#TBT with Tim Blanks - John Galliano’s Fall 1999 Dior Haute Couture Collection
It was one of fashion’s most famous turning points. After seasons of historicism and excess at Christian Dior, John Galliano gave us a comparatively subdued setup (save for the Versailles location) with urban warrior-inspired outfits that looked like something out of The Matrix.
Christian Dior dressing the National Gallery of Victoria
Like a sacred mantra the words ‘haute couture’ command a hushed silence of awe or generate a cynical sneer of irrelevance. Haute couture refers to a type of French clothing that is just so expensive and so exclusive that statistics on its clients, sales figures and prices are carefully protected from public scrutiny. Shrouded in mystery and intrigue of mythical proportions, the haute-couture genre possesses a fatal attraction.
Today the media obsessively generates copious images of celebrities and the obscenely rich sitting in the front row of the Paris haute-couture parades. Photographed at venerated houses like Chanel, Christian Dior or Christian Lacroix, ‘beautiful’ people who appear over-coiffured, Botoxed, designer-branded and cashed-up religiously view these clothing collections that are launched twice a year. Journalists from all over the world flock to Paris to watch and document this fashion spectacle; at the 2002 spring–summer collections 830 journalists, 220 photographers and 62 television crews from 50 countries were present, sending their stories to an audience of millions. Reporting with zeal and fervour, they focused mainly on the star studded audience, noting in particular the attendance of film director Steven Spielberg and his wife, as well as rapper P. Diddy, movie actress Gwyneth Paltrow and club-hopping heiresses Paris and Nicky Hilton. Commentaries varied from the discussion of the most outlandish and ‘unwearable’ pieces to debate about haute couture’s outrageous cost, its seeming lack of commercial viability and relevance today. So, is haute couture about fashion and design or has it shifted into the colosseum of public entertainment? Or do we somehow miss the point?
Extending fashion ideas
In a fashion industry struggling with the shame and realities of sweatshop labour, the steady stream of copy-cat designs, poorly made garments and the sameness generated by trend forecasting, it is no wonder that haute couture has become the last bastion of creativity and a catalyst for contemporary design. Channelled through traditions of fabrication and design that are centuries old, made-to-measure garments are crafted unencumbered by financial or time constraints, practicality and artistic integrity, and are protected by methods that are simply too hard to imitate. Haute couture no longer bears the burden of dictating the dress sense of the world. It has returned to the idea of ‘originality’, providing the ultimate creative opportunity to extend basic clothing parameters, pushing fashion ideas into the public arena.
Fashion museums and art galleries are keen collectors of haute-couture clothing, when available, and auction houses run a brisk trade in this commodity. Usually the vendor’s identity is a closely guarded secret, the owner remains anonymous, the catalogue entry protecting their privacy by simply quoting the provenance, for instance, as ‘the property of an Italian noblewoman’ or ‘from the wardrobe of a lady’.
A new Dior client
The National Gallery of Victoria contains a small collection of couture garments, some acquired from auctions or specialised dealers, while other examples have been donated. With some items the identity of the original owner is known; in the NGV collection this includes Grace Curzon’s 1920s wardrobe with lavish dresses designed by the couturiers Vionnet, Paquin and Callot Soeurs, and a spectacular Russian evening ensemble of 1976 by Yves Saint Laurent from the collection of the American oil heiress Mrs Heard de Osborne. There are some local surprises, in particular, the impressive clothing lovingly worn and meticulously maintained by the Melbourne socialite Mavis Powell who wore Chanel couture and ready-to-wear almost exclusively from 1954 to 1999, and the garments worn by Mrs Harold Carter who was married in Toorak in 1939 wearing a Balenciaga infanta gown. Haute couture also pops up in the strangest places. In 1993 a young collector unearthed a Christian Dior gown at the Brunswick op shop of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne. She recalled, ‘I knew the minute I laid my hands on it that it was a magic thing’. She purchased the dress for $15. It was later identified from the famous 1955 ‘Y’ collection by Christian Dior as the striking creation that was immortalised in the famous Richard Avedon fashion photograph entitled Dovima and the elephants.
