for the days when the Oscars came after the fashion season.

How utterly ideal, after all, would designer John Galliano’s strapless tiered raspberry confection have been on a rising starlet of the silver screen; how perfectly Hollywood his blush pink one-shouldered jewel-sprinkled gown draped suggestively on one hip. Even the older contingent could have adopted the amethyst crepe suit, long skirt just brushing the floor, cuffs strewn with paillettes and bristling fur. They were, from the opening suits in precious skins such as python and crocodile to the final, crystal-embroidered extravaganza, practically a lesson in how to do red carpet spectacle. Certainly, they were more interesting – and colourful and plain old Sam Goldwyn glamourous – than much of what was on display in Los Angeles two days before.

But therein lay the problem. For the clothes, beautiful though they were, seemed like nothing so much as costumes for a game of charades. Guess who I am? Four syllables. Starts with C. Clue: married to Clark Gable.

Perfect, in other words, for what is in effect an exercise in kitsch cultural nostalgia where we pretend our screen goddesses are just that (as opposed to insecure, divorcing, Häagen-Dazs-scoffing humans like the rest of us), but not so relevant in contemporary terms. Indeed, the only role it was possible to imagine them clothing outside of the red carpet was some sort of clichéd French mistress: a boardroom courtesan. Do such women still exist? They must. I just don’t know any.

I have written often – and I hold to this – that fashion is merely another word for the costumes we wear in everyday life; the clothes we use to assume whatever role we are choosing to play. There is a corollary to this, however, which the Dior collection made plain: as our roles evolve, so must the costume; there must be a functionality to it that situates it in modern life. Otherwise it is just fancy dress for special events.

So, for example, while Jean-Paul Gaultier started his show with model Coco Rocha doing a Scottish fling down the runway (literally – she was trained as an Irish dancer and kicked and leapt her way from one end to the other), the performance was
simply an engaging frame, not a constraint. For in among the Highland luxe parade of every conceivable tartan in every conceivable bonnie permutation – full skirts; long kilts; corseted jackets; trench coats with a bow at the back and a mini fishtail; trench coats with built-in back packs; velvet empire waist dresses – was a terrific tailored maxi-trench in basic khaki, some smart knits dressed up with billowing fox sleeves and a series of gracefully restrained black jersey evening dresses.

This is the throwaway luxury Gaultier is known for (the stuff that equates to “that je ne sais quoi” in descriptive terms), and you could simply take the pieces apart, lose the Highlander association – please – and incorporate them into any wardrobe in the way that has become the characteristic of modern dressing; the context changed from a designer’s inspiration to a consumer’s identity. Indeed, it is the ability to create a canvas that can function in a variety of lives that is, in many ways, the hallmark of really good fashion.

Think of it this way: lots of woman doing lots of different things could all buy one jacket (which is, after all, what the people who run these companies really want: lots of people buying their stuff), and it would look different, and natural, on each of them.

Ann Demeulemeester has always understood this, one of the reasons that she has such a loyal following, and her ability to continually reimagine the classically male trouser-jacket-shirt combination in a feminine way that combines strength and romance has become her signature.

This season was no different, with trousers cut narrow and cropped mid-calf short, shirts given a froth of layers at the hip and occasionally draped into a surprisingly sexy cowl at the back, and jackets pulled in via ribbons to create the curves of a cutaway. Finally, rough-cut sheepskins became vests and neck-swaddling scarves. Think shipwrecked Viola reimagined for the 21st century.

Granted, reading Shakespeare into some black trousers may be a bit over the top, but a certain kind of naive dressing has been popular in fashion recently, and it was a relief to see something more sophisticated that did not turn into camp.

Indeed, the toes-turned-in little-girl look has become so much a part of the style vernacular it is almost taken for granted, so it was a happy wake-up call to finally have a designer question it (and what exactly it is implying), as Rei Kawakubo did at Comme des Garçons.

From the first lilac-tinted stretch nylon dress gussied up with what appeared to be a trapeze top of puffs and ruffles but was then revealed as a child’s dress appliquéd to the bodice of an adult garment, through to the coats trapped under a floral-print T-shirt and the men’s jackets caught in the back by another swatch of candy-coloured polyester to create the narrow waist silhouette of a tail coat, Kawakubo seemed to be looking at popular fashion tropes and saying, essentially: hey guys, what’s up? Are you a teenager or a teenager wanna-be? What is the point of layering T-shirts over other shirts over coats, dresses over trousers? Why get yourself up like a baby doll or a chappie?

It is possible, of course, this is not what she was saying at all – she is one of those designers who does not feel a need to hit everyone over the head with exactly what she is saying, which, frankly, is also a bit of a relief – but in a world where you let the clothes do the talking, that is what I heard. As a result, by the time the last looks of skirts with hands artfully cut and pasted on to the hips; and jackets clutched shut by the same appendages appeared, I wanted to put my own hand on my hips and say: “Yeah, what’s up with that?”

Or, put another way: “What movie do you think you’re in?”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.