Essay: Crimes of fashion

In 1912 it was Paul Poiret urging women to give up their corsets. In the Twenties, it was Coco Chanel's trousers for women. In 1999 it is fur's return to the catwalk. Susannah Frankel defends fashion's right to cause offence
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fashion offends. You are offended when the models are too young or when they are too thin; you are offended by upstart designers telling you to spend inordinate amounts of money on unwearable clothes; you are more offended still when, only six months later, those clothes are declared out of date. And as for fur ... At the autumn/winter haute couture collections held in Paris last month, the British designer John Galliano pushed even the most dedicated follower of fashion to the very limit.

The designer's choice of location for his fin de siecle couture collection for the house of Christian Dior was nothing if not apposite. The Palace of Versailles, brainchild of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and described by Voltaire as "a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence", could easily be seen as a metaphor for fashion's most unashamedly elitist aspect, even for the entire industry. Haute couture (literally: high sewing) is fashion at its most accomplished and least politically correct. It is the preserve of no more than 2,000 ultra-privileged women - women who sit in the front row parading their wealth and, more often than not, extensive plastic surgery.

Galliano chose to send out the world's most beautiful models in deconstructed poppy-red jackets and jodhpurs, and sinuous walking coats. A harmless take on the hunt? Hardly. Balanced precariously on their lovely heads were whole foxes (one with a slaughtered grouse trapped in its jaws, another with a tiny white rabbit nestling by its side) and, most grotesquely of all, a wild boar's head (papier-mache, thankfully). The designer was, in part, revisiting the theme that inspired his by now legendary degree collection, "Les Incroyables". This latest offering lurched between sublime beauty and shameless vulgarity, as if the designer was daring his audience to disapprove, just as the intellectually whimsical 18th-century French Directory dandies, who continue to excite the designer, did before him.

The British contingent didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The twice- yearly haute couture collections are always awash with rare furs, feathers and skins - but entire animals? Complete with their heads? Did Galliano not realise that, back in Blighty, where he trained and spent his formative years as a fashion designer, St Tony Blair was busying himself with plans to ban fox hunting? The Dior press office made no attempt to comprehend the deluge of near-hysterical British journalists calling to confirm that said fur was, in fact, real. "Mais, oui," came the witheringly blase, even faintly contemptuous reply.

Fashion, it seems, offends the British more than anyone else. While we continue to rail against the wearing of fur, the rest of the world looks on confused, finding our stance at worst plain hypocritical (most of us still wear leather and eat meat, dishes like foie gras are enjoying renewed popularity in London's more glamorous restaurants), at best, rather quaint.

Neither, for that matter, does the world understand the British love/hate relationship with fashion as a whole. Why, they wonder, do we naively expect fashion to be politically correct? Do we not realise that it is fashion's sensational adventures that make this such an economically viable industry? After all, the conglomerates that own the labels - and facilitate the designers in their pursuit of ever-more extreme imagery - rub their hands with glee every time a "controversial" show makes the front page and raises the profile of one of their labels. We may not be able to afford haute couture but we can, and do, buy the fragrance or perhaps a pair of designer sunglasses. The designers themselves, meanwhile, care not one iota whether the moral majority object to their work. This is a creative industry and one which responds to criticism by becoming ever more mistrustful of outsiders, particularly those seemingly intent on gatecrashing its hallowed portals and calling the main protagonists to account. If you don't like it - tough, is the way they see it.

Historically, this country's view of fashion has always been inflamed by a puritanical streak. While many of us may be impressed by a man spending too much money on a classic car, we balk at the thought of a woman parting with pounds 250 for a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, however lovely they may be. This smacks rather too overtly of adornment - shoes are meant for walking. Our vocabulary reflects this deep-rooted suspicion. In Britain, to label someone old-fashioned is to compliment them on their stoic ability to resist passing fads. Demode, the French equivalent of the phrase, would be received in that country as an insult of unprecedented proportions.

Similarly, for all the talk of the irrelevance of haute couture in this country, there's as much in France about its continuing importance. When the esteemed haute couture arm of the house of Nina Ricci was closed down last year in a blaze of publicity, the petits mains responsible for hand-cutting, stitching, beading and embroidering each and every garment took to the streets in protest. As long ago as 1939, Lucien Lelong, first president of the Chambre Syndicale, the organisation that regulates the French fashion industry, pointed out that: "Before the war it was estimated that one couture dress exported paid for 10 tonnes of imported coal, and a litre of perfume exported permitted two tonnes of gasoline to be imported."

Fashion's tendency to offend is by no means restricted to this country, however. As a medium obsessed with the new it has challenged broader perceptions, at times with admirable foresight and, on other occasions, to the detriment of the world outside. In 1912, when Paul Poiret relieved women of the corsets of the belle epoque, and sent out the world's first ever pair of designer pantaloons, he caused an uproar. When, later, Chanel took this one step further and introduced sailor pants for women, scandal ensued. In Thirties Paris a woman could be arrested for wearing "men's" clothes. Indeed, in 1933, Marlene Deitrich was threatened with deportation for just this. Even Vogue magazine was appalled by the trend and, in 1939, announced, "We deplore the crop of young women who take war as an excuse for letting their hair down and parading around in slacks. Slack, we think, is the word."

