Today I had a morning lesson in the dress archives at the V&A. I arrived at the museum a little bit early, though, so I could steal some time with Vivienne Westwood's "Watteau" gown, currently on display in the fashion court. This dress is a monument, an epic restructuring of history. I wrote a little bit about it this term:
In describing women dressed in the tunics and harem pants of Paul Poiret, Paris 1914 immediately comes to mind. Thoughts of miniskirts conjure up photographs of Mary Quant-clad girls lining Carnaby Street in 1960s London. But what is to be gained from the symbiotic relationship between fashion and history? In a way, the exercise illustrates a sort of hegemonic acceptance of simplified histories.
Such a broad, hyper-encapsulating vision of fashion’s historical position is deceptive, as a touchstone of dress history is the understanding of its cyclical nature. A successful fashion historian is aware of the ease with which we can succumb to sweeping generalizations of time and place. It is also imperative to study designers whose work is defiant to the constraints of history, who happily accept flux and change . Any successful designer or dress historian must also work as a historiographer of fashion, questioning the intellectual integrity of how we style ourselves.
The basic historiography of fashion theory examines relationships between current trends and their historical counterparts. No designer exemplifies this archivist’s approach to fashion better than Dame Vivienne Westwood. Westwood routinely uses history both as a catalogue of tangible patterns and tailoring guides as well as a source for intellectual and conceptual material.Westwood’s stimulus is always academic, and her work is born out of research, not trends. Each successive season, her collections declare that in order to invent, you have to build on conventions and subvert them. Her belief in the power of design stems from this trust in the potency of history.
The great apex of Westwood’s historiographical approach to fashion is best observed in her Spring/Summer 1996 collection, Les Femmes ne Connaissent pas toute leur Coquetterie ('Women do not understand the full extent of their coquettishness'). For Les Femmes, Westwood studied the extremes of dress history with body extensions such as padded busts and hips and metal cage bustles. She created exaggerated hourglass silhouettes and drew inspiration from court portraits of Madame de Pompadour and Queen Marie Antoinette. The display evoked the overall extremes of Westwood’s reliance on the past as an image bank.
The most memorable piece from the collection, and the gown which perhaps epitomises Westwood’s application of history, is the sumptuous, strapless, sack-back “Watteau” evening dress of tumbling green and lilac silk taffeta. This dress brought these exaggerations together in an unmistakably contemporary statement, and wholly sums up Westwood’s approach to high fashion. Alison Goodrum describes the gown in her book The National Fabric:
I vividly remember the first time I came across...Westwood’s “Watteau” dress, a stunning emerald-coloured evening gown made of shot silk and trimmed with lilac taffeta...As with other collections, Westwood was inspired by Jean Antoine Watteau’s paintings of the early eighteenth century and sought to adapt and interpret the featured costume of the rococo period within her own creations. For me, the resulting gown, breathtaking in colour, shape and form, was an unforgettable baptism into the flamboyance and theatre of the fashion world. The acres of fabric that went to make the dress, together with the sophisticated historical references that were its inspiration, created an incredibly dramatic effect, despite the rather subdued setting of the dimly lit museum gallery. Vivienne Westwood’s “Watteau” gown typified my own idea of what haute couture looked like—breathtakingly elegant, stylish and exquisitely crafted.
The “Watteau” gown is perhaps Westwood’s most conspicuous art-historical allusion - the green silk taffeta dress is now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it has become a favourite showpiece. The gown induces the pleasure and sexuality of Watteau’s painted women, stressing the importance of flirtation, the opulence of the material and the creation of the ideal female form through structure. In one iconic green gown, Westwood sums up entire dress histories, past and present.