Why can't a woman be more like a chair?

By Debra S. Ollivier
Published November 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

All over Paris last week, the harbingers of next spring's haute couture and prjt-`-porter collections were out in force, a strange amalgam of extremes. On the one hand, women played out prurient Victorian baby-doll fantasies, Cinderella vixens billowing and bondaged in bustles, buntings and bodices. Layered in pounds of plumage and petticoats; ruffled, trussed, corseted and masked like so many Marie Antoinettes walking gracefully, if not a bit self-consciously, to their own executions.

On the other side of the fashion extreme, women dressed as objects -- quite literally. They were furniture bolsters, missile silos and mutant vegetables (heads bursting from cabbages). Some sported wing flaps and radioactive aluminum siding; others were wrapped in what appeared to be postmodern death shrouds ("... hooded cape encourages stillness of upper body," is how one American journalist described this look. Translation: Hooded cape is something you're supposed to be caught dead in). Some women wore things that looked as if they might live inside your radiator or in your air-conditioning duct. Fumbling for descriptors, Le Monde called it all "test tube beauty" and a "starchy and indigestible [fashion] porridge."

When -- in the bonding and strapping -- limbs became a problem, they were simply removed. This month's French Vogue brings us "Cyber Amazon," a space-age, bikini-clad gladiator who, with her prosthetic leg and hook arm, can "turn lead to gold, enflame libidos and reduce men to objects." This limbless trend is the brainchild of Alexander McQueen, a British designer who put Aimee Mullens, the first handicapped model (Mullens had both legs amputated when she was 1) on the runway in London this fall. Benetton recently chose a number of mentally retarded and Down's syndrome children for its ads. Even the ballerinas in the Palais Garnier's presentation of "Ghiselle" pranced around in straitjackets and mental-ward attire rather than traditional tutus. All this prompted French Elle to declare, "The handicapped are fashionable," celebrating a new era of asylum, orthopedic chic: women with or without limbs in a variety of surgical neck braces, wooden body and head casts and prosthetic limbs, soon to be complemented with "futuristic orthopedic-bondage jewelry" from Givenchy. Clearly, employing the aesthetics of medical gear and trauma is a dipstick for measuring the extent to which the fashion world has veered into almost psychotic lunacy.

Of course, no one in Paris really dresses in this boudoir-cum-intensive-care-unit style. Fashion has always been another world, if not downright otherworldly. ("Women are apparitions," Guy Laroche says in a full-page ad in Le Monde, perhaps by way of explanation.) Still, socio-anthropological speculation aside, one wonders not only who buys these vestments but how women actually sit, lean over or disrobe without inflicting physical harm on themselves or innocent bystanders. One wonders how many French women actually fit into the thimble-size, breastless (whatever happened to darts?) body suits, prosthetic armaments or bust-breaking bodices revamped for the '90s? One wonders who, besides France's first lady, Bernadette Chirac, actually buys a new $3,000 Dior handbag in an array of new, minty colors? To find out, I made my way to avenue Montaigne, where the sovereign kings of haute couture have taken up residence like so many houses of lords.

Avenue Montaigne is as dynamic as a still life. Even the traffic, normally in a state of frenzied chaos with pileups all over Paris, seems to mysteriously thin out and slow down there, as if it's a different high-density gravitational field. I went to the houses of Chanel, Dior and Nina Ricci to see how many people actually shopped there. The answer, it seems, is not many. Every store was absolutely desolate. A lone security guard looked on as a tiny, frail woman examined a tiny, frail watch in a near-empty Chanel boutique. Dior featured a variation on the theme of its basic handbag (its padded square patterns have always reminded me of La-Z-Boy lounge chairs) as well as an assortment of dresses-that-are-anything-but, i.e., assemblages made of what appeared to be upholstery swatches, shag carpet, Native American bone and bead decorations, macrami, rubber ribbings. The colors, like the women who'd wear such get-ups, scream for attention: hysterical fuchsias, maddening magentas and canary yellows. The showroom has the literal and allegorical stuffiness of a taxidermist's boutique, reminding me of the confused and encumbered chameleon in Eric Carle's children's story, "The Mixed-Up Chameleon" -- who, with his elephant head, seal flippers, giraffe neck, turtle shell and antlers, was "a little of this, a little of that." Foot traffic here was nonexistent.

Still wondering where all the orthopedic gear and baby-doll dresses were, I crossed the street to Nina Ricci, with its prominent display of Day-Glo purses in the form of tugboats, lounge chairs, watering cans, telephones and flowerpots. At roughly $2,000 a pop, nobody was buying. Then again, no one was there to buy.

What's going on here? According to France's Nouvel Observateur, Dior's sales rose in the first six months of this year by 76 percent in France, 41 percent in Europe and 48 percent in America (dipping a mere 3 to 5 percent in Asia despite the crisis). But that was a mere blip, due in large measure to the arrival at Dior of fashion deviationist John Galliano, in an otherwise bleaker picture. Just three months ago haute couture tailors took to the streets protesting job losses and boutique closings; it's been estimated that roughly one-third of haute couture jobs have been lost in the last decade. As the French grapple with massive unemployment, transportation and labor strikes, student protests and dwindling social benefits, has the furious and antic extravagance of French haute couture become somewhat of a joke?

Turns out, the fashion action was not far away at Galeries Lafayette, on the perennially congested boulevard Haussmann. Like many venerated but budget-strapped French institutions, Galeries Lafayette is a mix of the shabby and the elegant (a magnificent iron and stained-glass dome, on the one hand; stairwells and lighting fixtures that haven't been retouched since the Allied invasion of Normandy, on the other). It has the slightly chaotic, colorful disorder of a child's room. This week the street was celebrating spring collections by opening its runways to young (read: unknown) designers, and a sea of people had come for a peek. Despite the decor (black-light glow, interstellar tinklings piped in from hidden speakers, mannequins rising out of blasted swamps, cattails and all), the atmosphere was decidedly down-to-earth. The models were young, a little inexperienced and clearly having a good time; they sported ready-to-wear pants and skirts with "military allure" and names like "Free," "Happy Wear," "Very Happy," and "Miss Sixty." If this gear, in its various shades of gray and khaki, and the crowds who came to see it are any indication, spring '99 will be much more ordinary and typically unisex than the high priests of haute couture would have us believe. For most of us, it will be about dressing for the tribulations of urban life (which in the case of Paris means downpours, metros, cobblestones and dog shit). Jeans, it seems, will remain a staple for men and women alike.

It's sad that the tautology of French haute couture has eclipsed what is by far France's greatest contribution to fashion: denim. Originally called "bleu de Nnmes," denim was a fabric from the French town of Nnmes. Imported by Levi Strauss in the late 1800s, denim became the foundation for the pants with metal rivets (put in vulnerable spots for miners who needed strong, sturdy pants) that would become an unrivaled, universal fashion staple for millions of men and women, and remain so for nearly 150 years. I'm reminded, however, that it wasn't until the late '60s that girls were allowed the right to wear jeans in public school. Jeans! Incredulous, on the first day the policy change was official, I went to elementary school in a dress with my jeans (an egregious pair of purple bell-bottoms) in a paper bag just in case the whole thing -- the opening of the portals of fashion freedom, girls unbound by the constraints of dainty dresses and uncomfortable skirts, license to explore new rough-and-tumble worlds, the birth of a true unisex revolution -- was some kind of a joke.

It wasn't.

Debra S. Ollivier

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