The 1950s were the moment when a certain Parisian style took center stage. Between the end of the Second World War and the sudden passing of couturier Christian Dior in 1957, haute couture experienced an extraordinary resurrection, reclaiming its erstwhile glory.
Not only was the export of haute couture and its by-products extremely successful during this period, bringing names like Givenchy, Balenciaga and, of course, Dior himself, into public consciousness, a specific aesthetic associated with the language of couture, with its exaggerated emphasis on femininity, sculpted contours and outspoken aristocratic airs, defined the way in which multitudes of women in the West chose to dress. It is what gave the 1950s their look of flamboyance, along with the pronounced prominence of narrow waistlines.
It is difficult to blame the world, damaged and destroyed after the War, for its strong embrace of the offerings of that particular style. After all, it provided an exact response to the needs of the time. On one hand, haute couture was backed by a long tradition of fashion and dressmaking, which meant that it provided security; and on the other hand, the nostalgic beauty that it embodied was a pleasant consolation for a world craving for elegance.
But the 1950s haute couture look and feel and attitude, even if they were a cheap replica and not real couture, as often was the case with the "American sweetheart" look, was also an answer to another need – that of order, after years of chaos. In this context, we must recall the backdrop against which modern French haute couture originally arose, in the second half of the 19th Century. It was the expensive and appropriate solution for ladies of the upper bourgeoisie, who came to the fore in the wake of the collapse of the traditional aristocracies.
As such, it needed to exaggerate status and to impart a sense of blue-bloodedness to those who wore it by enabling the bourgeoisie to imitate the customs of the aristocracy, but also ensuring that a sharp distinction was drawn between the haves and the have-nots. By its very definition, French haute couture is conservative and undemocratic. Outwardly, at least, it should have a sense of originality (and that is why it involves lengthy and expensive production processes), and it emphasizes social distinctions – women, as opposed to men; high class, as opposed to low; French, as opposed to non-French.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the adoption of that Parisian fashion code in the 1950s brought with it a corresponding adoption of values relating to haute couture traditions. Isn't it proper, following the unbridled release of society during the period between the wars, with the classes collapsing and being replaced by social mobility, with women being given much more comfortable fashion options, that what returned after the war was fashion that drew distinctions, that clarified to all their place, and their social class?
Another Type of Revolution
The Social Network Revolution is currently marking the culmination of another decade. Although Facebook was founded in 2004, it was limited to university students and only became publicly available around the end of 2006. Other networks, such as Instagram and Snapchat, came along later.
Apart from enabling people to “keep in touch," these platforms enable another important thing – they not only made the world more global, so that people could be in constant contact with friends all around the world in real time, they have seemingly worked to cancel hierarchies, as well. Everyone now has the opportunity to make themselves heard and amass “likes,” whether they are a celebrity, a journalist, or just a regular person. Moreover, they enable everyone to reach everyone else. Fifteen years ago, you could not have sent a private message to Lady Gaga, or responded to anything she said. Now, at least potentially, this opportunity is available to everyone.
Social networks provide the general public with an opportunity to move, virtually, on a number of planes. You can travel the world and inquire about the wellbeing of friends living in Tehran, and you can move up or down the social ladder, become stars for a minute or two, and collect capital in the form of upturned thumbs. This is social mobility at its best.
But the magic of open borders is eroding, and becoming less and less attractive. People have traveled to the most far-flung reaches of the globe – either in reality, or in virtual reality – and have utterly exhausted the lack of geographical and social boundaries, merely in order to discover that this does not always satisfy them. And now, for many reasons, a consciousness of localism is starting to intensify.
Facebook is seeing a rise in closed communities, in the form of particularly active forums; social networks are starting to develop more discreet communication methods (Instagram recently launched a number of services offering closed communication; read: DMs) and the entire world is trying to gather back into ethnic and national borders. We have seen the British choice to disconnect from the European Union and the American President’s closing off the country to an array of entities; the rise of the Right in the United States and in Europe, which is based entirely on identity politics that distinguishes between “us” and “them”; and even the rearing of the head of marginal, yet vociferous, white supremacy groups.
In other words, the world is striving, once again, for a clear, hierarchical and classified social order. And given this, and the haute couture tradition, could there be anything better than that to help separate groups from one another?
Dress as the Uniform of Change
Trend forecaster Lidweij Edelkoort noted a few weeks ago that she is predicting a return of “historical” dress to center stage. She even noted that fashion has been too basic for far too long. In this context, we should note that the haute couture fashion of the 1950s consciously echoed the belle époque of the late 19th Century.
Unavoidably, those symbols of beauty and status will now flood fashion once again, with the aim of satisfying the human impulse which is now striving, according to all indications, to revolt against the need to please everyone, against political correctness and against ideas of equal fashion for all (which has been made possible, at least in part, by the proliferation of fast fashion). There is almost no doubt that the couture code will be used as a way of coming back to emphasize the differences between those who have more, and those who have less.
In fact, the signs of this can already be seen. The silhouettes in recent collections – both in terms of haute couture and ready-to-wear - have been more sculptured and enhanced, becoming more opposed to the sporty, democratic and oh-so-mobile style that had ruled fashion up to the past two years. On the one hand, Chanel and Dior presented their most conservative Couture collections in a long time for Spring 2017 last week.
Both emphasized a classical gender politics associated with the haute bourgeoisie. One the other hand, it is easy to understand that women who can wear the monumental tailored jackets seen in the collections of Jil Sander or Balenciaga, or the 19th-Century-style leg-of-mutton sleeved dresses by Saint Laurent, are women who do not really need to exert themselves in their day-to-day lives.
Furthermore, even when high street fashion comes to cheaply adopt the couture look, which will out of necessity involve compromises in terms of materials, technique and cut, not to mention a translation into more practical attire, the meaning will remain – it will only serve to distinguish the haves from the have nots. After all, the New Look was originally accepted because it was absolutely not for everyone – and consciously so.
LIROY CHOUFAN is a fashion writer, the editor in chief of The Critical-F and a lecturer at the fashion department of Shenkar Collage of Engineering, Design and Art.