Essay: Crimes of Fashion in 1912 It Was Paul Poiret Urging Women to Give Up Their Corsets. in the Twenties, It Was Coco Chanel's Trousers for Women. in 1999 It Is Fur's Return to the Catwalk. Susannah Frankel Defends Fashion's Right to Cause Offence
Frankel, Susannah, The Independent (London, England)
Fashion offends. You are offended when the models are too young or when they are too thin; you are offended by upstart designers telling you to spend inordinate amounts of money on unwearable clothes; you are more offended still when, only six months later, those clothes are declared out of date. And as for fur ... At the autumn/winter haute couture collections held in Paris last month, the British designer John Galliano pushed even the most dedicated follower of fashion to the very limit.
The designer's choice of location for his fin de siecle couture collection for the house of Christian Dior was nothing if not apposite. The Palace of Versailles, brainchild of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and described by Voltaire as "a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence", could easily be seen as a metaphor for fashion's most unashamedly elitist aspect, even for the entire industry. Haute couture (literally: high sewing) is fashion at its most accomplished and least politically correct. It is the preserve of no more than 2,000 ultra-privileged women - women who sit in the front row parading their wealth and, more often than not, extensive plastic surgery.
Galliano chose to send out the world's most beautiful models in deconstructed poppy-red jackets and jodhpurs, and sinuous walking coats. A harmless take on the hunt? Hardly. Balanced precariously on their lovely heads were whole foxes (one with a slaughtered grouse trapped in its jaws, another with a tiny white rabbit nestling by its side) and, most grotesquely of all, a wild boar's head (papier-mache, thankfully). The designer was, in part, revisiting the theme that inspired his by now legendary degree collection, "Les Incroyables". This latest offering lurched between sublime beauty and shameless vulgarity, as if the designer was daring his audience to disapprove, just as the intellectually whimsical 18th-century French Directory dandies, who continue to excite the designer, did before him.
The British contingent didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The twice- yearly haute couture collections are always awash with rare furs, feathers and skins - but entire animals? Complete with their heads? Did Galliano not realise that, back in Blighty, where he trained and spent his formative years as a fashion designer, St Tony Blair was busying himself with plans to ban fox hunting? The Dior press office made no attempt to comprehend the deluge of near- hysterical British journalists calling to confirm that said fur was, in fact, real. "Mais, oui," came the witheringly blase, even faintly contemptuous reply.
Fashion, it seems, offends the British more than anyone else. While we continue to rail against the wearing of fur, the rest of the world looks on confused, finding our stance at worst plain hypocritical (most of us still wear leather and eat meat, dishes like foie gras are enjoying renewed popularity in London's more glamorous restaurants), at best, rather quaint.
Neither, for that matter, does the world understand the British love/hate relationship with fashion as a whole. Why, they wonder, do we naively expect fashion to be politically correct? Do we not realise that it is fashion's sensational adventures that make this such an economically viable industry? After all, the conglomerates that own the labels - and facilitate the designers in their pursuit of ever-more extreme imagery - rub their hands with glee every time a "controversial" show makes the front page and raises the profile of one of their labels. We may not be able to afford haute couture but we can, and do, buy the fragrance or perhaps a pair of designer sunglasses. The designers themselves, meanwhile, care not one iota whether the moral majority object to their work. This is a creative industry and one which responds to criticism by becoming ever more mistrustful of outsiders, particularly those seemingly intent on gatecrashing its hallowed portals and calling the main protagonists to account. …