The Art of Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture – A Return to the Roots of Haute Couture

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

There are some who consider Bouchra Jarrar’s approach to haute couture outdated—day clothes and minimal theatricality? That seems awfully reminiscent of the stuffy haute couture of a bygone era— when designers like Mainbocher, Elsa Schiaparelli or later King Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior reigned over their salons and presided over the women they dressed. Haute couture, which literally translates as “high sewing” in French, was the prevailing industry since its inception around the 1850s up until its demise in the 1960s.

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House of Worth ball gown, ca. 1872. Photograph courtesy of the MET Museum.

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Quintessential couture “late-day” looks by Christian Dior and Grés. Vogue September 15, 1948, 137.

Charles Frederick Worth, widely regarded as the progenitor of the fashion industry as we know it today, launched his couture house in 1857-58 and fully established the role of the fashion designer as illustrious créateur.[1] For those who are unfamiliar, haute couture, as aptly put by Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times, is even more so today regarded as “that most rarefied of fashion forms, clothes that are made to order by hand for the 0.001 percent who can afford them.”[2] At its height in the mid-1940s, haute couture was an industry strictly regulated by the Chambre Syndicale. Couturiers applied for membership and fulfilled a series of requirements in order to be classified as a couture house.[3]

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Young British Youthquake fashions of the 1960s featuring ensembles by Mary Quant and Foale & Tuffin. Vogue, August 15, 1965, 122-123.

For the client, this meant an elaborate process of showings, selection, and multiple fittings before finally receiving an order. The haute couture remained highly influential up until the early 1960s and quickly became irrelevant as women changed drastically. They no longer dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of elegance and now looked to their youthful daughters for fashion inspiration.[4] What had once been fiercely guarded by couturiers from flagrant copyists quickly transgressed to becoming a “hard sell” as stiff competition from ready-to-wear designers picked up steam.[5] The haute couture transformed into a laboratory for experimentation— a place where couturiers could work out ideas for their more profitable ready-to-wear lines.[6] Couturiers also took cues from the hipper ready-to-wear designers like Kenzo Takada for their fashion shows and moved out of their intimate salons into larger venues. In general, fashion shows began to evolve into the spectacles we know today— replete with lights, arena seating, music, props, photographers and celebrities.[7]

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Christian Dior by John Galliano’s sensational haute couture show. Vogue, October 1998, 134.

As couture lost touch with reality, the clothes, too, moved increasingly towards fantasy.[8] Vogue in March of 1991 wrongly predicted that “spectacular fashion shows may become a casualty of the cautious 1990s,” and that “ostentatious display may become distinctly unfashionable.” Instead, fashion shows, spurred by John Galliano’s outrageous designs for Christian Dior or bad boy Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, transformed into “publicity vehicles” for brands.

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2012 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

Thus, when reconsidering Jarrar’s couture collection for Spring 2015 within this historical context, it is, by comparison, incredibly novel, not to mention, daring that a 21st century designer would upend the current expectations of couture and return to its roots. Although it has been surmised that Jarrar, along with her peers, may be reacting to the current economic climate, which took a turn for the worse recently with the Euro at a historic low and the Ruble, which lost fifty percent of its value in just one year.[9] But Jarrar, since her outset, has shied away from theatrical sets or red carpet-worthy gowns, and instead, has consistently shown ultra-wearable yet supremely luxurious day clothes for the modern woman. Her approach strips away the layers of fantasy while upholding couture-level standards through unsurpassed workmanship and the use of the finest fabrics that are oftentimes woven especially for her.[10] 

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

Highlights include a precisely cut white button-down shirt, paired with a houndstooth and leather miniskirt is accessorized with a oversized fox fur collar; or an ivory silk crepe long-sleeved evening gown with a beautifully draped cowl neck. Perhaps the couture details are imperceptible through a 2D computer screen, but consider that Jarrar also maintains a ready-to-wear line. Beyond the more tactile aspects of couture, these clothes are made-to-measure for the specific wearer, which means clothes that fit like a dream. These are highly wearable, timeless clothes for women of the 21st century who adore the art of dress. Rather than creating a fruitless couture collection that will go straight to the storied vaults of museums, without any sort of provenance,[11] or worn merely once as it floats over a red carpet, why not provide a more sustainable alternative for the wealthiest .001%? Middle class arbiters of fashion have long touted “Investment dressing”—buying fewer pieces but of higher quality rather than partaking in fast fashion. Who says this methodology can’t extend to the world’s wealthiest few while supporting the art of dress?

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John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture. Vogue, March 1997, 190.

