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Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion

In 1863, Charles Baudelaire located a set of markers for modernity in the fugitive aspects of fashion and urged the modern artist "to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distill the eternal from the transitory." (1) Since that date, Baudelaire's modernity has been subjected to relentless critical rethinking as discussion about modernity, modernism, and their relationship to a recognizably "modern" art in the 19th and 20th centuries has been profoundly reshaped by ideological struggles within, and without, academic institutions, particularly after World War II. (2) Although the concept of modernism, at least since the 1960s, has provided a (sometimes controlling) framework through which to evaluate and assess certain aspects of 20th-century cultural production, its exclusions, as Peter Wollen and others have remarked, have become legendary. (3) Notable among those exclusions is fashion, displaced from the central position Baudelaire assigned it and typically dismissed in dominant accounts of early-20th-century art as, in Nancy Troy's words, "superficial, fleeting and feminized" (p. 2). Marginalized in histories of modern art, when not ignored altogether, the study of fashion has largely been left to costume historians (except where artists took up its design and/or production), costume institutes, and museum exhibitions that often reinforce a narrow linking of art and fashion around "garments designed by artists or clothing that qualifies as art" (p. 3). (4)

Since the 1970s, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and gender studies have contributed important models for exploring fashion as a cultural and performative expression of the female subject, as well as a site for renegotiations of gender and sexual identity. The publication in 1993 of historian Mary Louise Roberts's groundbreaking essay "Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Fashion in 1920s France" exposed the profound ideological and political effects of social debates that implicated modern fashion in representations of gender, sexuality, and nationalism. Roberts's essay, part of a larger study of gender in post-World War I France, has informed a number of art historical investigations into relationships between fashion, gender, sexuality, and modernity in Europe and in Russia during the interwar period, including recent work by Tag Gronberg, Maria Makela, Christina Kiaer, myself, and others. (5) Much of that work on the post-World War I period has focused on the 1920s, when modern art and modern design shared a distinct and discernible stylistic vocabulary and the so-called new woman emerged to stake out a territory that included the representation of the modern lesbian. This emphasis has tended to deflect attention away from the historical significance of the French clothing industry and its commercial interests in shaping discourses of modernity in the period before and during World War I, the subject of Nancy Troy's new book. Troy's book is not about gender per se, though gender is everywhere inscribed in the objects of her investigation. Instead, Troy maps a set of previously unexplored parallel structures that existed between modern fashion and modern art in the years before and during World War I. The result is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature that addresses the discursive role of modern fashion in shaping the cultural landscape of modernity in early-20th-century Europe and North America. (6) More than that, in shifting the emphasis away from the more easily recognizable tropes of modernity embedded in a wide range of artistic and design practices in the 1920s, it represents a pioneering attempt to expose a deeper structural relationship between modern art and modern fashion during a formative period in the consolidation of vanguard culture.

The title of Troy's book, Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion, situates her investigation of an alternative conceptual model linking the domains of art and fashion (one not necessarily accessible through even a rigorous formal analysis). Setting aside the conventional linking of artists and couturiers (Salvador Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli, for example), she instead concentrates on the commercial practices of Paul Poiret, the most successful leader in the field of innovative fashion design before World War I, and the artistic practices of Marcel Duchamp, the "father" of the readymade. Her intention is to unveil a logic shared by both modern fashion and modern art: the tension between reverence for the unique original and a growing need for mass-produced copies. The contradiction that emerges at the heart of the fashion system when the "(supposedly) unique and auratic object ... is subjected to the conditions of mass consumption in an industrialized economy" finds a parallel in the problem faced by the modern artist who embraces uniqueness and originality but whose market depends on establishing the work in relation to others like it, and distinct from everything else (p. 334). For Troy, both fashion and fine art in the modern period require "an audience, a discourse, a profile in the public sphere," and her interest lies in their formation and elaboration across a range of cultural practices (p. 335). In her quest to locate and explicate the sources of these defining structures, her intellectual journey ranges widely as she investigates relations between elite and popular cultures, the professional theater and the fashion show, the couture house and the art gallery, the fashion industry's mass-produced patterns and the artist's reproductive copies.

The book is organized into four discrete but linked chapters that begin with a summary of the origins of haute couture in France during the second half of the 19th century. By elevating, professionalizing (and masculinizing) the dressmaking profession, Charles Frederick Worth transformed the luxury commodity into a work of art through its identification with his signature, paralleling the artist's transmutation of material reality into art under the sign of a named individual. Despite fashion's growing reliance on methods and procedures more common to industrial production and distribution than to traditional art making, the importance of the couture label, signifying a value based on exclusiveness, encouraged the couturier to conceive himself as an "artist." By 1892, when Worth was photographed by Nadar in a pose familiar from Rembrandt's self-portraits, the transformation of the successful businessman into the great artist had become a model for a subsequent generation of couturiers--including Jacques Doucet, Jeanne Paquin, and Paul Poiret--who secured their status as fine artists and connoisseurs through a series of strategies that blurred the lines between art and commerce and that often included amassing significant collections of historical and modern art. Worth, Doucet, Paquin, and Poiret were all coilectors, through at times, and in ways familiar from the recent excursions of Dennis Kowalski, Kenneth Lay, and other Wall Street moguls into art collecting, image building appears to have trumped personal taste, as was the case in 1924 when Doucet, at Andre Breton's urging, acquired Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, a work for which he expressed little interest, or even liking, for his private collection.

The relation between commerce and art in the years leading up to World War I was further compounded by Poiret's reliance on art ist friends for graphics and commercial announcements for his business, as well as by his staging of a series of elaborate private fetes beginning in 1911 that secured his reputation as a modern-day Suleyman the Magnificent and contributed to his public image as a man who shaped the taste of his time. Poiret's patronage in turn expanded the professional contacts of the artists he patronized (he was responsible for launching Raoul Dufy's career as a textile designer), led to his acquisition of their work for his personal collection, and resulted in one or two exhibitions a year in a commercial gallery that shared space with his business (the exhibition of the work of Robert Delaunay and Marie Laurencin that he organized in 1912 was the first large-scale showing for either). Despite this flurry of activity, the following year the couturier baldly declared, "I am not commercial. Ladies come to me for a gown as they go to a distinguished painter to get their portraits put on canvas. I am an artist not a dressmaker" (p. 47).

 
           
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