Book Review: Couture Culture

Paul Poiret was a designer before there were designers. He left the conventional dressmakers’ alley behind and built a studio out on the margins, knowing that over time this difference would draw his clientele to him. He added the decorative arts to the realm of design – so that not only the dress, but the chair, and the draperies, and the perfume bottle were necessarily fashionable. Poiret was an early master in the modern art of cross marketing. In Couture Culture, Nancy Troy does an analysis of the texts – articles, reviews, advertisements – about Poiret and couture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She wants to step away from visual analysis of the clothes, or of their representation in art, to look at the “logic of fashion.” A logic that she promises will emerge “as a mechanism for understanding the impact of commercial considerations in fine art.”

Troy sashays through fashion’s logic at the turn of the century, and does a turn with high art, Orientalism,and the theater. All the while she keeps an eye on how these scenes are making waves, and building mass markets for fashion. She shows how Poiret identifies himself as an artist, and at the same time uses the exclusiveness and elitism that comes with his high art performance as a marketing strategy. It was, for a while, highly successful. As French couture ran up against the American mass market for fashion and the subsequent need for mechanized production, his tactics were put under serious pressure. Troy’s research from the period shows Poiret becoming increasingly adamant and even materialistic about protecting his style and his status. His Orientalist pants, for example, could not, must not, be understood as liberating garments for the modern woman. According to Poiret’s dictates, the first-ever trendy women’s pants were just another symbol of exclusivity. The balloon shaped trousers were only for the highest class of women to wear indoors, at private parties, in tasteful, ladylike environments.

He made clothes women loved, but you have to wonder why. One of Poiret’s earliest design successes was his Directoire style gown, which required the woman to wear a corset that stretched almost to the knee. After the success and scandal of his Oriental pants, he returned to this extreme, restrictive style with the Hobble skirt (an innovation Troy does not mention, by the way) nicknamed for it’s dramatically tapered shape towards the ankle. A bit on describes it best: “To increase the hobble effect women needed to wear a ‘fetter’, a kind of bondage belt that held the ankles together and prevented the wearer from making any movements other than small steps in imitation of Geisha girls. The hobble skirt was probably Poiret’s last real success as new designers like Chanel and Lanvin opened up Fashion Houses and began to design unrestrictive clothes that women really felt comfortable wearing.”

Poiret became a little insane as his celebrity status was waning. He built an entirely inflatable Oriental-flavored night club, and then handed out feedback forms to his patrons to find out why so few people came and even fewer came back. Eventually he was maneuvered out of his own company by shareholders and CEOs concerned with the effect of his missteps on their bottom line.

The problem with Couture Culture emerges for me early on, when Troy writes: “I treat Paul Poiret in particular as a symptom of the contradictory forces that shaped cultural production, distribution, and consumption across the visual and performing arts at a time when anonymous production was placing enormous pressure on the creative individual.” Poiretgot tangled up trying to control how he was perceived once his dresses were made by machines. His anxieties ate up his artistry and it became difficult for him to see the people he was making clothing for. In this respect, Troy’s subject matter is definitely fascinating. But reading Poiret as a symptom, rather than an identity being shaped, makes a metaphor that oversimplifies the processes at work. The story Troy unfolds about Paul Poiret is interesting, telling of the tensions and cultural revolutions of the period, and even moving. But as the focus is so resolutely kept on just one tension (original vs. reproduction), and a limited exploration of even that, I was left wanting more questions answered. Questions about the fear and seduction of the copy, about loss of control and how we adapt it.

Troy does theorize her way toward the more complex (if by now kind of conventional) questions of modernity – about traditional orders and sacred narratives breaking down beneath the weight of new technology. And she applies this questioning to the act of making clothes; but not to the fact of loving them. I think she may be on to something fascinating, maybe even a new way of understanding art, modernization, and identities, but Couture Culture leaves me wondering whether Troy herself believes it.

Couture Culture by Nancy J. Troy, MIT Press, 2003
Reviewed by Risa Dickens (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 1)

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