The Model Society; A New Book Looks at the Impact of Fashion on Modern Culture. Richard Edmonds Takes a Trip through Haute Couture History PROFILE

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

WE''VE all seen the models loping down the catwalks on ten-inch suicide heels. and with a frozen demeanour, wearing the kind of outlandish styles no normal person would touch with a barge pole.

These are the hard-edged girls who grab the top fashion shoots who suggest a fantasy lifestyle available only to those who can project a sphinx-like aura and have bodies like laths.

Throughout history fashion has ruled art and commerce. In the 16th century the European Renaissance courts were magnificent with lavish fabrics and jewels. By the 18th century high fashion, silk-clad dolls in specially-crafted boxes went around the European royal seats for the dressmakers to copy, allowing stylish women to keep up with the latest trend.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, middle-class new money meant that style demands had percolated through to a new class of fashionistas who had the leisure, the looks, the brains and a newly-elevated social position to compete comfortably with the old aristocracy.

These were the handsome men and women you would have found applauding the opera at the Met in New York, strolling on the promenade at Biarritz or Deauville or competing in the yacht races at Cowes in the Isle of Wight.

They were anxious to flaunt their wealth at dinner tables or in the theatres, and when money talks couturiers listen.

"La Belle Epoque" and "The Age of Opulence" are familiar terms to us today, and they perfectly capture the glamour of the era. Painter John Singer Sargent painted the portraits of these dramatically beautiful people and their pampered offspring, Henry James immortalised the times in novels such as Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence, while dress designers such as Worth and Paul Poiret (along with the jewellers Lalique, Fontenay, Faberge or the Italian geniuses Castellani and Giuliano) showed these newly rich types the worth of a Paris designer label or a famous signature on a gold pin in their new social circles.

In The Mechanical Smile, Caroline Evans fascinating book covers most aspects of the social changes which happened after the First World War.

Social protocols evaporated as French dress designers moved away from super-rich individual clients and focussed on department store fashion, where models strutted their stuff down improvised catwalks providing the kind of pret-a porter clothes a working girl might afford. …