There’s a peculiarly English obsession with telling stories through fashion. It’s marked all of our greatest designers. The greatest of these, oddly enough, emerged at the end of the twentieth century: the triumvirate of Westwood, Galliano and McQueen. They dealt in fables, rather than fashion. Their clothes were about fantasy and make-believe, about reinvention and transformation. It’s a kind of genetic engineering through cloth. Vivienne Westwood once declared 'You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.' It’s the clarion call of the British fashion industry.
The great thing about the Great British fashion industry, in contrast to that proffered by just about any other capital in the world, is that it’s really not about the clothes. It’s about telling a story. Vivienne Westwood is the prime example: so fixated is she on expressing an idea, on evoking a narrative, that the aesthetic effect of her clothing often suffers. Westwood will knowingly make an ugly garment, because to express the idea in itself is a kind of a beauty. There’s a depth to what she did, and to what she does. It’s about more than clothes.
What the British fashion industry has always been obsessed with is fantasy, a fantasy best served through narrative. These clothes are about fairytales. Sometimes, those fairytales are dark. Alexander McQueen’s sophomore haute couture collection for the house of Givenchy was named Eclect Dissect, inspired by a fictional turn-of-the-century serial killer who combined the dismembered bodies of his female victims with animal’s corpses. McQueen’s show was the point when said corpses became ghoulishly reanimated, haunting the halls of a Parisian surgical school. Remember, please, this is a Parisian haute couture show – usually witnessing nothing more ghastly than stick-thin mannequins haunting gilded chairs in stuffy salons. McQueen's dark fantasy was something they had never seen before. At Christian Dior, John Galliano devoted collections to Marie Antoinette’s journey on the tumbril, to the homeless he saw on his daily jog alongside the Seine, and for Autumn/Winter 2000, to a family packed with sexual perversion, literally coming apart at the seams. The collection is often dubbed 'Sado-Maso' for its couture corsetry and dog-collars, the naughty nurses strapped up in latex bondage tape, the whips and orgasmic moaning that made up the soundtrack. Galliano’s actual title was A Family Portrait. How perverse is that?
Nevertheless, although the stories evoked by the Brits in Paris sometimes made difficult reading – even at Galliano’s elegiac height, there was something disturbing about the ghosts of fashions past haunting the living in quite so spectacular style - they were nonetheless packed with narrative justifications. For British designers, every nuance of their collections is determined by the story behind them. 'Who she is, where she lived, how she lived,' is how John Galliano summarised his approach. It’s about play-acting. And, in story-telling terms, our job, as the fashion journalists in the audience, is not to 'see' but to 'read.' We’re dealing in the language of clothing.
That’s open to misinterpretation. It’s like a novel being read at double-speed, while you scramble to follow the action. You’re bound to miss something. Witness McQueen’s Highland Rape show. McQueen sought to tell the story of the brutal eighteenth and nineteenth century clearances of the highlands of Scotland by English aristocrats. Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the 'expulsion of the Gael.' But the juxtaposition of the word 'rape', even peripherally, with brutally-shredded clothing and staggering models was interpreted by many as misogynistic. 'Aggressive and disturbing,' was the reaction of Womenswear Daily. Which was, of course, the point. But it was about the clothing, not the woman inside. The clothing was brutalised, not the bodies.
Fashion is often criticised for being vacuous. It’s undoubtedly true, of some fashion at least. However glorious, there’s plenty of fashion which doesn’t really have anything to say. The work of Christian Lacroix, for example, is lush and baroque. It’s elaborate. Yet there’s something that separates it from the exuberance equally evident in the mid-nineties designs of John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood. There is no narrative justification with Lacroix. It’s indulgent, certainly, but it’s about indulgence purely for indulgence’s sake. Lacroix’s clothing is a visual feast, but there’s nothing more to it. The French have a wonderful term: Bagatelle. A bagatelle is an unimportant or insignificant thing; a trifle. It’s something very enjoyable, usually, or amusing. It reminds me of the voluptuous, sensual work of Boucher, those plump, overstuffed rococo armchairs, the elaborate crinolined gowns of the Second Empire. It’s all beautiful, but inconsequential. It’s French frivolity. That’s what much of French haute couture is too. British fashion demands more.
A narrative fixation in fashion isn’t restricted to designers. The clothes inform and inflame photographers, models and stylists to tell their own stories. Isabella Blow, of course, was a storyteller. Her rise, alongside that of her protégé McQueen and of John Galliano to the Parisian houses of Givenchy and Dior respectively, gave her the perfect opportunity to indulge her narrative urges. Fantasy was unleashed. You flew by the seat of your brocade bumsters every time you cracked the spine of a magazine. The vehicle for that transportation into fantasy, however, was the clothing. It wasn’t a dull slip-dress gussied up with an esoteric set-piece or an emoting model. All the elements worked together to tell those stories, the stories that, for designers like Westwood, Galliano and McQueen – and the hordes of names they in turn inspired, such as Antonio Berardi, Andrew Groves and Olivier Theyskens – were the beating heart of their creativity.
These creatives didn’t tell stories because they could. They told stories because, like a heart beating, they had to. It was their reason for living. There was simply no other way of them creating. Perhaps that’s why what they created was so magical. Backstage at his Autumn/Winter 1997 haute couture collection for Dior, John Galliano – him again – stated, simply, 'My clothes enable women to dream.' To dream, not to dress. That, perhaps, is the fundamental, often-sought difference between mere clothing and true fashion.