the cutting edge of fashion


Jean-Francois Janinet, Marie Antoinette, a print after Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty France, 1777 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nothing becomes a rich person so ill as telling a poor one that money can’t buy happiness, but I sympathize with them that it doesn’t always buy beauty or good taste.  Looking at the clothes in Harvey Nichols the other day, for the first time in seven years, I have never seen so much I didn’t want.* It is consoling to know that you can dress just as sluttily or frumpily from the local mall as you can from Knightsbridge.

But where is exquisite wearable art to be found in London today if it’s not in “premier luxury retail”? It doesn’t matter that the prices are out of my reach – the famous department stores have the power to inspire us all by showcasing the best, not dumb fashion down. Capitalism is failing in its moral justification to broker beauty. Producing and buying expensive stuff for the sake of its cost alone is not enough; wealth is not its own reward.

Good taste and beauty are not always the same thing, of course. One implies reason, order, restraint – the other can be terrifying in its wildness and passion. Dispiritedly stalking the floors of over-priced banality for something pretty or striking, austere or defiantly frivolous, not because I wanted to buy it, but to be reassured it existed, a token of hope in this rancorous epoch, some material clue to its meaning, and receiving dowdy answers from almost every concession,* I felt more respect for the cheap print dress I was wearing, bought online last year for under £35, less apologetic for the inferior fabric that can’t possibly hang or flow as gracefully as its richer counterpart, less dissatisfied by the inferior cut and workmanship.

I don’t want to admit the possibility that great fashion design is extinct, only that it’s in hiding. Like Frasier and Niles breaking through the silver and gold doors in an exclusive gentlemen’s club, convinced that a chosen few are keeping the best for themselves, I wonder if there is always another, secret, place where heaven waits. The two proudly self-proclaimed elitist brothers, deluded on their quest, penetrated what they though was a platinum portal only to find it was the aluminum door to the garbage yard.

*Exception: Alexander McQueen. There’s a V&A exhibition coming up in 2015, called Savage Beauty.

Walking art show or ancien regime atrocity:

Marie-Antoinette coronation robesMarie-Antoinette in coronation robes designed by Rose Bertin, painted by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty, 1775.
Oil on canvas, Versailles. Image source: Wikipedia

Like an actress, Marie-Antoinette wasn’t showing off herself, she was showing off an idea, a mood, a zeitgeist, a role, in her case being queen of France and of fashion in the late 18th century.

in honour of the French frigate Belle Poule after its victory in the American War of Independence

Queen as art exhibit: coiffure in honour of the French frigate Belle Poule after its victory in the American War of Independence, 1778.

The queen and her designer were not as chic as Madame de Pompadour a generation earlier, and, more critically for Marie-Antoinette’s fate, her interpretation of royalty didn’t quite match the public mood, but over two centuries later, we love it – the imagination, the courage, the exuberance, the tiny details, the madness, the self-parody – and Bertin’s designs are still sourced, consciously and unconsciously, by contemporary popular culture, in fantastical costumes for film, music videos and concerts, and by haute couture.

The French revolution in fashion was led by the queen and her fashion”minister”, Bertin. After a few years of collaboration in artificial excess, they adjusted to the aesthetic and philosophical spirit of the times by promoting a simpler, more natural form of dress.

Moving towards enlightenment: Marie Antoinette portrayed by Vigée-Lebrun, her other favourite image-maker, along with Bertin, in 1783. Image source: Wikipedia

Moving towards enlightenment: a more mellow, elegant Marie Antoinette, communing with nature, portrayed by Vigée-Lebrun, her other favourite image-maker, in 1783. Image source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately for them both, the political battle for the form and substance of the French monarchy was already lost. Dressed in ethereal cotton the queen was condemned for appearing in her underwear. In every sense, Marie-Antoinette is fashion’s biggest victim.

The shock of the new: Marie-Antoinette painted en chemise, again by Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Image source: WGA

The shock of the new: Marie-Antoinette painted en chemise, again by Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Image source: WGA

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