Hybrid Style: Iris Van Herpen’s ‘Shift Souls’ Spring 2019 Haute Couture Collection

Having recently completed an essay on the zenith of haute couture in the late 1940s, I was particularly keen to see the couture collections that just showed in Paris to determine whether or not the designs are as avant-garde and innovative as they were once considered to be.

I was not disappointed.

From the moment I saw Iris Van Herpen’s opening piece, a blue-purple gown floating down the runway as though the model were a giant weightless bird gliding just above the floor, I knew that there would be more to this collection than what meets the eye. In true couture fashion, the show, with its multitude of colors and voluminous, graceful shapes invites us to enter a dream world for eight minutes. Sculpture, architecture and painting are all brought together in the materiality of these 18 made-to-measure pieces, which seem to be (surprise!) actually wearable.

The ‘Harmonia’ dress, look 1/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

The collection, called ‘Shift Souls’, was presented in Paris at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. A series of billowing gowns contrasted more statuesque pieces. As Van Herpen states on her website, she was inspired by celestial cartography and mythology. She also wanted to consider ideals of the female body and how these have shifted through time: ‘the fluidity within identity change in Japanese mythology gave me the inspiration to explore the deeper meaning of identity and how immaterial and mutable it can become within current coalescence of our digital bodies.’

The digital component of the inspiration comes from advances in technology that have been made with regards to human and animal hybrids, called ‘Cybrids’. Van Herpen sees this research on ‘Cybrids’ as particularly intriguing, considering how it links to a long history of mythological stories about humans morphing into animals. She explains that her intention was not to take an ideological standpoint on these scientific developments; rather, the collection is an acknowledgment of the fact that new links are being made between biology and technology, expressing ‘the fact that this reality is upon us.’

Left: Detail of face mask, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Iris Van Herpen official Instagram account
Right: Look 4/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Technology was not just evoked, but it was actually used in the creation process of this futuristic collection. For instance, 3D laser cutting technology was employed to create the wave-like shape of some of the dresses. A few of the models also donned 3D-printed facial ornamentation, made from 3D scans of their faces. The technology was used to create lattice-like facemasks delineated from changes in the density of their facial structures.

Look 18/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Van Herpen also collaborated with former NASA engineer Kim Keever, who is now an artist bridging painting and photography in his work on waterscapes. Together, they designed the translucent dresses that resemble aqueous gas or clouds to evoke the idea of shifting, transient identities.

Movement was also explored throughout the collection. The primary fabrics used, silk and organza, made the dresses appear to float through space. Loose pieces of material on some of the dresses, like the ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, fluttered slightly, creating an optical illusion like a flicker as the model walked. Other dresses had petal-shaped cutouts that projected outwards, resembling undulating waves, which gave the impression of water ripples emerging from the model’s body. This play on movement gives the pieces a sense of liminality; shifting, they create a blur, and we cannot tell where the dress actually existing in space.

Left: ‘Galactic Glitch’ dress, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway
Right: Look 5/18, Iris Van Herpen couture Spring 2019, Credit: Vogue Runway

Researching the historical development of haute couture since its conception at the end of the 19th century illuminates the fact that craftsmanship and savoir-faire are at the root of couture’s aura and prestige. I would argue that by forging an unlikely link between haute couture and technology, Van Herpen does not disavow the tradition of raw craftsmanship in couture, but rather, asks us to reconsider our preconceived notions of craftsmanship to create a new 21st century definition.

References: https://www.irisvanherpen.com/haute-couture

Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Madame de Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Balenciaga’s Fabrics

 

Upon a recent viewing of the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V&A, as well as the focus on shapes and forms, I was particularly interested in the mentioning of Balenciaga’s fascination with fabrics. In the exhibition there featured a couple of displays of fabric swatches and samples, including a huge book with fabric samples. One of the textile boards showed a multitude of fabric choices for a single collection — so many colours, patterns, and textures. The board was used as a marker for the models for the order of the show. Rather than representing fashion and dress predominantly through its shape and overall look like we usually do, Balenciaga associated his designs with their fabric, texture and colour. On the board he detailed where the fabric was made and the name of its wearer, providing almost a personality and identity to the fabric itself.

Rather than starting with a design or a sketch, Balenciaga began with the fabric. As he said, “It is the fabric that decides.” His knowledge and interest for different cloths led him to forge very close working relationships with many textile manufacturers worldwide. In order to create the magnificent shapes of his garments, fabric was the most important aspect. Because of this, stiff materials were often needed to hold the shapes of his designs. After his careful selection of fabrics, Balenciaga preferred to start making instead of dwelling on sketches and designs. Instead, a sketch artist would work on the drawings for him, and Balenciaga would attach a fabric sample to the sketch. In the exhibition, a huge book of fabric samples is displayed in a glass case, offering a tactile tease to us viewers — the beautifully coloured fabrics shone in the display light, away from our grasp. In selecting the fabric first, Balenciaga was choosing the viewer and the wearer of the garments, whose skin these designs would be in contact with. The exhibition also had a replica dress of Balenciaga’s that visitors of the exhibition could try on, all in order to recreate the feeling of enveloping oneself in one of his designs.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A until February 18th, don’t miss it!