The twenty-first century has experienced a shift in the positioning of haute couture: forget the elite, it has ironically become a part of popular culture. This exclusive form of dressmaking and design represents not only extraordinary making techniques, personalities and celebrities, but also the extremes of design, pushing the art of fashion to new heights.
Ordered and made to measure, Dress, hat and boots, no. 39 (fig. 1), a brand new creation designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture has recently been completed and graces the inaugural exhibition for the opening of NGV International. Considered as one of the most significant contemporary art purchases of the last ten years, this acquisition was arranged to document the new directions of haute couture. Galliano was selected to work alongside the NGV examples of haute couture, in particular the vintage Christian Dior waltz dresses and nineteenth-century Worth ballgowns, to show a visual and conceptual tracking of haute couture. We believe that this is the first time that a gallery has ordered a couture garment as a client, not by acquiring or negotiating the donation of a work, thus giving the NGV access to a wealth of privileged information and the ability to document the story of its making. There are fewer than 2000 active couture clients in the world, depending on which publicist you ask, and now the NGV has joined the ranks of the ‘front row’.
The tradition of haute couture
The haute-couture system originated in nineteenth-century Paris, catering to clothing the elite. It was a system of exclusive fashion, specialising in original dress design, fabrication and clothing ideas that became a driving force behind steering the clothing directions of the Western world for nearly a century. In 1858 Charles Frederick Worth established the first couture house in Paris. He designed the garment, selected the fabric and trims, developed and trained the technical staff, orchestrated the stylistic and aesthetic whole while working with a large team and liaising with associated industries and suppliers. Each season a collection was created in advance to show female clients, from which they could select and have their wardrobes custom made. The magazine La vie parisienne on 2 February 1870 published an anonymous article about the allure of the fledgling nineteenth-century haute-couture industry entitled ‘Mr What’s-his-name’, it read, in part:
We enter through a double door and climb a padded, lined staircase warm as a greenhouse. From the first steps it smelled of pretty women. Green plants, camellias, [a] procession of charming women – in a word, angels! Jacob’s Ladder, and at the first landing a coming and going, scents, rustling of silk, and a vague perfume of high life hanging in the air. To the left and the right the doors were wide open, and lovely bareheaded girls walked to and fro, rather extraordinary silhouettes dressed in the day after tomorrow’s fashions, coiffed in original styles. Frightfully up to date, they escorted customers to the door while taking leave of others and greeting still others … They walked about the salons in model dresses, living examples of the celebrated What’s-his-name’s art. For his clients this was a living temptation, the materialization of what his scissors could do with the fabrics that were still nothing but promises.
By the twentieth century the trade association Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, created in 1868, worked to regulate the industry, protect its artistic integrity and authenticity and arrange promotion. In the beginning haute-couture collections were presented in the salons of the couture houses themselves. For example, during the 1950s attendance at a Dior collection was by invitation only, about 300 people were invited. Release dates of photographs and drawings were regulated, until two to three months after the parade. Security was very tight. Buyers paid a deposit which was forfeited if they didn’t place an order.
La Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, established in 1973, now organises the fashion schedule for the spring–summer and autumn–winter haute-couture and ready-to-wear collections. This schedule is designed to allow all members of the press and buyers to attend each show. Before a fashion house is accepted into this organisation, they need to establish certain criteria: making made-to-measure clothes; employing a minimum of twenty workers; and keeping a workroom in Paris. Every model created by a member of the syndicate is registered in the couture-house files with an exact sketch, photograph and swatch of fabric, well before the official showings. Collections are presented twice a year, for spring–summer and autumn–winter. Today there are only a dozen haute-couture houses.