By the middle of the century, Yves Saint Laurent - today the grand old man of couture - had emerged as equally contentious. He posed nude for his own advertising campaign, he exposed women's breasts on the catwalk for the first time, and re-invented looks worn by mere commoners on the street and declared them (quelle horreur!) the height of good taste.

Today there are few people who would say that these three great designers led fashion or the world astray. In retrospect, all reflected a sympathy with the emancipation of women and, in Saint Laurent's case, the reconstruction of men, that today seems praiseworthy.

Other fashion moments will, admittedly, go down in history as less successful. Dior's "New Look" might have appealed to some, but his re-introduction of restrictive clothing - yes, the corset was back - and extravagant use of fabric immediately after the Second World War, when resources were still thin on the ground, was a fashion faux pas that failed to endure. It led Coco Chanel to ask, following the unveiling of the collection: "Was he mad this man? Was he making fun of women? How, dressed in `that thing' could they come and go or live or anything?" Neither will Jean Paul Gaultier's conical bra be recorded as a definitive, groundbreaking silhouette. Putting men in skirts was more inspired.

Often something that is strange to the eye one minute will seem perfectly reasonable the next - call it the shock of the new. In 1981, when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons first showed in Paris, both were accused of pedalling a look described as "Hiroshima chic". Even in their native Japan the women who wore their clothes were labelled "the crows". Today, the huge dark silhouettes in distressed fabrics which are common to both designers are worn by intelligent women the world over. It almost goes without saying that the blatantly xenophobic label with which they were initially branded was far more offensive than anything either have ever designed. Even now, Kawakubo is publicity shy and refuses point blank to discuss any political message that there may, or may not be, in her clothes. The clothes, she says, should speak for themselves.

The caring sharing Nineties have done little to help fashion's fragile reputation. The spotlight is diffusing, taking in not only the clothes but also models and designers who have replaced Hollywood celebrities as the new superstars. Fashion shows, and glossy magazines, used to be seen only by the elite, but as the media has become more sophisticated and diverse - with catwalk shows now beamed, often live, to televisions all over the world, and appearing in the news pages of the following day's papers - the power of fashion has reached further outside its self-sufficient, self-referential and exclusive world. At this point in history, people feel the need to judge fashion for more than just the value of the clothes. The Eighties may have spawned "Hiroshima chic" but the Nineties will go down in history as the era that offended the world with "heroin chic".

When, following the death of young photographer Davide Sorrenti, Amy Spindler, then fashion editor of The New York Times, penned an article on the subject of heroin abuse in fashion, and the glamorisation of the drug in the imagery turned out by the industry at the time, she could not have foreseen the reaction. Spindler was writing for a highly fashion- literate reader, but once Bill Clinton got hold of the subject, there was no turning back. The President hit out and, overnight, the entire industry was tarred with the same, hostile brush. Davide Sorrenti had used heroin - as had a handful of the close friends he chose to photograph. Although he had never held himself up as a role model - he was a photographer not a politician - he was denounced for promoting a look that, it was claimed would encourage young people to experiment with drugs.

In the ensuing backlash, a generation of photographers - many of them British and with no interest in heroin - were cited as further evidence of fashion's moral depravity, their work held up for reactionary scrutiny across the news and feature pages of the national press, where previously their pictures had run unnoticed in the fashion pages. Those who felt inclined to engage with the raging debate claimed, logically, to be react- ing to the high-gloss, inaccessible glamour of the Eighties. They said that they were simply photographing people as they saw them: their subjects were naturally thin, not emaciated; they wore little make-up because they felt no need to hide blemishes. Their clothes were downbeat, not in-your- face sexy. In this they represented a style that was easily imitated and therefore, to the photographers' minds, more democratic than any that had come before it. They called it "real life" photography.

The media and general public steadfastly refused to take this argument on board. Meanwhile, anyone in the fashion industry involved with drugs was targetted in the ensuing witch-hunt. When the model Amy Wesson was very publicly dropped by her then agency - after it was claimed she was using heroin - the press had a field day. In an industry fuelled by youth, beauty and inflated sums of money, it is not surprising that some abuse of illegal substances takes place. But this also occurs in the advertising, film and music industries although, more often than not, a blind eye is turned to any but the most major player. Small wonder then that the fashion industry - from photographers and stylists, to models and the designers themselves - responded by retreating still further behind closed doors.

Encouraging heroin abuse is just one of the many charges levelled against fashion - and fashion editors are not exempt from the flak. The editors of newspaper supplements - including this one - receive more letters berating the fashion pages than any other section of the publication. A photograph of a young girl (or boy) wearing designer clothing appears to bring out a conservative, moral streak in even the more sympathetic reader, the last expected to be reactionary.

The most common cause for complaint is that, by including photographs of slim models, fashion editors aid and abet the nation's eating disorders. One in every 10 women in this country is said to suffer from some kind of eating disorder and, in this, models are obviously no exception. But it is not just fashion that stands accused of an aesthetic preference for the slender form. And neither is such a preference anything particularly new.