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Highly unwearable Victorian influenced collections at the haute couture shows of Christian Dior by John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, and Givenchy by Alexander Mcqueen. Vogue, November 1997, 178.

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Extravagant haute couture pink fan gown by Jean Paul Gaultier Vogue, March 1999, 392.


Notes:

[1] Amy de la Haye and Valerie D. Mendes, The House of Worth: Portrait of an Archive, London: V&A Publishing, 2014,

[2] Vanessa Friedman, “Couture Tries to Find Its Place in the Real World,” New York Times, January 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/fashion/couture-tries-to-find-its-place-in-the-real-world.html?action=click&contentCollection=Fashion%20%26%20Style&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article (accessed February 2, 2015).

[3] Requirements included but were not limited to: the couture house must be based in Paris; a collection consisting of at least twenty-five designs, created in-house twice a year for spring and fall and crafted on a live model; the collection must be presented on live models in an “appropriate” setting. The regulations also covered the technical execution and client reproduction, etc. For a broad overview: Alexandra Palmer, “Haute Couture,” The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele, Berg: New York and Oxford, 2010, 393-396.

[4] Marilyn Bender, The Beautiful People, New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967, 206.

[5] Bernadine Morris, “Fashion: Top Secrecy to Hard Sell,” New York Times, January 4, 1978, C11.

[6] “Eye View,” WWD, January 30, 1975, 8.

[7] Bernadine Morris, “Paris Finale: Tradition and Innovation,” New York Times, July 30, 1982.

[8] “Fashion’s Fantasy Lab,” WWD, September 1, 1998, 178-179, 182, 184-185.

[9] The Associated Press, “In Russia, Creeping Awareness that Economic Crisis Will Last,” New York Times, February 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/02/03/world/europe/ap-eu-russia-living-with-recession.html?_r=0 (accessed February 3, 2015), and Friedman, “Couture in the Real World.”

[10] Nicole Phelps, “Review: Spring 2015 Couture Bouchra Jarrar,” Style.com, January 27, 2015, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cXauZBn6n0HZFxfqv9tEA1RnCihjfVI2T622N6HRfEo/edit# (accessed February 4, 2015).

[11] Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, “Making Of Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2011,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_RC9Cxjqig and “Opening the Dior,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn4Zoyw_2rI

Born on this day in fashion history: Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, Part I

January 21st is an epic day in fashion history. It is the day that two of fashion’s greatest designers, Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior, were born, in 1895 and 1905 respectively. The two men are part of the small but illustrious pantheon of designers internationally recognized by a singular moniker, designers such as Lanvin and Chanel, whose names have endured long past their deaths. Today is the perfect day to celebrate the incredible talent and vision of the men responsible for two of the biggest globally-recognized fashion brands of the past fifty years and today. PART I: Christian Dior, born on this day in 1895.

Christian Dior as featured in a CBS celebrity interview program entitled 'Person to Person,' November 7, 1955.

Christian Dior as featured in a CBS celebrity interview program entitled ‘Person to Person,’ November 7, 1955.

It is worth mentioning that Christian Dior’s fate as one of the greatest couturiers of fashion history was solidified by not one, but two World Wars. The first brought him from his hometown of Normandy to Paris in the 1910s at the impressionable age of ten, while the aftermath of the second—in which he fought and served his country—provided the austere, spartan atmosphere in which Dior would inject his much-needed reverie of luxury and beauty, changing the face of fashion.

A dress typical of 1940s war-era fashion with its shortened hem and minimal use of fabric, featured in LIFE Nov 18, 1940.

A dress typical of 1940s war-era fashion with its shortened hem and minimal use of fabric, featured in LIFE Nov 18, 1940.

Dior owned an art gallery in Paris before he began his design career in the mid-1930s, selling his sketches to various couture houses before landing a job with couturier Robert Piquet. He served in the army for the first two years of  WWII but returned to Paris, and couture, in 1941 to work for Lucien Lelong.[i] With the onset of the war in 1939, the high-glamour Hollywood-lux that defined 1930s fashion was vanquished, all extravagance repressed in beat with the harsh realities of war. Government regulations on clothing production further cemented the emergence of a simpler, more practical approach to dressing. Skirts narrowed, hemlines rose, silk stockings disappeared. Fashion’s creativity was to be found in the details, as designers discovered innovative ways to manipulate and work with the limited materials at their disposal. It was onto this ascetic, sober landscape that Dior burst forth like a fresh splash of paint on a Pollock canvas. Dior’s first collection for Spring 1947 was the wake-up call the world of fashion was waiting for: the war was over and Dior’s “New Look” was the future of fashion. Indeed, Dior’s distinctive brand of reshaping the female form would dominate fashion for the 1950s.