Galliano at Dior
John Galliano’s first Christian Dior haute-couture collection was presented in 1996 to coincide with the house’s fiftieth anniversary. His appointment was viewed as provocative (not another Englishman!). Trained both at St Martins School of Fashion and in the club culture of London, Galliano offered a fashion approach which is more attuned to the likes of DJ sampling – the mixing of diverse musical sounds or tracks to create a harmonic whole – than serious French fashion. However, Galliano, once inside the couture industry, utilised the legendary skilled Dior workshop to translate his most sensational fantasies or vulgar extremes – whichever way one reads them – using the best available expertise and materials. For his first collection he referenced Christian Dior’s New Look transposed with the striking indigenous clothing of the African Masai warriors.
The idea of the NGV being a couture client at Christian Dior was nurtured. The concept was presented to the curatorial staff and trustees; with an acquisition fully funded by Norma and Stuart Leslie, it was an intriguing prospect that we would engage in the made-to-measure process.
Over a six-month period the selection and making of the NGV dress was arranged, working directly with Christian Dior Couture assisted by the Gallery’s Paris representative, Stephen Todd. We pored over footage of all the collections for 2000, making wish lists and sending images back and forth between Melbourne and Paris. In haute-couture language, the dress we selected was relatively straightforward. Unlike the highly beaded and embroidered garments which are quoted at $200,000-plus, and many of the show-stopper dresses (so highly promoted by the press and which were unavailable), only one was made for the Paris parade and then preserved for the archive. Many of the extraordinary gowns were too hard, and often impossible, to recreate since the detailing and accessorising were applied directly by Galliano at the last moment. We were seeking a piece of fashion that was not just a ‘clinical’ example praised for the hundreds of hours of production time. We were not looking for tiny little stitches to gasp at or the decadence of ten thousand sequins, the classically beautiful or just the ‘bloody expensive’. Rather, a piece that epitomised the changing nature and skills of couture. Dress no. 39 from spring–summer 2000 was the perfect ‘contradiction’ – christened by the press as Hobo Couture or Haute Homeless. The spring–summer 2000 haute-couture collection was a controversial assortment of dishevelled characters, inspired by the clothing worn by the French homeless. Models with blotched make-up wore newspapers printed with Dior headlines from the International Herald Tribune, and dressed as street people carrying empty, miniature alcohol bottles. This collection caused outrage, it was considered disgraceful and offensive, for some commentators it was the elite mocking the hopeless plight of the poor. For Galliano it was about decadence and revisiting the nineteenth-century Rag Balls where French aristocrats played fancy dress in the garb of the less fortunate.
In true Dior tradition, demonstrators lined up outside the Dior headquarters, reminding us of the similar protests that occurred after the release of the New Look in 1947. Arnold Cohen, president and CEO of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York, commented:
John Galliano doesn’t really understand how homelessness devastates people. The homeless wrap themselves in newspaper and ripped sacks because that’s all they have. … People are on the street or in shelters because they’ve lost everything. It’s a matter of social dysfunction.
Galliano further stirred up the press with his official collection rationale, quoting the homeless people he saw on the banks of the Seine every morning while he jogged and the rather disturbing photographs by Diane Arbus of the mentally handicapped as his inspiration. For Galliano his reading or translation of these themes was a romantic rendering of the dishevelled, the displaced and disturbed explored through the fancy-dress genre by revisiting the nineteenth-century traditions of dressing up and masquerade, rather than his collection addressing the social injustices of the day
Under the French Second Empire (1852–1870) the fancy dress chosen by Princess Mathilde in 1864 to wear to the ball given by the Duc de Morny was not a marquise of the eighteenth century, nor yet as Diana the Huntress, but as a beggar, ‘dressed in rags – studio rags – arranged for her by her own artist Giraud, and her face covered by a wire mask so disfiguring that she was totally unrecognizable.
The impending dialogue about the controversial nature of Galliano’s collection generated copious quantities of free publicity which kept the owners LMVH of the Dior empire very happy.
