Op-Ed: Chanel and How We Talk About Haute Couture

Chanel and How We Talk About Haute Couture

By Morgan Glines

Surprisingly, Chanel has turned out some of the most controversial collections of the last few seasons. A contentious Chanel collection is surprising enough, but the reason these collections have caused a stir was even more so. They weren’t divisive because the skirts were exceptionally short. They haven’t been theatrical. The clothes weren’t inaccessible, at least not aesthetically. Their Couture outings for the last few seasons have been controversial, because they have been, frankly a bit bland.

So, what makes a bland show controversial? Up until relatively recently the mark of a good Couture show was how spectacular it was. The best show had the most dramatic hair and makeup, the most embroidery, the biggest skirts, and the most challenging new ideas. The worst thing you could say about a Couture show was that it was bland or boring. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “I thought the collection was hideous, but at least it wasn’t boring.” That’s changing and for good reason.

A lot of proverbial ink has been spilled over the increasing number of women at the helms of large legacy brands. What hasn’t been discussed as much is how that demographic shift isn’t just a win for diversity. Women finally having a meaningful voice at the Couture table is pretty novel, and the stylistic shift is practically seismic.

It’s easy to argue that Couture has always been about women, and to some extent it has. It’s been about Joan of Arc, both pre and post-immolation. Take your pick. Hazy visions of Marlene Dietrich. Josephine Baker glittering as Princess Tam Tam. Marchesa Casati, again you have a choice. Swathed in furs and silks, or shrouded in rags. Visually compelling either way. You could have had Marie Antoinette and a coterie of other members of the l’Ancien Règime marching defiantly towards the guillotine. Very chic before, during, and after execution. Name a historically significant woman and she’s probably been on the mood board for a season’s Couture collection. What these women have in common though is that none of them are living, breathing women, wearing Couture today.

With women leading some of the world’s most significant Couture houses, real women are taking center stage. (And I don’t mean “real women” as an euphemism for size fourteen. I mean, actual, living, physical women, which is arguably more groundbreaking today.) Couture is increasingly not about fetishizing hyperbolic goddesses, and increasingly about empowering women who both wear and make the clothes. The heads of Chanel’s ateliers have been women since time immemorial, and that won’t change anytime soon. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s quest to elevate historically female handicrafts the world over must be the most noble cause we’ve seen in fashion since the industry embraced AIDS awareness, and the craftsmanship is better for it. Couture today is also about embracing women and giving women what they actually want.

So, what do women actually want? I’m not a woman, so I’m only going to speak in very general terms here. I know enough women to have a decent handle on what they generally want, but I don’t claim to speak for all women. Having said that, as a whole, women want things like functional pockets, dresses that don’t need to be literally glued to their bodies, gowns that don’t leave bruises, skirts they can sit down in, clothes they can wear more than once, bodices that don’t require underwires that could probably lift a small car. Things like that. All pretty boring requests. In short, they want clothes they can live in. And that’s what they’re getting. Whether that makes for compelling Couture is debatable, but if you’re not buying the clothes, your opinion may not carry very much weight.

We need to stop measuring Couture collections by how extravagant, or emotive they are and pause for a moment to think about the actual women who are wearing the clothes. Showmanship died with McQueen, and in this day and age, we can’t be wasting thousands of yards of fabric on clothes that will either never be worn at all, or only be worn once. The era of Couture as spectacle produced some staggeringly beautiful clothing, but much like the Golden Age of Couture in the 50s, that era is over. It has long been said that the Couture sets the tone for the rest of the industry, and while the truth of that axiom is debatable, the message the Couture has been sending with increasing force is, “Listen to women.”

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