Thursday, 10 June 2010

Dress to Excess

Once the house of Worth et Bobergh was established in 1858 and gained the patronage of court essential to the prosperity of any fashion house of the time, it was guaranteed a constant supply of business from the contemporary rage for fancy dress. The challenge presented by this enthusiasm was comprised by the simultaneous necessities of varying one's costume with commitment and aplomb and of yet not offending moral sensibilities by appearing in garments of a colour or cut now considered inappropriate - the full skirts of the middle of the century would look askance at the Grecian outlines of its very beginning, for instance. But Worth flourished under these conditions, for the knowledge of historical styles of dress gleaned from his early and sustained interest in the history of art provided him with an almost endless stream of ideas for costumes that would enliven but not affront the eye.

But mid-nineteenth century France was in a rage for fancy dress in another sense: the dresses worn by women, not only to evening occasions but for everyday purposes too, were, by modern standards, just very fancy, excessively ornamented and elaborate. And here too, Worth found his opportunity, for he introduced to French high society an appreciation for the reserved, the modest, the simple that won him a reputation and clientele in proportion to the real novelty of his sartorial values. Worth executed the essential lines with true expertise and the resulting elegance of his creations began to quickly expose the fussy inferiority of previous modes. Simplicity trumped excess, and Worth was the man to do it.

But there is more than one side to excess, as there was more than one sense of fancy dress. Worth's designs may indeed have been simple but the manner in, and pace at, which he made them to change, replacing the fitful and mostly purposive movements hitherto native to dress with an increasingly rapid and regular motion that cut its ties with larger scale socio-economic conditions in order to chase the new for the sake of the new, was excessive to its very very core. Rummaging through the wardrobes of history for ideas for colour and cut, with neither rhyme nor reason to answer to and only ever decreasing social constraints to limit his options, Worth's house of fashion grew more and more like the National Gallery of his youth: filled to the brim with periods and styles, juxtaposed without judgment; history, flattened out and hung on the wall for all to see.

De Marly, Worth's biographer, describes his maison as "not a dress shop but a palace of costume," which tempts one to observe that Worth, for all his tasteful rejection of the age's rage for fancy dresses, remained strangely in thrall to the age's rage for fancy dress, with all its indifference, its randomness, its impropriety, its triviality; by Worth, history was reduced to a mere dressing-up box and life - at least insofar as life gets dressed - to no more than a costume party.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Not Fit to Wear

Worth, the first couturier, emerged from the obscure side of the counter at Gagelin of Paris on the strength of his quite startling talent at crafting gowns that fit; the few simple dresses, made by him and worn by his wife, Marie, in order that she might best display whatever hat or shawl a customer wished to see modelled, became themselves the objects of customers' desires, for they fit so well and moved so fine that neither hat nor shawl could outshine their superior cut. And then Worth was suffered to sew, and to refine so the making of dresses that nothing less than a perfect fit was soon considered tolerable by those who could afford the luxury of discernment.

These days, fashion houses no longer demand profitability from couture, which is rather regarded as a symbol of status, speaking in all its excess of the profit that mounts up elsewhere, and successful in this in almost direct proportion to the extent to which the dresses it makes eschew the demands of mere function. This produces the surely very curious category of "Ready to Wear": curious because it contrasts, not with designs that wait to be tailored to personal fit but with garments not fit to be worn.

What began as the work of refining a craft so that dresses would fit wearers well, is now all defined by a grand scale contempt of such mundane requirements as dressing in clothes that are cut for the purpose.