courtesy of Elisabeth Carson FASHION WORLDS COLLIDE DAILY on the streets of major cities, but when the dressed-down confront the dressed-up in the spectral hush of a museum, the ironies abound. These two worlds are currently aligned through glass walls at the Costume Institute of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the effect is, well, startling. On one side of the glass are the exhibits, frozen in time and draped on the ideal forms of dummy mannequins. The clothes are the epitome of fashion perfection, where fabric, feather and bead are transmuted by a designer's vision and the dressmakers' craft into objects of fantasy that reflect their creators' eras. On the other side are the spectators. Swaddled in the nondescript comfortwear of the '90s--sweaters, slacks, T shirts, jeans and sneakers--they move through the "Haute Couture" exhibit murmuring praise or stopping to stare in admiration.

Displayed austerely against pristine white walls, the 130 dresses, suits, coats and gowns selected by Costume Institute curator Richard Martin and his associate Harold Koda represent 108 years of social history and changing taste. Selected almost entirely from the museum's unsurpassed collection, "Haute Couture" begins with the luster of satin in an elaborate, sunburst-patterned 1887 ball gown from the first of the great Paris ateliers, the House of Worth. It climbs to the heights--or depths--of pop-culture chic with a sleek 1995 evening dress of industrial-weight vinyl modeled by Madonna for Gianni Versace, who with Chanel is the exhibit's co-sponsor. Separated by a century, the dresses could not be more distant in technology or in their concept of what constitutes the fashionable woman, yet each illustrates the superb handiwork and attentiveness to detail that are couture's trademarks.

Since "Haute Couture" opened in early December, a parade of women and men have gone to look and to marvel. A showstopper is the decorous 1937 wedding dress Mainbocher stitched up for the Duchess of Windsor. Standing on the opposite side of the fashion divide, museumgoers respond as much to couture's unique history as to the clothes' breathtaking beauty. "What may be a special impetus to see the show,'' observes Martin, "is the knowledge that couture is something always extraordinary, never ordinary, and that it is a phenomenon that may be at risk in our time.''

This is not the first era in which couture's relevance has been questioned. When Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman transplanted to Paris, established his couture house in the late 1850s, the sewing machine was revolutionizing the manufacture of clothing. Yet Worth, who was court designer to the Empress Eugenie, had a reputation for opulent, handmade dresses and gowns of luxurious materials that were irresistible to the wives and daughters of men amassing dazzling fortunes in Britain and America. From the beginning, couture and "new money'' had strong links.

Soon after the turn of the century, a former Worth employee, Paul Poiret, broke from the rigid style with Oriental-influenced designs. He and others offered unstructured dresses that skimmed the body in flowing lines and freed the wearer from the corset's confines. In a spectacle that presaged today's overproduced runway extravaganzas, Poiret put his creations on young women working in his atelier so clients could view the designs on an actual female body.

Before World War I, Paris was the supreme fashion arbiter, and when the war ended, the wealthy returned with even greater desire. The world's best dressed vied for the latest by Jeanne Lanvin, the exemplary Madeleine Vionnet and the daring Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who adapted men's tailoring and gave pride of place to the commonplace fabric of jersey. The city held the position as fashion's capital for the simple reason that the couture houses were backed up by the petites mains, literally little hands--the many specialized workrooms of milliners, embroiderers, lace and buttonmakers. Nazi leaders during the occupation of Paris had the notion of taking couture to Berlin, but the foolish scheme was averted after designer Lucien Lelong pointed out that it would mean the relocation of hundreds of the small ateliers without which couture could not live.

With peace declared, rich Americans flocked to Paris, to see and to buy. What Paris designed, the world wore. Couture was far from becoming democratic, but its influence extended beyond the reverential atmosphere of the designer maison. A housewife or shopgirl in America or Britain--and France too--could hardly afford an original, but she could easily find a smart ready-to-wear outfit whose lineage could be traced to Paris.

For the next decade, the prevailing silhouette from New York to Hong Kong to Buenos Aires was the nipped-waist full-skirted "New Look'' unveiled by Christian Dior in 1947. Cristobal Balenciaga's elegantly fluid 1955-56 chemise developed into the off-the-rack sack that camouflaged bulges and shapely curves alike. Some years later, women bewildered by having to make a hemline choice gratefully seized on Yves Saint Laurent's 1970 tailored pants suits as the sensible solution. Designers had once considered style piracy a couture crime, but the canny Coco Chanel, whose cardigan jacket became almost a uniform, sensed the value of setting a trend. "Discoveries are made to be copied," she said. "It is the greatest of compliments.''

Despite its enlarged influence, couture's standing as a vibrant cultural presence is on the wane. Splendid as the creations at the Metropolitan are, they are locked away as works of art, and hand-created couture may seem a wasteful anachronism in 1996. Although it flourished in past years, the appeal was always emotional rather than pragmatic, observes the Costume Institute's Martin: "It was about a will for luxury at a time when everyone could be provided with ready-to-wear.'' Couture's survival into the 21st century may be economically precarious, but to judge this small world of fantasy and craft as unnecessary is to deny an ideal of beauty in dress that can transcend even glass walls.

courtesy of www.time.com by EMILY MITCHELL


Who's afraid of HAUTE COUTURE ?

Satin. Feathers. Fur. Lace. No matter what storms may brew, what heatwaves rage, twice a year those haute couture creations are strutted out by an army of highly-paid Glamazons.

