(7) Haute Couture & Fashion
The development of fashion promotion and dissemination
The fashion media and promotions industry has developed in tandem with manufacturing and design, disseminating information on new fashions, and constructing ideals of fashion through imagery and text. While press coverage can undoubtedly boost designers such as Pugh, Kane, and Schwab, it can also undermine longer-term development. If young designers gain too much notoriety very early in their careers, before they have gained sufficient financial backing and manufacturing capability to fulfill orders, it can be hard for them to develop their businesses.
However, press coverage is viewed as crucial to building a profile and, ultimately, to finding economic investment from a reliable backer. This contradictory situation has particularly plagued London Fashion Week, where art schools such as Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design regularly produce talented designers, but lack of infrastructure and government investment leaves them vulnerable.
In the second half of the 20th century, a cycle of seasonal international fashion shows came to dominate the industry. These provided a platform for designers and manufacturers to display their collections as they wished them to be seen, rather than through the filter of magazine coverage. Fashion shows brought together buyers, whether from international stores or, in the case of couture, wealthy individual clients, and, as they developed, members of the press and photographers. From tiny showings in couture salons in the late 19th century, the catwalk show evolved its own visual language, comprising the models’ movements and gestures, lighting and music accompaniments, and increasingly elaborate performances designed to convey each label’s signature and vision.
Until the 1990s what was seen in these shows was filtered to the public through other media, whether newspapers, magazines, or later television channels such as Fashion TV. However, in the late 20th century, the Internet provided the general public with access to unedited shows, sometimes broadcast simultaneously on the designer’s website. This immediacy has the potential to alter the balance of power between designers and manufacturers, the fashion media, retailers, and potential consumers. It brings an unmediated version of the designers’ work to customers, who can demand items seen on the catwalks, which have not necessarily been picked up in magazines or by store buyers.
The international network of print, broadcast, and online media, reliant upon dramatic imagery to create fashion meaning, has evolved over centuries. During the Renaissance, trade and travelers, whether from local towns or abroad, would bring news of fashions. Caricatures mocked and celebrated fashions in equal measure. Leading dressmakers contrived to spread trends by sending out dolls dressed in the latest formal and informal styles. Letters provided an informal means to communicate information on new styles. Indeed, Jane Austen’s correspondence with her sister Cassandra contains more fashion information than her novels do, detailing new trimmings on hats and new dresses purchased. This more anecdotal spread of fashions continues in online blogs and is mirrored in the intimate style of smaller magazines, such as Cheap Date which focuses on vintage and DIY fashions.
By the 17th century, more formal methods evolved, including irregular fashion magazines, which took their cue from earlier costume books that showed the clothing of different countries.
However, it was not until the 1770s that the first regular fashion magazine appeared. The Lady’s Magazine set in train a whole industry of fashion journalism and image-making. What is perhaps most striking is how the format of such magazines has remained a template into the 21st century. Fashion magazines of the 18th and 19th centuries combined gossipy social events coverage, which detailed society figures’ outfits, advice on beauty and style, fiction, and news from Paris’s leading couturiers and dressmakers. Fashion magazines contained a powerful combination of didactic articles and sisterly advice on appropriate fashions, beauty, and behaviour. They constructed ideals of femininity, whether strongly moralizing visions of dutiful domesticity, as seen in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine with its inclusion of advice on housework and paper patterns for dressmaking, in the mid-19th century, or avant-garde challenges to sexual identity as seen in The Face in the mid-1980s.
From early on, magazines had close ties with fashion houses and manufacturers, through advertising and, more insidiously, through promotional links. In the 1870s, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, for example, pioneered the advertorial, bringing together advertising and editorial content, featuring articles written by Madame Marie Goubaud, as well as advertising, imagery, and editorial coverage of her fashion house. This relationship grew in the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eleanor Lambert was one of the first to apply public relations techniques to fashion, recognizing the possibilities of multiple types of promotion. Thus, press representatives lobby to have labels included in editorial text and imagery, adding the fashion kudos of the magazine to validate existing coverage in advertising.
Lambert also encouraged film stars she represented to wear items by her stable of designers. In the 1950s, she sent sportswear designer Claire McCardell’s new sunglasses range to Joan Crawford, in the knowledge that a photograph of Crawford wearing McCardell’s designs would endorse the designer’s work, while raising the star’s fashion status.
Such cross-fertilization underpins the fashion industry. In the late 19th century, London’s leading couturiers, such as Lucile, provided gowns for leading actresses to wear on stage, gaining free publicity and increasing the visibility of their wares. This practice continued, with designers creating costumes for films, whether in the form of iconic couture gowns by Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, or the cartoonish, sci-fi excess of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costumes for The Fifth Element in 1997.
Crucially, actors and celebrities wore fashions during their ‘private’ life that helped to promote the idea that a particular designer’s work connected intimately to their lives. Global coverage of events such as the Academy Awards ceremony provoked designers to compete to lend stars their gowns. While magazines, including Hello, followed in the footsteps of earlier Hollywood fan magazines to blur distinctions further between public and private by setting up shoots that show celebrities at home, listing the sources of everything they wear.
