Something for everyone?

Ask any man about haute couture and he is likely to return a blank stare or appear incredulous. ‘No one, ever, is going to wear that.’ To be fair, that’s probably right; surely the people at Givenchy, for example, are not expecting any women to promenade this fall in bleached baboon fur. While the fashionable response to this – yes, even to the baboon fur – is usually ‘That’s not the point’, the close of this year’s fall haute couture shows in Paris provides good occasion to consider just what is the point, and whether this has any resonance beyond the exceptionally fashionable man.

Strictly speaking, the point of haute couture is to designate an elite calibre of fashion design. Since 1945, the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris [Paris Chamber of Commerce] has awarded the designation only to fashion houses that meet certain criteria: a house must produce made-to-order clothing for private clients, maintain a workshop in Paris with a minimum number of full-time employees, and present each year, in Paris, two collections of day and evening wear. (This last criterion is the reason why the fashion calendar includes two haute couture shows in Paris.) Only houses meeting these criteria can use the phrase haute couture in advertising or any other way.

Beyond this straightforward marketing function, the world of haute couture quickly becomes obtuse for most men. One reason is that haute couture collections are produced exclusively for women. (There is no requirement for this, but historically the fashion houses that qualified for haute couture status have focused on women’s clothing.) Haute couture also has its own jargon, just like any other specialized craft or practice. (The couturier has his bias stitching, the footballer his red and yellow cards.) With no chance to wear anything he might see on the runway, a man has little reason to acquire this vocabulary and is already twice-removed from the world of haute couture.

A third reason men (actually, everyone) might be oblivious to haute couture is that so much fashion writing (about haute couture especially) happens in language that is tired, overwrought and ludicrously indistinct. Fashion blogs and magazines are teeming with awful, ‘squishy’ English, none of which makes the ephemeral subject-matter appear any less frivolous:

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“The combination of voluptuousness and severity could have bordered on an arch libertine sensibility, but barely brushed hair and fresh, girlish makeup added a vital lightness.”
(Style.com)

“THE CURTAINS HAVE BEEN DRAWN ON THE CELEBRITY MACHINE, THE PUPPETEERING STYLISTS RUTHLESSLY EXPOSED. THE DIEHARD FASHION CROWD HAS BEEN SOURED BY THE STARS’ NATURALLY BRUMMAGEM TASTES AND THEIR TENUOUSLY FASHION-RELATED HYPHENATE HOBBIES.”

(Jak & Jil Blog. Lest anyone think BLOCK CAPS do not count as an offence against good writing.)

Finally, there is the undeniable perception that men who are interested in haute couture are gay, and the unfortunate corollary that this label is a reason to avoid haute couture. This stereotype probably holds for fashion generally, and even a man like Scott Schuman, photographer behind The Sartorialist fashion blog and current beau of model-cum-photographer Garance Doré, is not immune. In 2008, I saw Mr Schuman give a presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, about new media in fashion. In the first ten minutes he twice referred to his past as ‘the only straight kid in the Midwest reading dress catalogs under the covers’. (Relax, Scott, no one thinks you’re gay, and we still love you.)

Seen in this light, so many blank or incredulous stares seem much less surprising. Why would any man be excited about something he could never wear, can’t understand and would be embarrassed, for reasons more or less admirable, to admit to if he could?

The answer, I think, lies in seeing haute couture less as clothing and more as art. (This is, in effect, what it means to say ‘That’s not the point’ when someone objects that haute couture is ridiculous because it’s unwearable.) To be sure, some haute couture is eminently wearable, but even a casual glance at most collections should make clear the impetus is overwhelmingly expressive, with functionality, possibly, an afterthought.

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Take, for example, the baboon fur featured in the Givenchy collection. The fur is actually quite long, and bleached to make the white outfit, built mostly of extraordinarily intricate lace, feel Gothic. The model’s hair falls flat, mimicking the fur, and it is unsettling to wonder at the resemblance, especially when the model is placed in the ornate, gilded corner of a Parisian salon. We could be in some private menagerie of Louis XIV – how’s that for a commentary on haute couture?

An easier example is an exhibition of the late Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture collections at the Petit Palais museum in Paris. Hundreds of outfits are on display to celebrate the famous couturier, including, near the end of the exhibition, an entire wall dedicated to his Le Smoking creations, which are female versions of the traditionally male smoking jacket. Dozens of outfits, all black, are suspended on a black wall near the black ceiling of the hall. The entire premise of Le Smoking is to appropriate a traditionally male image, and here we encounter an army literally bearing down on us. The black on black on black also makes the outfits somewhat hard to see, which is a brilliant curatorial gesture: ‘We don’t really need your attention.’

There is, then, something for everyone, even men, in haute couture. Just like any other art, some is good, less is exceptional, most is unmemorable (or at least one wishes it were so). It is also much better in person; pictures are no substitute for visiting a museum. (Alas, tickets to haute couture shows are impossibly scarce, but at least try a webcast.) Haute couture may be challenging to appreciate, but that’s usually a sign you are on to something special.