Ironically, society's love affair with extreme thinness took off with the birth of the women's rights movement at the beginning of this century. Poiret, again, defined the modern silhouette as androgynous rather than hour-glass. Waists were dropped, breasts were strapped down, calves and ankles - on show for the first time - were preferably thin. In the Twenties, the era of the flapper, the first ever fat farm opened its doors to women wishing to adapt their form to the wild and emancipated spirit of the times - and the rest is history. Since then very few people have dared to question this physical ideal. The only thing that has changed is that instead of being a remote aristocratic type, the model is now seen by society as a role model, albeit a reluctant one, personally attacked for harming other young women who might have to starve themselves in order to attain this version of physical perfection.

There has been the occasional noble attempt to address this inbalance. The photographer Nick Knight, in collaboration with the designer Alexander McQueen, shot model Sophie Dahl for i-D magazine, emphasising the fact that she is larger (a size 14) than the norm for a model. Later, in a second attempt to subvert body fascism, the pair collaborated on a shoot featuring people with disabilities, resulting in double-amputee Aimee Mullins making the front cover of Dazed & Confused magazine. Knight also photographed shapely Sara Morrison - unlike Dahl a complete unknown - for British Vogue. There are few people in fashion, or the world at large, who didn't see this as a positive thing. There are also few people working in fashion who are powerful enough to take such risks. Knight admitted at the time that he would never be allowed to attempt such a thing for anything purely commercial: say, a fragrance campaign.

Aesthetic values that have lasted almost an entire century are tough to shift. They become more so when such a shift may cost a client money. As far as commerce is concerned, the consumer will not respond to heavier models, whether they are employed to promote cars, a pension plan or even a washing machine. Knight did manage to overcome ageism in fashion, including models in their 70s and 80s in a memorable Levi's campaign. It is significant that although they may not have been young, they were all rake thin.

Fashion is fickle. Of all the criticisms thrown at the industry, the one that is the most difficult to deflect is the insatiable pursuit of the new. This applies as much to colour, skirt lengths and trouser shapes as it does to bright young designers, photographers, stylists and models. One season brightest fuchsia is the hue to see and be seen in; six months later you will be told not to be seen dead in it. Even the most beautiful and well-made item of clothing is ultimately disposable. If the industry failed to dictate new trends it would be brought to its knees. It would be foolish to underestimate fashion's powers of persuasion. In 1933, Mussolini addressed the Nazis on just this subject. "Any power whatsoever is destined to fail before fashion. If fashion says skirts are to be short you will not succeed in lengthening them, even with the guillotine." Dictatorial words indeed.

So, just when the public at large has managed to save up for one pashmina, the prescriptive fashion editor will pronounce that her readers must wear two at the same time. Just when said reader has bankrupted herself forking out for a second, the pashmina, as it was only recently, will be declared so over with that it would be nothing short of criminal to wear one. Neither is it a coincidence that this corresponds neatly with the moment the high street releases its own interpretation of the look at a far more reasonable price. By the time something reaches the mainstream, it is no longer fashionable. This is the mantra on which designer fashion thrives.

But it is fashion's thirst for the face of the future that is most relentless. Great models inspire great designers and sell clothes, accessories, fragrances, newspapers and magazines. The moment that a model becomes a household name, she loses her credibility with the directional side of the industry. This means that models are, indeed, becoming younger and younger, if for no other reason than sheer force of demand. Many are under the age of 16. For some, exposure to the fashion world and people far more sophisticated than they are, will be damaging. For others, the modelling experience will be both lucrative and harmless.

If the use of underage models is cause for concern, the only other issue that comes close to provoking such a widespread negative response it that of real fur, as highlighted by Galliano's recent collection. In this country, the appearance of fur - and, incidentally, cigarettes - in a fashion photo is likely to provoke an instant and extreme response. But where then do you draw the line? Are feathers acceptable? And what about snakeskin or even leather?

There are very few designers who bother with such ethical issues. The aforementioned Rei Kawakubo is one notable exception. When, two seasons ago, fur made a major return to the ready-to-wear catwalks, Kawakubo featured shoes with faux-fur pom-poms as wiry as steel wool. Stella McCartney is passionately committed to the stance that animals should not be sacrificed to clothe or feed us. She commissioned faux-

leather footwear for her collection for the luxury French label Chloe, and its Paris boutique claims to stock no leather.

So just why does fashion offend? Perhaps because it doesn't care what we think. Creativity can not, and should not, be controlled by public opinion. But fashion also offends because it challenges us. And if it seems that both the imagery surrounding fashion, and the clothes which designers propose we wear appear ever more extreme, then that's hardly surprising too. We live in an age where, from film to fine art to literature, the ability to shock is a valued creative device.

Forgive fashion its bad taste then and revel in its magnificence. Above all know that as long as fashion has the power to provoke thought and make people react, it also has the power to enrich their world. As the French playwright and film director Jean Cocteau once famously remarked, "We must forgive fashion everything; it dies so young." n