It was here in London at Erdem, in black frocks blooming with intricate, unravelling embroideries; in Milan, in the forest-fantasy of Dolce & Gabbana’s Enchanted Sicily show; and in Paris, among the menacing Highland creatures that inspired Sarah Burton’s latest outing at Alexander McQueen.
DREAM VS REALITY
Burton, of course, was following in the footsteps of her mentor; right from the start, Alexander McQueen’s notoriety was founded on the tightrope he walked between the worlds of dream and reality. Season after season, he unleashed extraordinary, unforgettable mise-en-scènes: Red Riding Hood, dragged by wolves through the Paris Conciergerie; a nightmarish Victorian nursery sprung to life; giant glass boxes which filled with snow or exploded with clouds of butterflies; and runways which dissolved into rain or erupted into hellish flames. McQueen was following a long, peculiarly British tradition, which was adopted by John Galliano in his spectacular fantasias and by Vivienne Westwood in her punk-meets-Versailles historicism, and went back further to the Seventies heyday of Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb. English fashion has typically been known for its understated simplicity and discreet good taste – but Clark, Gibb and all the others provided an alternative of anarchic, whimsical, thrillingly sensual romance. Throughout history, in fact, clothing has gone through epochs where it embraced the theatrical and the fantastical. But it would take the rise of the couturier for fashion to truly embrace the fabulous – from Paul Poiret, whose Arabian Nights ball in 1911 ushered in the exotic, Scheherazade-themed opulence of France’s final Belle Époque years, to Dior’s explosively feminine New Look (charmingly celebrated in Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, a mid-century fable featuring the most unlikely of Cockney Cinderellas).
But there has, undeniably, been a surge in fantastical fashion since the millennium. From Rodarte to Elie Saab, the notion of the modern princess remains a potent imaginative totem – perhaps unsurprisingly, when the very nature of every fashion show, or red carpet, or editorial image, is to fleetingly transform an ‘ordinary’ girl into a swan princess.And when you think about it, the fashion industry itself is founded on fairytales. Chanel; the country child who became the Empress of Paris fashion. Dior; the shy illustrator whose nostalgia for bygone elegance created a look which would rule the world. Saint Laurent and Galliano; the boy wonders who inherited the Dior kingdom – only to lose it all. (Fashion has never been strong on the happy ever after bit of the story.) And Karl Lagerfeld; the fairy godfather who, as well as restoring Chanel to its former glory, has been instrumental in conserving couture’s petites mains – the artisan firms of glovers, embroiderers and milliners whose work, ike that in The Elves and the Shoemaker, seems too fine to be that of human hands.
It seems implausible that all this extraordinary, painstakingly archaic workmanship should still seem relevant in today’s world. But let’s not forget that, for the past few years, little girls (and grown-up ones, too) have had a real-life Princess Bride to aspire to again. Admittedly, this one wears high-street separates and sensible court shoes as often as she does ethereal gowns – but from the moment she stepped out of a Rolls-Royce in front of Westminster Abbey, in a sweep of snow-white McQueen, Catherine Middleton became this generation’s successor to Diana Spencer and Grace Kelly. And the fairytale mood she ushered in shows no sign of dissipating. During the spring/summer 2015 shows, Richard Nicoll drew inspiration from Tinker Bell, overlaying simple slips with strands of shimmering lights. At Dior, Raf Simons continued to explode conventional notions of fantasy and romance. Even the most radical innovators, such as Iris van Herpen, used cutting-edge technology to create startlingly familiar fairytale forms. And the upcoming Alexander McQueen retrospective at the V&A – a substantially expanded version of the Met Museum’s record-breaking Savage Beauty show – will thrust his darkly fantastic universe into the spotlight once more.But fashion moves faster than light, each new season trampling the old one underfoot. There’s no way of telling how much longer our love affair with fairytales will survive.