Magazine article Artforum International

Power Dressing: Jeff Rian on "An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion"

Magazine article Artforum International

Power Dressing: Jeff Rian on "An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion"

Article excerpt


(An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion), a two-part show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, in its first installment traced the twenty-year history of fashion's democratization. Beginning with Yves Saint Laurent's "Liberation" of summer 1971 and running through nearly 1.50 fashion collections up to Jean Paul Gaultier's irreverent cusp-of-the-'90s "Les Rap-pieuses" (The Religious Rappers), "Ideal History" marked the rise of pret-a-porter, a moment when affordable designer clothes fit the moods and attitudes of a new consumer age before embracing the pure theater of '80s excess--electronic hardware, deregulated financing, and postmodern art.


The first floor showcased the reinventive impulses of the '70s, and in one darkly lit room after another createurs (style makers, as opposed to high-fashion couturiers) reimagined and revisited the various looks of the twentieth century--sentimentally, seriously, and without irony. Tight tops, loose dresses, and flared pants recalled the Roaring Twenties, '30s cabarets, and '40s warrior elegance. Sonia Rykiel's supertight knitted sweaters updated bobby-soxers' tops of the '50s. Saint Laurent re-created '30s smoking jackets (but shorter and tighter), safari jackets, "cabbage" turbans, and the billowy, colorful outfits of peasants. But for all the looking back, his brilliantly original between-war silhouettes steered fashion forward, retaining a tinge of a military order while trying, as he said, to visually "shock people, force them to think"--though in retrospect, he and Karl Lagerfeld still seemed to style for the Queen of England as much as for the elites at Studio 54.

Many '70s designers explored color and pattern, as did the concurrent Pattern and Decoration movement in art. But a deeper underlying reference was much older, harking back, like Cy Twombly, to the classical lines of ancient Greece, to the very roots of Western civilization, though an idea of Greece as interpreted in a Roman, fetishized vein. The long dresses and wraps, such as those designed by Madame Gres, resembled Attic drapery, with models posed like figures in friezes, graceful and indifferent, one arm akimbo. Issey Miyake, an outsider and avatar of the coming Japanese fashion invasion of the '80s, appropriated the Greek turn particularly ingeniously. His 1976 "A Piece of Cloth" collection was a "manifesto fashion show," in exhibition organizer Olivier Saillard's words--covering bodies without obscuring them, recalling classical togas, saris, and kimonos.

Miyake's innovative wraps and pleated fabrics accommodated the decade's "back-to-basics" and "unisex" trends and its revisionist environmentalism, with shirts packaged in tubes and futuristic hard-plastic bodices shaped like second-skin shells. But the overall atmosphere of the time was one of another world's idea of adulthood. This was best reflected in the videos from the runways and backstages on view in "Ideal History," which looked less like raunchy spectacles than like old home movies--no special effects, tattoos, or implants. Models played actresses trying to look like thirty-year-old Marlene Dietrichs rather than fourteen-year-old Lolitas. …

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