J’adore Dior?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that designers (in any medium) who deserve retrospectives rarely get them. Okay, I just made that up, but it happens to be true. What did you think of the recent Ward Bennett retrospective – “WHO?” Exactly. As they say in “Gypsy,” talent is not enough. What you need is a gimmick. You’ve got to have a gimmick. Just ask Madonna. But I digress. I will digress a lot in these few pages. Call it my gimmick.

I am here at the newly re-christened Chicago History Museum (nee Historical Society) to review the Christian Dior exhibit. I must confess that before I even enter the door, I wish I were going to review an exhibit of the work of Jean Desses, Dior’s Parisian contemporary. I prefer him to Dior. Infinitely so. I think of how smashing and sublime Renee Zellwegerlooked at the 2000 Oscars wearing a vintage lemon yellow chiffon Desses gown. It was on that very night that she cemented her style icon status. I think of how embarrassingly anachronistic Reese Witherspoon looked in vintage Dior this year while accepting her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress–yea, yea, I know, Lead. But I digress.

Fashion retrospectives have recently become marquis events at museums everywhere, drawing crowds and profits that can only usually be had from blockbuster career retrospectives of the likes of Gaugin, Picasso, Monet or Warhol. Enter the extremely controversial Chanel exhibit, the extremely over hyped Armani exhibition and the extremely profitable Jackie Onasis “straight out of the mothballs in her closet” exhibit.

In the new millennium, it should be noted that fashion retrospectives are not only mounted by museums. Some designers take it upon themselves to (skirt the issue) mount them for themselves, by themselves and in their own store. Just ask Miucia Prada. “Thanks Buy Owner!”

And then there’s Marc Jacobs who, having made a career of (blithely?) mounting retrospectives of other designers’ work on his own runway, decided this fall to design a collection that aped the infamous “Grunge” collection at Perry Ellis. Oh wait, he actually designed that himself. Has anyone told him?

I’m still outside the museum and I’m hesitating to go in. I have fond memories of the Historical Society (the name still appears on the building facade), in particular of a lovingly curated exhibit of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series.” Now I’m dating myself. Besides, I stubbornly still have Jean Desses on my mind.

I wonder whether the curators of the Armani exhibit had the temerity to point out that, among his most gifted contemporaries (Emanuel Ungaro, Claude Montana, Geoffrey Beene and Thierry Mugler come to mind), Armani was the least deserving of a retrospective, on talent alone anyway.

Just Montana’s work at Lanvin would constitute a master class in design, especially in an era where a raw hem, two bugle beads and a $3,000 price tag pass for revolutionary. If only I could stop digressing and dating myself. Note to self: maybe I’m dating myself because I digress so much.

I’m about to go into the exhibit and I can’t help but think how what I’m about to see relates to the fashion house’s current incarnation. Christian Dior founded the house at a time when the actual clothes and the special relationships developed with retailers (Marshall Field’s, in this case) were the real source of profit. By the time of his death in 1957, Dior was the first designer to have negotiated licensing rights to his name and with it royalties on each unit sold(including his Miss Dior perfume–more on that coming up), thus establishing himself as the first global brand. Hmm, Jean Desses who?

Interestingly, the Chicago exhibit of Dior’s work comes at a pivotal point in the fashion house’s history, not to mention in the entire fashion industry. Today, at almost every hugely profitable fashion house (you’d be amazed at how many designers whose name you’ve known for years have yet to turn a profit) the clothes shown on the runway are a loss leader. They exist simply to create an aura of a lifestyle into which you want to buy but simply can’t afford. The real money comes in from the money you spend on handbags, accessories and fragrances.

John Galliano, Dior’s current designer, has for years shown very little on his runway that is wearable by the average or even above average woman. It’s the signature saddlebags and fragrances that keep the company afloat. That’s why the good lord made duty free shops at airports. Seriously, after 9/11 what hurt the luxury goods business the most was the fact that reduced travel meant less money spent on fragrances and designer bags. If you don’t believe me, ask the other Tom. Ford.

It turns out, that that in the 50 years since Christian Dior’s death, it’s the licensing he pioneered that drives the entire business! But wait! There’s suddenly more. One investment consortium after another has been buying and operating fashion houses, not out of any interest in design, but for the selfsame handsome profit a handbag and a designer fragrance can produce. And it hasn’t taken long for these number crunchers to insist that the clothes the designers produce and show on the runway actually sell as well. They want clothes for the masses and high end handbags and fragrances. In case any designer was under the delusion that his/her job was to create, they’re all now on notice to SELL. “Would you like fries with that?”

