On Culture

Gilded Age Fashions in a Bleak World

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

The fashion industry is forever fending off accusations of frivolousness and of being so disconnected from the realities of the average person's life as to be comical. No small amount of that disdain is based on the decisions designers make about what to put on the runway. A fashion show is the foundation upon which they build their public image, communicate with their most ardent customers and signify to the broader culture precisely what it is they stand for.

Over the past four weeks, fashion houses in New York, Milan and Paris participated in that marketing exercise. And even in the best of times, it would be difficult to defend the gilded brocade, glittering embroidery and exaggerated silhouettes that came down the runway. It is as though the design industry is living in the go-go 1990s and everyone else is wondering how many additional decades they'll have to work to make up for all their lost capital gains.

With the economy so bleak and the expectation that it will only become more depressed before there are any substantial improvements, it's hard to look at the brocade pajama party that the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana put on their runway in Milan and do much more than shake one's head in amazement. It was all quite pretty, but still, what could they possibly have been thinking? The economic crisis might have begun in the U.S. housing market, but it swiftly took on a global dimension. Don't they read the papers?

To be fair, designers began working on their spring 2009 collections some six months ago, so they could be forgiven for not registering the full brunt of the financial downturn. But there were certainly clues that the economy was slowing. And they could have lessened the jarring ostentation on the runway by including a few more looks from their "showroom collections." Those are the more commercial and accessible pieces typically deemed too reserved for the spotlight.

American designers, however, have no excuse. The housing bubble had burst long before the New York fashion industry began focusing on spring 2009. Shoppers were already talking about cutting back, complaining about the cost of high-end fashion and putting the last spike in the heart of revenue-generating "it" bags. Yet designers pressed on. Oscar de la Renta sent some of his most intoxicating evening wear down the runway in February. One of his ball gowns will cost as much as a scooter. (Yes, that's the new analogy. Who's buying cars these days?) And the team at Proenza Schouler sent a fully sequined jumpsuit down their runway in New York. They got behind a showpiece that, if produced, would cost more than the mortgage payments on most of those houses currently in foreclosure.

It's difficult to process these kinds of indulgences when prudence tells even those who are well situated financially to be more cautious and conservative spenders.

Designers seem to be responding to the economic crisis as if it were any other kind of social tumult. They are proceeding under the theory that beauty, artistry and, thus, fashion will be perceived as acts of defiance in the face of assault. They hope that the fabulously dressed will serve as beacons of hope and optimism. Might a $10,000 beaded Balmain blazer with linebacker shoulders be applauded as some kind of prêt-à-porter mental bailout?

This is the philosophy designers have always bet on in downturns. In the past it has worked. But times have changed.

Some of the notions designers put on the runway, of course, are just for theatrics. Even if some eager oil baroness demanded one of the Dolce & Gabbana molded hoop skirts bedecked with silk flowers, they'd probably just sell her the sample and call themselves lucky. But between a gloomy world dominated by, on the one hand, black cashmere turtlenecks and navy blazers, and, on the other, clothes that are pure fairy tales, there are those that have the capacity to make one swoon. Just looking at them is a unique pleasure, akin to the high one might get from window-shopping. The point is not the purchase; it's the fantasizing. There is something psychologically pleasurable about simply being around beauty. We are made better by our surroundings.

That was the thinking during World War II. Governments understood that their citizens needed beauty, art and music to make life livable. In Europe, while some fashion houses such as Chanel closed, others struggled through the war even as materials necessary for production were rationed or completely unavailable. In the United States, women were encouraged to maintain their beauty rituals as best they could. They were asked to keep up appearances. To keep looking forward. The fighting, after all, was for a future that was better than the past. The beauty industry -- from lipstick to party dresses -- symbolized hope. A well-turned-out woman, one who had managed to make herself pretty, had managed a kind of victory.

Remember, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when shopping was supposed to be patriotic? The urge was understandable. It was a way of saying that darkness would not cloud the little pleasures of daily life.

But we had money -- and a lot of credit -- back then. Folks could charge a pair of leather boots for the sake of the country, for the preservation of capitalism . . . and because they were so pretty they put a smile on the face. And, they could still put gas in the car. That was a dictate that anyone could participate in, whether she was doing her shopping at Wal-Mart or Neiman Marcus.

But it's a different story when money gets tight and clothes are expensive. Buying a fancy new dress that's dripping with beading isn't going to be perceived as a proud act of defiance. More than likely, the wearer will be thought of as part of the greedy, fiddledeedee crowd that got everyone into this economic mess in the first place. At the moment, shopping isn't patriotic; it's foolhardy.

So is there any place for those intellectually compelling geometric dresses at Calvin Klein? Or for the luxurious beading that ramps up the cost of a Lanvin dress into the stratosphere? There will always be consumers who can afford them. Even during the Great Depression, designers carried on with business. The great American couturier Mainbocher founded his house just as the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy and he went on to dress the Duchess of Windsor and Gloria Vanderbilt.

But that was back when it was still okay to refer to a woman as a girl, fashion had an aura of elegance and social correctness, and folks were willing to believe that having a class of noblesse oblige citizens who represented the best and the brightest was something worth celebrating and preserving.

These days we'd be more inclined to call those folks out-of-touch elitists and sneer at them for not looking as worse-for-wear as their neighbors. This time, we won't be able to see the beauty through our anger.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company