Couture Longing

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Couture Longing

Under stylized high ceilings of art deco design, in a city that is not my own, I enter the gallery and see them waiting for me, composed and silent, like a flock of elegant birds with their wings folded - each one lovelier than the last, each one serenely posing for a visitor’s admiration.  As though inhabited by the ghosts of another time, these faceless frocks lined up before me offer shy suggestions of the women they once graced - the Audrey’s, the Jackie’s, the Suzy, the Grace.   Suddenly aware of my wild hair, my paisley jeans, my gladiator sandals, I find myself feeling a bit diffident, sentenced to wander this exhibition like a sartorially backward peasant, but one more than willing to be reprimanded, one starving for a taste of sumptuous inspiration.   And I am in luck, for this stage is set for a feast.  With strains of La Vie en Rose floating on the refrigerated air and Avedon portraits lining the walls, I am transported back, back, to a time of elegance unseen in this current age, back to The Golden Age of Couture.

 It began on February 12, 1947, the very day Christian Dior launched his couture house in Paris, and it lasted until Monsieur Dior’s death in 1957.  
It was almost as though an enchanted wand was waved over London and Paris, conjuring up artists like Dior and Balmain, Balenciaga and Chanel and creating a magical decade unlike all the others, ten years of resplendent fashion, now remembered with longing for their abundance of unparalleled creativity, quality and style.

As I stand before the most superb examples of the artistry of that decade, the hushed voices in the gallery recede into oblivion and I can almost see the women who once spent their days and nights in these creations........  

.........There in the corner wearing the Jacques Fath green tartan dress stands the enigmatic Scottish mystery writer waiting to board the train at Waverley station, on her way to London where she’ll meet her elderly uncle for tea at the Savoy.....

..........And over there I see clearly... a stone terrace on a spring night in 1949, when the air smelled like honeysuckle and orange Chinese lanterns swayed low in the trees, a winsome new bride clad in a Chaumont evening gown of hand-painted organza is nervously hosting her very first dinner party......

........And here to my left, it is a cold December day, and the tall brunette in the Digby Morton tweed suit turns her velvet collar up against the wind as she stands on the corner of Oxford Street, her arms full of Christmas boxes, her thoughts wrapped in tinsel as she waits for the light to change........

Oh, where did these women go?  When did the waspie waist become the low rider jean?  When were the garments created by dressmakers with “doigts de fees” replaced with those mass-produced and disposable?  When did the latest Sports Illustrated model knock Dovima off her throne?  When was elegance and grace regulated to history and fashion begin to strive more to shock than to adorn?  And, while we’re at it, when did plastic bags replace dress boxes?

Sighing, I take my leave of these ladies with reluctance, resolving to cultivate a more elegant appearance in the coming days.  But, stepping outside, I am hit with a blast of bombastic heat and I make my way to my car, all the while twisting my hair up into a knot and rolling up my sleeves, shamefully grateful that I remembered to pack these sandals.
But then,  I don’t know, perhaps Edward and I could take a few lessons from Dovima and Sascha.  
Should we revamp our image?
 What do you think?  

The Golden Age of Couture is ensconced in the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee through September 12th.  Culled from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is truly amazing and not to be missed.  See it if you can!

Christian Dior Fashion Illustration above by Rene Gruau
Photograph of Dovima and her dog, Sascha, by Richard Avedon