Enlightened move shows Dior has seen the light

The best designers are evolving their aesthetics, trying to move couture ahead without frightening the horses

What is modern, when it comes to fashion? Certainly not the Parisian haute couture, whose autumn/winter 2014 season began on Sunday evening. Established in the nineteenth century and with rigid, codified rules specifying the hand-construction of the world's most expensive clothing, haute couture hangs heavy with its own legacy. But times are changing, and couture has to change too - adapt or die. The best designers are evolving their aesthetics, trying to move couture ahead without frightening the horses.

That was the motivation behind Raf Simons' autumn/winter 2014 Christian Dior show - moving on. "I started to think 'what is modern?'" he said, quizzically. It's an odd question to ask at Dior, whose history is heavier than many - or many any - other houses. Hence the pressure on Simons to do justice to legacy, whilst also expressing a contemporary femininity. But that is what has informed his work over almost a decade of designing womenswear - the reality that comes after fashion's dream. For Simons, the fashion show is the first step of a collection's life, not its sole reason for being.

In couture - hyper-expensive, seldom bought - that thinking is already revolutionary. What Simons did for winter was to show, with extraordinary finesse, that you can use history to invent the future. He cleaved his collection into eight distinct sections - a complication notion, but it served the purpose, namely to highlight messages evoked through individual modes of dress and embellishment that may otherwise have been scrambled in the giddy mix of models.

There were panniered evening dresses, redingotes, plisse chiffons and compacted wool and cashmere tailoring. The latter are the most stripped-back pieces Simons has created at Dior, enlarged collar details sketching the hourglass silhouette the founder held dear. But throughout, the all-pervasive theme was a lightness, even in Pompadour gowns and Dangerous Liaisons frock-coats.

The eighteenth century references felt apt: Dior was dubbed the Watteau of dressmaking by Cecil Beaton. For Simons, the interesting thing was to look back in order to move forwards. That period was called the Age of Enlightenment, and this was truly enlightened haute couture, in every sense of the term.

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