This Is Couture

This Is Couture

Nick Knight and Jacob K conjure a lucid vision for the season’s most ethereal couture while Musée des Arts Décoratifs curator Denis Bruna and Derek Blasberg discuss the scandals that made fashion history.

Nick Knight and Jacob K conjure a lucid vision for the season’s most ethereal couture while Musée des Arts Décoratifs curator Denis Bruna and Derek Blasberg discuss the scandals that made fashion history.

Photography: Nick Knight

Styling: Jacob K

Text: Derek Blasberg

At some point during the third stop of my haute couture marathon this summer—starting in Paris with Dior, Chanel, and Valentino, of course; then Rome for Fendi’s fur couture show; and finally Naples for Dolce & Gabbana’s three-day couture extravaganza—I witnessed a friend display an emotion few of us experience at fashion week: she was shocked. She was scandalized! The nature of this offense? A group of women had just plunked down more than $1 million on dresses and accessories at the Dolce & Gabbana atelier. It was as if they were picking out what to eat for lunch at McDonald’s: “I’ll have this, that, and the other.”

When my friend’s jaw hit the floor, it made me wonder about the role of scandal—and being scandalized—in the world of fashion. On the runway, we’ve seen it all: necklines so low they expose nipples, skirts so high we’ve developed a new term called the “under-butt,” and who can forget Alexander McQueen’s “bumster” trousers that showed the teeniest, tiniest bit of crack. Three seasons ago, Rick Owens showed men’s skirts that inadvertently flounced up on the runway, exposing the privates of the male models (this, I would venture, was an unintentional scandal).

The idea that someone could be outraged by the industry seemed so…old fashioned. It was a topic I revisited when I met with Denis Bruna, a curator at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris who has put together a show aptly titled  “Tenue Correcte Exigée” (translated as “Appropriate Attire Please”), which opens December 1st. The exhibition’s curatorial thrust looks to chart how fashion has scandalized society. “I have often been surprised how scandals in fashion—from the 14th century, which was the birth of the idea of fashion, to the present—are often the same. The clothes were too long or too short, too loose or too tight, too colorful or too dark,” Bruna explains. “And I wondered, Why? Why during several centuries have the attitudes and mentalities criticized the same things? In everyday life, when we dress, it is difficult to single out what it is we fear being perceived as in the eyes of others. We live in society—and fashion has a major role in our social environment.”

Beginning with the 14th century, the exhibition includes more than 500 designs for men and women, including both couture and ready-to-wear, with a tripartite curatorial theme: rules, gender identity, and excesses—the last group including heels too high, dresses wickedly short, and wigs dangerously oversize. Some of the highlights in the show will sound familiar to any fashion buff: the gender-bending black tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco; the strapless, cleavage-revealing dress Princess Diana wore on her first public outing after the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981; and a dress from Alexander McQueen’s now-infamous “Highland Rape” collection.

For me, the very existence of couture in today’s economic climate is itself, in many ways, scandalous. Since the 2008 recession, we’ve been told that couture is a dying industry—too elitist, too rich, and too fancy. Marie Antoinette immediately comes to mind quipping (or not), in the face of financial inequality, “Let them eat cake”—them, of course, being the economically downtrodden. And yet, here the shows were, the most elaborate, inspiring displays from fashion’s laboratory, where the biggest and most refined ideas are born.

Observing Celine Dion sitting across from me at the Dior couture show, I was reminded of the buzzed-about controversy surrounding her decision to wear a reversed white tuxedo with an oversize white fedora to the 1999 Oscars. It seems so tame now, doesn’t it? “What shocked yesterday, no longer shocks today,” Bruna sighs. But what is important—and what keeps the world of fashion alive—is that we all enjoy a little scandal once in a while. Be it a hint of skin or even the pricetag, we’ve been surprising ourselves for centuries.

View a preview of the story in the slideshow below. To view the full story, order V104 here.

CHRISTIAN DIOR HAUTE COUTURE BLACK SILK CRÊPE DRESS WITH JET AND RAFFIA EMBROIDERY GLOVES (THROUGHOUT) ATSUKO KUDO NECKLACE (THROUGHOUT) MIKIMOTO ON EYES DIOR 5 COULEURS EYESHADOW PALETTE IN CARRÉ BLEU ON LIPS DIOR DIORIFIC MATTE VELVET LIPSTICK IN CHARM
Credits:

Makeup Laura Dominique (Streeters)  Hair Eamonn Hughes (Premier Hair and Makeup)  Model Demi Scott (Above & Beyond)  Manicure Marian Newman (Streeters)  Set Design Andrew Tomlinson (Streeters)  Digital technician Sun Lee  Photo assistants Britt Lloyd, Rob Rusling, Tom Alexander, Emily Smith  Stylist assistants Flora Huddart and clemence lobert  Makeup assistant Chloe Rose  Hair assistant Kumiko  Production assistants Anastasia Nevzgoda, Sasha Beattie, Aileen Pham, David Glass  Retouching Mark Boyle (Epilogue)  Equipment Direct Photographic  Location SHOWstudio  

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