Haute Couture: A Disposable Language of Status

A new exhibition examines how luxury, status and fashion co-exist.

poster for

"Luxury in Fashion Reconsidered" Exhibition

at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo
in the Kiyosumi, Ryogoku area
This event has ended - (2009-10-31 - 2010-01-17)

In Reviews by TABuzz 2009-12-08

Of all status symbols — the interior of quarter-million dollar cars and vacation homes in Karuizawa — none is more familiar than high fashion. Apparel can be perceived as a multi-faceted visual language that demands keen perception of and analytic attention to nuances to be fully understood. Insight on the language allows one to see clusters of group memberships, including those among Tokyo’s single office ladies who are trendy enough and fiscally-padded enough to take part in the Louis-Vuitton-Gucci-Coach tote bag mania of the past two years. Decoded, it speaks loudly of personality, financial status, values, cultural heritage, aesthetic tastes, human capital — a very telling socio-historic mapping of the individual that fits like a glove. The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s “Luxury in Fashion Reconsidered” demands more intellectual engagement than what one might expect from a fashion exhibition, inspiring an active, fuller appreciation of high fashion through a vigorous breaking down of its constituent parts.

Heels, French (c.1925)

Maison Martin Margiela, Dress (Autumn/Winter 2008)The first and second part of the exhibition — entitled “Ostentation” and “Less is More” respectively — showcase a loosely chronological historic evolution of haute couture in the West, spanning from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. It starts with some profligately opulent Western European dresses reminiscent of the court fashion of Marie Antoinette — created with materials that include gold lace, silver gauze and silk brocade. This is followed by a diverse progression into a more simplified sumptuousness that characterized twentieth century haute couture. On display include — in the spirit for which haute couture is known — some entertainingly “un-wearable” masterpieces such as a top by Balenciaga constructed of hand-painted canvas on which one can enjoy a pastel-palette landscape scene. In these first parts, the viewer can examine up-close the overlapping facets that make up luxury clothing (such as cost, quantity and quality of material, difficulty of production, attention to detail, degree of craftsmanship, aesthetic quality, designer name and realization time) through which status is communicated.

The exhibition’s third part (“Clothes are Free-Spirited”) showcases the creativity of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, a designer whose inventiveness, like Margiela, pushes the boundaries of where imagination and fashion intertwine. It is described in the exhibition that Kawakubo’s works are often unconventional to the point that the wearer does not know how to put it on (such as which two are the holes for the arms). This rare experience of having to actively think about how to wear one’s clothes encourages the engagement of the intellect and sensibilities with regard to the aesthetic experience of clothing, which is referred to as intellectual luxury.

The fourth part of the exhibition is called “Uniqueness”. Here, all works are by Maison Martin Margiela, a Belgian designer whose fashion is best described as sophisticatedly impractical and otherworldly (one design on display is a vest made of randomly overlapped, laminated playing cards) as is only feasible by opulent legroom in terms of means of production. Here the focus shifts to the luxury of purchasing one-of-a-kind works, and to the human touch of ingenuity, time-intensive labor, spontaneity and attention to detail. Margiela’s works are hand-constructed, hence no one piece is identical. These are the qualities that separate luxury from “fast fashion”—a descendant term of “fast food” that disparages the mass produced output by giant retailers such as Zara and H&M whose poor attention to detail make in vogue apparel accessible to populist fashionistas. All Margiela’s designs are labeled with their “realization time”, the total hours it takes to make one article of clothing, which is calculated into the item’s value.

Comme des Garçon (Rei Kawakubo), Dress Autumn/Winter 1991Comme des Garçon (Rei Kawakubo), Ensemble Spring/Summer 1997

The exhibit pushes viewers to consider high fashion as not merely an expression of aesthetic sensibilities limited to the heavily bankrolled, but as a dynamic “utility art” form whose pleasure — never replicable between two people wearing the same suit — results from the symbiotic interaction of energies between designer, dressmaker and wearer. For instance, a $7,000 USD gown — the fruition of the creative intellectual activity and mastery of skills of designer and dressmaker, respectively — was actively selected by the wearer and has a value in a realm separate from its tag price, functioning as an instrument enmeshed in the material language of personal expression and status. The show reveals the evolution of haute couture from an explicit language of class and cultural pedigree to its morphosis — inseparable from socio-historic change — into a realm that is less defined by ostentation and material worth, but rather emphasizes individualistic fancies and novel concepts such as “intellectual pleasure” as a byproduct of apparel design. Oscar Wilde called fashion “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”. It appears not to be ugliness, but rather a desire for novel goods through which we can purchase a little more status for ourselves within our means that turns headlong the wheel of the fashion year.


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