By Grace Lee

Problems Regarding Evolution & French Fashion Exhibitions

A 1951 article in French Elle by journalist (and first Minister of Women’s Affairs in 1974) Françoise Giroud on the state of French haute couture exposed wider narratives of the country’s postwar reconstruction, cultural heritage and notions of femininity. The subject of the article was the apparent collapse of the industry, illustrated by the closure of fourteen houses since 1947. After discussing the cause of this decline, due in part to price increases and competition from foreign industries, Giroud asked whether the country should even attempt to save haute couture production, which she claimed had become increasingly irrelevant “psychologically” in relation to women’s lives. She reasoned that postwar consumers spent less on clothing and more on home appliances, automobiles and travel. Such “distractions and comforts,” Giroud wrote, began to “outweigh pure vanity.” This shift also indicated a “general evolution of women,” defined by the “disappearance of the doll-woman [who is] uniquely preoccupied by her hats and dresses.” Giroud’s description of women’s growing diversity and agency, unsurprising in the years following their 1944 suffrage, echoed wider fashion industry discourses, as I’ve learned through my doctoral studies at the Courtauld on readymade clothing and women’s lives in France from the 1940s to the 1960s. Yet the evolution that Giroud noted was not simple and linear; rather, femininity during the country’s postwar reconstruction was characterised by contradiction, drawing on older ideals alongside aims of autonomy.

Fig 1

A different type of “evolution” was explored in an exhibition held at Paris’ Palais Galliera in late 2014, and in 2015 at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao exhibition, The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957. According to the museums’ websites, the exhibition sought to “retrace the evolution of the female form” throughout this period. It presented and grouped garments in sections on silhouettes and clothing categories (i.e. cocktail and evening dresses), displayed monotonously in rows of identical mannequins, and sub-grouped by couturier, such as Jacques Heim and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Predictably, the star of the show was Christian Dior, evidenced firstly in the exhibition dates, 1947-1957, which demarcated the launch of his house and his death. Despite the exhibition’s focus on silhouette and dress, its content, mode of display and text centred around producers and their fashioned bodies, eliminating all reference to wearers’ subjectivity and various narratives, and denying them agency.

Fig 2

The curators’ chosen narrative, namely the fall and rise of postwar Paris couture, held similarities to that of Giroud in 1951. Conversely, the terms of their conversation were reductive and positivist, and sought to demonstrate the dominance of French fashion in the 1950s, as well as forge a link to notions of French cultural authority today. The website outlined these terms, claiming, “In the 1950s, Paris was reborn as the international capital of fashion,” as well as attributed the cause of couture’s success to couturiers, who “contributed to the enduring legacy of French fashion, synonym of luxury, elegance and creativity, and to the success of ready-to-wear fashion.” Likewise, the simplistic exhibition abstained from contextualising the garments or health of the industry in political, economic or social frameworks. Further, despite the website’s mention of ready-to-wear, the exhibition did not present this production other than in a marginal section on anonymous beachwear.

Fig 3

As my research has shown, readymade (confectionrobe de série, or prêt-à-porter) brands were an important feature of the 1950s French fashion industry, as well as a perceived threat to haute couture. Giroud alluded to this as she noted both couture’s irrelevance and its uniqueness, with its irreplaceable and time-honoured handwork and its originality, in “the century of the machine and industrial production.” She characterised couture as an art and a tradition worth saving especially as it underscored the health and dominance of the nation, being “one of the most vibrant, glorious expressions of our national genius, at the same level of painting or music.” However, in addition to her fear of change and loss, her text illustrated a willingness to move forward, an incongruity that can be applied to shifting national and feminine identities in the 1950s. She thus proposed that couture “transform [and] adapt to new times,” by refashioning itself after ready-made production, which “corresponds more and more to the lifestyle of women of our time.” Although her above phrase hides a wealth of complexity regarding the various experiences of women, it is a point of departure for understanding them via their experience of dress. The Palais Galliera, under the relatively new direction of Olivier Saillard, failed to draw out wider themes in its exploration of fashion and “female form”, which ended at the dressed mannequins on display, symbols of limitation, preventing potential narratives of wearers and avenues of research. Although the catalogue offered an assortment of analytical articles, the exhibition propagated accepted narratives and, dangerously, confused scholarship with connoisseurship.

 

Sources:

Françoise Giroud, “Où en est la Haute-Couture française,” Elle, 23 November 1951, 22-23, 39.

http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/50s

https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/the-50s-fashion-in-france-1947-1957-231