This interdependence between different strands of fashion and allied industries has been criticized as creating uniform ideas of acceptable identities. While this may be true to an extent, since the dominant image is undoubtedly slim, white, and youthful, fashion has simultaneously tested boundaries. Fashion and style magazines are part of the culture that spawns them, and therefore reflect wider attitudes towards race, class, and gender. Their role in representing what is new, and the fact that they can attract leading writers and image-makers, also means that they can suggest new identities and create a pleasurable escape from the everyday. In the 1930s, American Vogue promoted the idea of the dynamic, modern woman, mixing more practical advice on what to wear to work with dramatic photo-shoots of aviatrixes, which suggested freedom and excitement. In the 1960s, British publication Man About Town brought together lifestyle advice for its male readers with imagery of smart suiting, photographed against stark urban exteriors. In Russian Vogue in the late 1990s, couture luxury and excess became a dreamscape from which to forget economic crisis.
Each publication formed its own style, to entice its audience and provide them with a marker of their own fashionable status. In the early 20th century, The Queen represented elegant, elite style; 1930s’ Harper’s Bazaar, under the editorship of Carmel Snow and art directed by Alexey Brodovich, created a magazine of high fashion, and dramatically paced pages of modernist elegance through its combination of strong text, imagery, and graphics; while A Magazine, produced in Antwerp since the 1990s, brought in avant-garde designers such as Martin Margiela to ‘curate’ each issue. Trade publications provide the analogue to the fantasy of much newspaper and magazine coverage, but are equally important in connecting fashion’s disparate elements. The 19th-century publication The Tailor and Cutter: A Trade Journal and Index of Fashion provided practical information and technical discussion. Since the 1990s, websites, most significantly WGSN.com, have pooled information from global offices on trends predicted by international consultancies with coverage of what is happening on the streets of cities across the world, to enable the fashion industry to have instant access to emerging trends and developments.
The collages of image and text, body and clothing, editorial and advertising that fashion magazines created produced a space that readers could escape into. They constructed a realm of visual consumption, where even the feel of their pages, whether the glossy sheen of Elle or the textured inserts of Another Magazine, contribute to a multi-sensory experience. Although they are ephemeral, they are documents of contemporary culture and society, and unite the commercial imperatives of the fashion industry with its intangible role in global visual culture. Not only do they report fashions, for many people they are fashion. The meanings that illustration and photography add to garments in some cases transform them into fashion. Between the everyday reality of clothing and the vision created through an illustrator’s interpretation or the alchemy of a fashion shoot, layers of new ideas are brought to bear. These tap into contemporary mores, but frequently go far beyond what already exists to suggest heightened reality or surrealist narratives.
In this early 19th-century fashion plate, the illustrator simplified the lines of his sketch, echoing the purity of the fashionable silhouette. By showing the main figures in back view, focus is given to the antique referenced drapery of the woman’s dress, which is emphasized by the sweep of her rich red shawl. The shrunken tails of the man’s coat are also stressed, set against the classically inspired ‘nudity’ of his flesh-toned pantaloons. Other fashion details, from the men’s modish sideburns, to the seated woman’s little scarlet hat, are set within the illustration’s narrative. Fashion plates added mood and context to clothes, enhancing the raw information of simple illustrations that acted more as a template to show a dressmaker or tailor when ordering an outfit. The environment created a feeling of relaxed elegance, and connects clothing to wider fashions, in this case contemporary fascination with hot air balloons.
Fashion photography, which developed from the mid-19th century, performed a similar function, with the added element of showing clothing on real bodies. If production seeks to counterbalance fashion’s unpredictable nature, then fashion imagery celebrates its ambiguities. Representation has played a central role in fashion’s formulation, showing how styles might look on the body, and cataloguing the movements and gestures associated with particular garments.
This 1947 image by American photographer Toni Frissell shows how simple, everyday clothes can be transformed through representation. Rather than showing this tennis outfit in its usual courtside setting, Frissell places the model against a dramatic mountainous landscape. Natural lighting makes its bright white fabric glow, the crisp silhouette sharpened by sunshine. The model remains an anonymous identifying figure for the viewer. She turns away to look at the view, her pose emphasizing her athletic figure, but not far removed from a natural gesture. The balcony’s curve connects her to streamlined modern architecture, and situates her in an environment speaking of both natural and manmade luxury.
The fashion editor’s choice of model, and styling of the shoot, with clean plimsolls and ankle socks, simple hair grip, and casually discarded cardigan, add to the idea of nonchalant ease projected by Frissell’s staging and composition. Thus, ready-to-wear garments are given a gloss of fashionable grandeur they might otherwise lack.
The interconnecting industries that intercede between makers and consumers therefore create various points at which ‘fashion’ appears. These are incremental and cumulative. John Galliano’s fashion training, experience, and intuition mean that his initial sketches contain future fashions, which are then amplified through the process of their evolution. The skilled craftspeople he works within the Dior ateliers further contribute to a centuries-old tradition of couture fashion credibility. At his catwalk shows,
his fashion statement is brought to industry insiders through elaborately dressed environments and theatrical deployment of models and styling. The fashion press then reinforces and, potentially, reinterprets Galliano’s fashion vision through written descriptions of key trends, connecting his work to that of his peers. Advertising and editorial photographs, retail and window displays, all act to validate his work as fashion, and suggest ways to imagine how it might be worn.
It is hard to single out the point at which clothing becomes fashion. In the case of couturiers such as Galliano, or earlier examples such as Balenciaga in the mid-20th century, it was through their working practice, but also via the constellation of promotions and advertisements through which their designs were mediated. For ready-to-wear and high-street stores’ lines since the 1930s, it has been a similar mix of established fashion credibility built up over time, validation by the media, and an intangible ability to express diverse inspirations through dress in a way that connects clothing and body ideals to other aspects of contemporary culture.