The Tyranny of Fashion and The Auckland City Art Gallery

Archive: previously published as a review for PhotoForum, 1995

There is a certain duplicity in fashion, at least as practiced in the capitalist economies.On the one hand, it can be seen as a liberating force through the 20th century, and on the other, it has bound women (in the main) into fixed concepts of style, beauty, and body image.
Maybe its just that fashion tried to keep up with the continuing stages of liberation that inevitably followed the constraints of last century – anyone could wear the signs of their freedom. The market knew where the new money would be coming from, and raced to keep up with that sector.
At this time the market could be seen as filling a needed style, although, at some point it became the dictator of these styles. This probably happened as a consequence of the developments in large quantity printing, the introduction of fine quality illustrations, and then photographs. These gave rise to large distribution magazines and a quantum leap in the visual appeal of advertising. Couple this with the development of synthetic fabrics and automation of clothing production, which made cheaper (and less durable) apparel, and the fashion industry was ready to control the changing of clothing styles. It was in their interest to change fashions as often as possible.

There seems to have always been a desirable body shape for women (by men, and thus by women) through the ages, although this shape has been quite different at different times. One would have thought that the liberations that women have undergone in this century could have addressed this constraint once and for all. Instead, through the media, the ideal shape that prevails in our time is forced even more strongly on women. It also seems that there has been a stronger emphasis on desirable male body shape in the last decade.

By attempting neutrality on these issues, fashion has been complicit in imposing these restrictive body shapes on women. Similarly, by displaying a politically neutral show such as ‘Worth To Dior’, the Auckland City Art Gallery invites criticism. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a mid-century museum display. But why should an art gallery treat clothing in any other way?
Well, art practices of the 70’s and 80’s have shown clearly that art (and life) is a political act. The subject matter of an artist, the presentation, the viewpoint, and the space in which the work is presented, are all decisions that stem from a particular view of the world. There is no neutral viewpoint, and so each decision is a political one, each depends on the politics of the artist. The decisions involved in creating or exhibiting a show are imbued with their own politics, those of the curator, the designer, and the gallery manager.

But what are we seeing in this exhibition?
We see costumes for the rich and famous; “dresses of which fairytales were made.” The costumes are presented as marvellous and unaffordable for most – the ultimate in exclusive clothing. The presentation is designed to impress, to overawe even. There is a conspicuous lack of discussion regarding the wider implications of the clothes, their wearers, and their creators. In fact we are given to believe that there are no implications, that they exist for a make believe world.

But a real world existed around this “golden age” which included two world wars and a lot of sweated labour, both of relevance to this industry.

When Charles Worth started creating his dresses for royalty, it was difficult for women to possess wealth in their own name. They were considered to be virtually the chattels of their husbands. The clothing was paid for, and was used to conspicuously display the wealth of these upper class men. The clothing was physically constraining and unsuitable for many activities. How had things changed by the ‘50s? Despite women having much more freedom in society, Christian Dior could still refer to women’s use of fashion as “the simple art of pleasing.”

During the Nazi occupation of France, Catherine Dior, his sister, spent 10 months in Ravensbruck concentration camp because of her work in the Resistance. On her release, Dior gave her clothes from Lucien Lelong, his then employer. Gaunt and thin, she said that it was “ the only time in my life that I was able to fit into his model sized clothes.”

The H line that Dior designed in 1954 involved the ‘Tudor’ bodice, shown so well in the ‘Worth To Dior’ advertisement. This was intended to lift the breasts to increase their distance from the waist, for visual appeal. And referring to the corsetry required for the 1947 ‘New Look’, Dior said that “without foundations there would be no fashion.” Women’s bodies were still being constrained and moulded for the pleasure of men.

As far as the second world war goes, it seems that couture fashion, where it could, would fall in with whoever had political control. For example, England, and to a lesser extent America, were forced to undergo austerity measures which put controls on the amount of fabric used in a dress, skirt length, and the number of pleats and pockets. Meanwhile, in occupied Paris, many fashion houses kept on producing flamboyant clothing and hats. Nazi Germany intended to take over Paris culture for its own, and haute couture fell into the category of a protected luxury trade and so had access to the fabrics they needed. Some magazines, like Paris Vogue, and some designers closed down rather than become involved with the Nazi interest in couture. But many, including the houses of Worth, Piguet, and Lelong remained open for the full duration of the Nazi occupation of France. Lelong commented that every meter of fabric wasted in France was a metre less that would be sent to Germany. A desperate defence.

In all areas of clothing production, manual labour has always been a big component. Although mass production came to other industries, clothing has never seen the same input of technology although the potential has often been there, even in the fashion industry. Compared with other industries, there is little difference to be seen between the outworkers and small scale (labour driven) factories in use today, and the ‘little dressmaker’ and sweated labour shops of 100 years ago. Perhaps the main difference today is that developing countries are used in order to keep labour costs down. Additionally, the country of production is often changed when another offers a lower rate. Thus it is these workers who have been subsidising the demand for fast turn-around, low batch run, seasonally changing fashions.

Remembering that all art has a political component, why is it that the gallery has ignored any wider issues of fashion clothing and instead given us a bland museum display?

Recently, the Auckland City Council has forced the gallery to be partially self- funding. From the many possibilities, the chosen methods have been to charge for special exhibitions and to seek sponsorship. While the former requires an interested audience (or advertising to create one), the latter requires that potential sponsors see a surefire, easy product to associate their name with. Nothing with possibilities of controversy or negative publicity.
What could be better than a display of clothes? So it seems that this show is but a commercial venture – a crowd puller with superficial content.
Unfortunately, the gallery has treaded too conservatively in order to create a financial winner.

Chic Thrills ed. Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson
Dior in Vogue Brigid Keenan
Understanding Fashion Elizabeth Rouse
Worth To Dior exhibition catalogue

“Worth To Dior” showed at the Auckland City Art Gallery over the period 6 March – 7 May 1995.

S. Sontier

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