Monday, March 2, 2009

Haute Couture at Versailles

This past weekend I went to Versailles for the first time. That place certainly lives up to its reputation as an enormous orgy of gold, embroidery, extravagance, symmetry, and grandeur. Seeing the physical space helped me understand how Louis XIV had used Versailles for the consolidation of absolute monarchy. He designed the grounds and the Versailles lifestyle for that explicit purpose: to make the nobles obsessed with gossip, etiquette, and procedures of social rank; to tire them out with lots of walking followed by entertainment day and night; to require that they spend months here out of the year to sap their regional power. Obsession over fashion was in fact central to Louis XIV’s consolidation of power.

At the time, Versailles was definitely the center of European haute couture. Fashion begun at Versailles quickly spread throughout the ranks of European nobility. Louis XIV kept his nobles under control by constantly having new accessories or decorations added to the royal wardrobe. By necessity, each development caught on (a) because people basically worshipped him (b) because people demonstrated their social standing based on what they wore. In fact, one had to follow the latest fashion just to retain one’s rank! Because fashion was expensive and frequently changing, some nobles were driven into debt by living at Versailles. Then, Louis XIV would have even more power over them because he would become their creditor. It almost seems like one big psychological conspiracy, like Big Brother in guise of Disneyland for rich people!

Most people nowadays would find the fashion at Versailles extravagant to the point of absurdity. The men really liked their ribbons. They wore ribbons on their high-heeled shoes, at their knees, on their vests and coats. But why did anyone need over 250 yards of ribbon, gathered in bunches, on one vest? The women really liked big dresses… but dresses so big they couldn’t fit through doors, or do anything but walk and sit? The women also really liked their wigs. At Versailles, women’s hairstyles grew higher and higher until it was over 3 feet tall, supported with wire frames. They would decorate their wigs with flowers, plumes, models of ships and farm animals… and they would also not wash their hair for months at a time (a.k.a. head lice). But no worries, a fashionable solution to a fashionable problem! "Back scratchers" were invented to relieve the itching when the vermin became too active.

Ridiculous, right? Yet as I explored the grounds, I could not help but think how elements of crazy French royal fashion still reverberate in our society today. How does the craze of trends today resemble the craze of trends back then? Do trends sweep through society the same way? If they do, are they as exciting, as nonsensical, as extravagant, as beautiful and as ugly… and, ultimately, as ephemeral? These are big questions that I invite you to think about, and that I only ruminate on a little bit.

Provoked by these questions, I started taking pictures at Versailles of something I’ve been seeing a lot of this season: the boot. I don’t know what this boot is called. I don’t know anything about it or its origins. All I know is that this boot is everywhere. It has a low heel. It often has a decorative buckle at the top. It has a rounded toe. Hands down, all fashionable girls sport this boot this season, along with the necessary accessories: the colorful belted wool coats, the skirt or dress or long shirt that goes to the hips, stockings or tight dark blue jeans (no flares, those are totally out of style) tucked into the boots, and, last but not least, leather or faux-leather pouch-like shoulder bags with lots of straps. I don’t know what any of these things are called but the full ensemble is obvious and ubiquitous. For tromping around Paris in the winter, it’s actually quite practical. However, as we saw at Versailles, fashion knows little practicality. Sure enough, I hear that the Stanford Business School is the epicenter of the boot this season as well (Stanford as in Stanford, California. Yes, you read me right, because people really need knee high leather boots to go through the occasional drizzle). I also swear to you that this type of boot will be obsolete by next winter. Will next year’s fashionable winter boot be pointy? Will it be square toed? Will it lace up?

In spite of my satiric tone here, I should make clear that none of us live unaffected by the world of fashion. All of us are affected, and all of us partake in it, whether it’s at Barneys NY or the sales rack at GAP. Haute couture trickles down and permeates the wardrobes of even the most fashion-senseless.

Meryl Streep expresses this point powerfully in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Playing Miranda Priestly, the editor in chief of Runway magazine, she says to Andrea (an intern who snickers as she watches Miranda equivocate over two belts, one turquoise, and the other… turquoise), “This... stuff? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical to me how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

Therefore, even the most plebeian of us have no right to criticize.

(By the way, haute couture at Versailles still lives on, albeit anachronistically. Just in July 2007, it was used for a runway fashion show featuring renowned designers such as Chanel, Givenchy, and Dior. Just an interesting aside.)

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