Feeling this pressure, Galliano recently retaliated(?) against the owners of Dior, who have previously given him wide latitude to indulge his extraordinary imagination, and produced one of the dreariest collections (Spring 2007) to come down the catwalk in quite some time. On purpose! The gauntlet has been thrown and the fashion world waits with baited breath. I’m not kidding. This is war.

The war has already claimed some very high pro-file creative victims: Jil Sander (twice!),Helmut Lang and, most recently and abruptly, critical darling Olivier Theyskens of Rochas. Helmut Lang was explicitly fired for failing to produce a best selling fragrance and “it” bag.

Speaking of war, and here we can stop digressing, Christian Dior became the most influential designer in the world in the period right after WW II. Was it because he was the best designer? Is it reasonable to ask what, in addition to his talent, made it possible for him to be catapulted into the fashion pantheon?

Walk into the exhibit and you’ll find that what you are there to see is what became known as “The New Look.” In what way was it new? You might find yourself thinking that a good deal of what’s there could pass for the costumes in Sophia Coppola’s revisionist “Marie Antoinette,” now playing at a theater near you. On the other hand, some of the designs are drop dead gorgeous, as in “I’ll take two please.” OK, OK, what about it was considered new in 1947?

Once you go inside the exhibit (and you should) you can read that Dior created a new style that emphasized rounded female curves (and a tiny, and I mean science fiction tiny, waist) and replaced the masculine, square shouldered and boxy fashions of the war years. “The New Look required the restructuring of the female form to fit the new fashionable silhouette. Specially designed brassieres, corsets, stiff petticoats, hip ruffles and bustles were just a few of the undergarments revived for a generation of women unused to wearing them.” Bringing sexy back is one thing. This is quite another.

It just might be at this point that you’ll ask yourself “why would anyone do such a thing?” or “why would anyone wear such a thing?” or more to the point “what came over the world that would make this great?” Well, here’s my only quibble–and it’s a big quibble–with the otherwise intimate exhibit: It doesn’t answer these questions If this were an exhibit at a fashion school, the curators could be excused for not bothering to explain. But at a history museum, well, I was expecting, how shall I put it gently–a bit more history.

A good place to look for the answer is to ask yourself why was women’s fashion before the war masculine and boxy? Why was it appealing to have it suddenly be hyper feminine (and so fussy)? What besides the war ending had changed?

Well, after the war ended our men came back home. The women who were allowed, out of necessity during the war, to do all the jobs that their men were unavailable to do, suddenly had to be given the cultural message that their place was no longer in the work force but in the house with the picket fence. (Had the technology existed, I wonder if Dior would have designed ankle bracelets as well?)

The men who went off to fight the war and make the world safe for democracy needed (their) jobs (back) and that meant women needed to forcibly leave the job market and become the fussy, hyper feminine housewives society needed them to be. Democracy in action! Dior’s New Look was nothing but old hat Victoriana for the “Rosie the Riveter”generation in the Eisenhower era.

It took the 60’s Cultural Revolution to dislodge all that cultural propaganda and, not without coincidence, a fashion revolution as well. It was, of all people, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior’s successor, who under his own label was one of the revolutionaries of the era. Although he is considered a designer more closely identified with the 70’s, YSL made pantsuits in the 60’s possible, fashionable and most importantly acceptable for women to wear.

Screen goddesses had been wearing pants since the 30’s but average women could be legally forbidden access to jobs and social engagements if they wore pants. One of my favorite stories is how Nan Kemper–yes, the Nan Kemper–Google her, if you must– was denied entry to le Cirque in New York because she was wearing an YSL le smoking. The year was 1969.

Just as the women’s movement was gaining strength and as women once again began entering the work force in the 70’s, Armani was about to bring men’s tailoring to women’s wear. Not without coincidence, his work owes a large debt to the designs of the 40’s, the very same designs Dior swept aside. See, as they say in “Fargo,” it’s all, you know, connected.

And lest we all think that we are now free of all the socio-political constraints of fashion, I leave you with Guy Trebay’s recent observation in the New York Times: what fashion is about “this and every other season is selling consumers on the dream that in a handbag can be found the secret to having a life more glamorous, dimensional and storybook than one’s own.”

Just ask Helmut Lang.

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