Once the NGV selected the model, a 50 per cent deposit was sent and sizes were worked out. Without a ‘real’ client, the series of fittings required to complete the dress were unnecessary;using measurements from a display mannequin, the dress was made in the larger Australian size 12 rather than the tiny European size 6 or 8 typical of fashion models. The head of the workshop (la première) interpreted and translated the design into a working pattern and toile. The original catwalk example and accessories were retrieved from the archives for this process to begin. The fabric was cut when the measurements were confirmed. Only the basic construction seams were undertaken on a sewing machine, the finishing and minute detailing were done by hand. During the making process over a seven-week period, the dress was checked by our agent twice. To quote the Gallery’s couture statistics, the dress took 250 hours to make including the hand painting. Sophie, the head of the workshop, oversaw the fabrication, which was mostly carried out by Ginette, chief principal dressmaker (la petite main), both women having worked for over forty years at Dior. Inside the back seam of the dress is the label Christian Dior Haute Couture and the unique NGV couture number 33381, permanently referencing the order.
The acquisition arrived in two boxes, beautifully folded and packed; we were surprised how this trained dress could be compacted into such small containers. The layers of monogrammed tissue paper engulfed our work. Crafted in a nineteenth-century belle-époque style – an era that also influenced the work of Christian Dior – Dress no. 39 is made from a dull-tobacco-coloured silk simulating an aged, stained, weathered fabric; sections are overlaid with sheer black tulle and painted to imitate the patina of a worn-out, threadbare, discarded or damaged dress. Seams have raw edges, the hem remains undone in defiance of tradition. Galliano has challenged the workshop with his inventive technical approach and decorative notions, using their advanced skills to execute tears, rips, cigarette burns and distressed surfaces, pushing and extending their traditional techniques. Expertly crafted from thirty-three panels, like a complex clothing puzzle, the dress is composed from a mixture of silk brocade, taffeta and tulle. The bodice and skirt are twisted and worn as if they don’t fit, while the metal corset bones are in such disarray they are sprouting from the corsage, in mockery of the precise, boned bodices of the New Look formula. Galliano’s deconstructivist approach does not merely address the construction of the dress but the house itself. Dior’s New Look was inspired by the structure of the nineteenth-century corset and boned costume that manipulated the shape of the female body. In fact the corset has ‘been a component of elite fashionable dress for centuries’. The practice of tight-lacing in order to alter the body’s shape has been critically debated in regard to its erotic appeal, and for health and aesthetic issues. Technically demanding, the NGV dress is structured like a gigantic corset, fastening with black lacing running through fifty-one pairs of eyelets in a jagged line from the back neckline to the hem. The Hobo Look is completed with an exaggerated, oversized hat, and bordello-style knee-high kid boots with stiletto heels. The boots were made by an artisan in the French countryside; the lines on the boots are not made with contrasting stitching, but rather, are drawn on with paint. The matching hat, made from the prototype designed by the British milliner Stephen Jones, is oversized and distorted to complement the dress.
A popular-model dress could be made by the couture house as many as seventy times, each garment crafted to fit a particular client, with colour or minor style variations, although some of the elaborate evening designs might only be made a few times. We believe that only three other examples of the NGV dress were made. Details of clients’ orders are meticulously recorded, guarding against two identical dresses appearing in public together. Ironically, the NGV dress is made to look old and second-hand, rather than like the very latest fashion or a sparkling new acquisition. The bodice, patched with brocade and mended tears, is lacquered, casting a masking layer like dust across its surface, while long stretches of the skirt are painted directly, referencing the making traditions of fancy dress and theatrical costume. The dress also recalls the impoverished and the lower classes of the nineteenth century who dressed in rags and tatters, who acquired their clothes by visiting the second-hand dealer or fripperers (agents who sold used clothes and old rags sourced from deceased persons and criminals or purchased out-of-date clothing from the aristocracy). Clothing was precious and passed from one class to the next, as it wore out it was mended or dyed, revitalised to be worn again.
Galliano’s approach to haute couture alludes to traditions of the medieval carnival, that the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as the ‘carnivalesque’, ‘Where themes of the medieval carnival twist, mutate and invert standard themes of societal make-up’. The mockery of serious dress conventions, the poor dressing as the rich or the rich dressing as the poor apply to the NGV dress which is a parody of haute couture.
Robyn Healy, Senior Curator of International Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).