But if the inner circle of haute couture has always floated in its own orbit, more or less oblivious to the outside world, this Autumn-Winter 95-96 season a little glimmer of modern reality has seeped into the sanctum sanctorum. The naming of British bad boy, John Galliano, as the replacement for the retiring Hubert Givenchy set the tone for a general reappraisal of fashion's finest art. Givenchy, now 68, set up his influential couture House in 1952. Since 1988, it has belonged to luxury goods group Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, whose president Bernard Arnault had signed Monsieur de Givenchy to a seven-year contract. The appointment of Galliano who, since moving to Paris in 1993, has consistently hit fashion headlines with his bias-cut dresses and inspired tailoring, may mark a major change in haute couture's direction. Dressed in silky pyjama pants, a piratical vest and hair flung back in dramatic dreadlocks, 35 year old Galliano explains, "I intend to inject a lot of myself into the House, but with the utmost respect for Monsieur de Givenchy and all he's done."

The aging of couture's elite clientele - there are estimated to be only 2000 left in the world, compared to 20,000 in 1943 - and the (mis)conception that haute couture is all about what Galliano skeptically calls 'heavy, constipated, beaded numeros', is of concern to most of the leading Houses. Across the board, from Saint Laurent to Chanel, via Laroche, Givenchy and Lacroix, this season saw an easing up of ornamentation, and a return to the couture basics of adroit cutting, luxury of fabrics and emphasis on the female form. Still far from austere, the most skillful among them managed to flaunt an evident opulence while steering clear of ostentation.

Full proof that (relatively) less can mean spectacularly more came from Christian Lacroix. Another of Arnault's protegés, since his house was formed in 1987, Lacroix has become known for his gaudy clashing colours and textures as much as the admirable confidence of his cut. But this season he put aside his fetish colours and patterns in favour of a controlled collection of even-paced elegance, opting for myriad blacks, combined in different shades, fabrics and textures. While hips and busts thrust out from bondage-esque bustiers, and a spectacular Infanta silhouette received rapturous applause, it was a couple of understated floor-length sheaths, sensually flowing around ecstatic models, that best represented Lacroix's new-look.

At Versace and Chanel, as well, things looked a little more decontracté. Versace left the rock n' roll rebel look behind him, going instead for an almost all-white collection of glittery full-zippered robes. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld seemed to be reapproaching the basics of Coco's couture legacy. His media-savvy tactics - the bouclé hotpant suits, the vinyl knee-boots and the rhinestone bikinis - all seemed things of the past as endless variations on the wool suit shimmied by. In pale pastel blues, pink and greys, jackets stretched to mid-thigh while skirts and dresses continued sensibly to the knee.

In the same way, Yves Saint Laurent emphasized impeccably clean-lined tailoring and simple draped-on-the-body effects. Detailing was kept to a bare minimum. But Yves himself appeared dazed and confused as he took his obligatory bow before being led backstage by a herd of sympathetic supermodels. A sure sign that haute couture is in need of new blood.

Enter Michel Klein, stage left. For two years now, Klein has been working on the flagging fortunes of Guy Laroche, and this season sent out his most refreshing collection yet. Engaging a dialogue with couture history, but remaining thoroughly modern, Klein presented garments of unparalleled youthfulness, humour and simple joie de vivre. But while Klein has in the past been accused of ignoring haute couture's 'need' for opulent excess, this collection was not without its flourishes of flamboyance. A simple velvet sheath dress, once the model turns, is backed by a trailing taffeta skirt. A sumptuous flamingo pink trench coat, when opened, sets the retinas spinning with a lining of orange marabou feathers. The skill is in Klein's ability to make such potentially garish garments appear like something a real woman might wear. And it's precisely this modern audacity, built upon a firm base of couture skill, that now sets Guy Laroche apart.

This is also the aim of Bernard Arnault in appointing John Galliano couturier, and giving him total creative control, at Givenchy. Hubert de Givenchy's final haute couture collection was witnessed by an impressive gathering of his colleagues - including Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Paco Rabanne, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino - and was a graceful finale to 43 years of creativity.
Some of the trademark looks were there - the lush velvet little black dresses, swathes of stiff taffeta and improbable bustles of silk - but it was the overall feeling of sublimely confident cutting, of attention to detail and understated elegance that really marked the passing of a master. But in true testimony to the attention-span of fashion's aficionados, no sooner had the lab-coated Givenchy turned his back and walked off with his army of similarly-clad assistants, than talk quickly turned to his successor.

Valentino says Galliano doesn't "technically know everything about how to make a dress". Versace reckons John's 'a genius', but has doubts about his self-control. Others are already speculating that Arnault has just picked him up to thrust the venerable house into the media spotlight, enabling LVMH to take on Arnault's Goliath - Karl Lagerfeld. If spotlight's all they're after, they've got that already. Galliano's hard clubbing habits and young rebel status are well established in fashion circles, and the ostensible cause of several past business failures. But the last two years have seen the once unreliable small prêt-à-porter house climb to unbelievable heights, receiving unprecedented popular cognoscenti and, most importantly, client accolades. Each new collection is strutted out by a barrage of supermodels who donate their time for the pleasure of working with the boy wonder. Fashion Editors scramble for scarce places at his shows, and resort to tears if they can't get in. This is the boy Bernard Arnault wants. He is also the boy haute couture needs, to, as Galliano puts it, "kick it into the 21st century!"

Edward Fox. All Photos: Tony Amos

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