The “Bar” suit featured here is one of Dior’s most iconic designs. Featured in his first collection, it epitomizes all the elements of the “New Look”: the ensemble’s corset-like bodice is characterized by rigid corsetry, a wasp-waist and padded hips while the accompanying skirt is full and wide. "Bar" suit and jacket, spring/summer 1947 Christian Dior, Silk shantung; Skirt, executed in 1969 from a 1947 design Reproduction of a skirt designed by Christian Dior; reproduction of a skirt, wool. Both in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The “Bar” suit seen here is one of Dior’s most iconic designs. Featured in his first collection, it epitomizes all the elements of the “New Look”: the ensemble’s structured bodice is characterized by rigid corset-like boning, a wasp-waist and padded hips, while the accompanying skirt is full and wide. “Bar” suit and jacket, spring/summer 1947. Christian Dior, Silk shantung; Skirt, executed in 1969 from a 1947 design. Reproduction of a skirt designed by Christian Dior; reproduction of a skirt, wool. Both in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dior's "Junon" dress, fall/winter 1949–50, pale-blue silk net embroidered with iridescent blue, green, and rust sequins. Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dior’s “Junon” dress, fall/winter 1949–50, pale-blue silk net embroidered with iridescent blue, green, and rust sequins. Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dior’s first collection celebrated sumptuous, luxurious materials, yards of fabric, and highly structured silhouettes maintained by built-in, corset-like under-structures. The cinched-in waists, padded hips and full skirts of Dior’s ensembles were a direct rejection of, not just the war-imposed fashions of recent years, but the strides gained by the modern woman seeking comfortable clothing in the 1920s and 30s. Instead, the silhouette harkened back to the nineteenth century when structured, restrictive silhouettes were the height of fashion, the molding of the female form an undeniable marker of social status and sophistication. The Spring 1947 collection catapulted Dior to international fame. He would continue to dominate fashion unrivaled for the next ten years, until his untimely death in 1957. Today, Dior’s incredible, albeit brief, artistic oeuvre is a testament to the power of clothing—and the authority of one man—to become a defining element for an entire generation of women and their self-perceptions of all that is beautiful and feminine, two characteristics for which Dior’s name is synonymous to this day over fifty years after his death. Many of Dior’s successors are famous in their own right, especially Yves Saint Laurent (1957-1958), John Galliano (1997-2011) and currently Raf Simons (2012-present), who, by blending Dior’s signature style with their own artistic vision, have all ensured the continuance of Dior’s legacy on the modern stage and for years to come. See Part II on Cristobal Balenciaga here.

"Anniversary Highlights" featured in a March 4, 1957 LIFE magazine article  celebrating ten years of Dior. Sadly, Dior would die of a heart attack only seven months later.

“Anniversary Highlights” featured in a March 4, 1957 LIFE magazine article celebrating ten years of Dior. Sadly, Dior would die of a heart attack only seven months later.

Christian Dior Haute Couture 2008 - Shot by Patrick Demarchelier. One of John Galliano’s more whimsical takes (he did several) on Dior’s signature “Bar” suit. Galliano took Dior’s sculptured elegance into a realm of unparalleled theater and fantasy.

Christian Dior Haute Couture 2008 – Shot by Patrick Demarchelier. One of John Galliano’s more whimsical takes (he did several) on Dior’s signature “Bar” suit. Galliano took Dior’s sculptured elegance into a realm of unparalleled theater and fantasy.

Actress Keira Knightly models Simons version of the Dior "Bar" Suit in the October 2012 issue of Vogue magazine. In direct contrast to the theatrical aesthetic of Galliano, Raf Simons, the current designer for the house, represents a fresh take on Dior’s legacy by combining a modern minimalist aesthetic while maintaining Dior’s signature structural finesse and integrity.

Actress Keira Knightly models Raf Simons version of the Dior “Bar” Suit in the October 2012 issue of Vogue magazine. In direct contrast to Galliano’s more theatrical aesthetic, Simons, Dior’s current designer, presents a fresh take on Dior’s legacy by combining his own distinctive minimalist aesthetic while paying tribute to Dior’s signature structural finesse and integrity.

*Highlights from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dior collection here.  *Link to Life Magazine March 4, 1957 article on Dior here. [i] Where many couturiers including Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli shuttered their doors at the war’s onset, others such as Lucien Lelong remained open to battle the storm of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Lelong was especially instrumental in keeping Paris as the center of haute couture production when the Nazis wanted to move it to Germany.