It’s nearly all black. Who’s in mourning?
We’re thinking Federico García Lorca and his house of women, but this setting is, of course, less rural, and could be set in the home of the 1% in Spain or outside. Even eastwards, all the way to Russia, never mind if the interior could be the set of Sleepy Hollow. As it turns out, our overactive imagination is not on the same wavelength as Maria Grazia Chiuri’s.
She is contemplating another writer, the Austrian-American Bernard Rudofsky—not nearly the contemporary of Mr Lorca, but certainly of Christian Dior. Reportedly, Ms Churia has been reading the essay Are Clothes Modern? that Mr Rudofsky wrote in 1947, the year Christian Dior himself created what would be dubbed the New Look. The prose came after a 1944 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name that was curated by Mr Rudofsky, an architect, then also known in fashion circles as a “a sandal designer” for his Bernardo sandals (variant of Bernard again!) that appeared in 1946.
Like Mr Rudofsky, Ms Chiuri is a questioner. She is partial to questions to which she has vague responses, or no answers (such as last spring/summer’s “Why have there been no great women artists?”). She does not use clothes to reply to the posers she put out, usually across the chest, in the tradition of the slogan tee, which has become sort of a tradition for Ms Chiuri at Dior since the beginning of her tenure in 2016. Still, Ms Chiuri is a late entrant among the many women designers who have used the bodice as a screen for their own social and political convictions—Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett were two of the earliest, if we recall correctly.
Ms Chiuri’s question this season—her first for the couture—appeared in the first outfit, a draped covering (with a T-shirt neckline) that looks like a toile of a dress, but is, in fact, a peplos, the body-length one-piece that women of ancient Greece typically wore. The rest of the clothes are a complete departure from this, which appears to act like an intertitle—those worded narration printed on screens, used between scenes in silent films, except that the dresses that follow don’t seem to answer the question. We can’t see the point of the peplos.
What’s notable is how monochromatic this collection looks, so black, in fact, that the darkness of the clothes and the atmosphere of the show are positively funereal. We are not sure if women go to couture houses for mourning clothes. Perhaps they do… for threads to attend the memorial service of a fallen dynasty? Or, an anointed individual? Frankly, we don’t know.
Everything, to us, are evocative of widows’ weeds (from the old English ‘waed’, meaning garments), including what could be ‘weeping veils’ (the netting now a signature?), perhaps even reflecting Ms Chiuri’s own Italian sartorial heritage: the appeal of the Sicilian widow (on that note, the Spaniard, too), an image so powerful in its dark austerity and severe elegance that it’s been used in films, as well as clothing designs, especially those of Dolce & Gabbana. Upon closer look, the dresses are supremely detailed—every couture technique available is applied, but what stands out is their serious lack of joy. Or, perhaps Ms Chiuri, too, desires what Bernada Alba wanted the outside world to see: “the perfect picture of grief”.
Some, instead, see a goth who found glamour. Ms Chiuri alluded to that when she told the press that “I am Generation Black”. Christian Dior himself is partial to this darkest of colours—so all-ages, so every-occasion, so multi-purpose that he once stated that he “could write a book about black”. However black Ms Chiuri’s collection is, it is not an opportunity to surprise couture watchers and customers with unexpected expressions, the way a group of Japanese designers did in the early ’80s in Paris. Could black be a convenient way to avoid consulting the colour wheel or Pantone’s staggering chart? Or, to stand apart from her former co-designer Pierpaolo Piccioli?
The dresses have been compared to gladiators’ garb, but they could be what you see in the sorrowful court of Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert (the extravagant mourning clothes were not only trendy in England, they crossed the Atlantic and found likes among the society women in the US). Ms Chiuri adores a certain silhouette and the placement of sheer against opaque; she finds herself repeating the adoration as if she has forgotten that she’s now working with the maison’s petite mains. And all featuring waists that would have benefitted Kim Kardashian’s upcoming ‘Solutionwear’. Predictable are the one-shoulders and the wide V-necks. Annoying is the umpteenth appearance of the sheer skirt under which shorts/underpants peek. Curious are the ancient Egyptian usekh (or wesekh) collars that most recently first appeared in Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show that Karl Lagerfeld presented for pre-fall 2019!
If the first outfit was pointless, the last was even more so. The final model came out wearing a house-for-a-dress that we later learned is an actual doll house made to look like the façade of Dior‘s HQ, 30 Avenue Montaigne, created by the set (“scenography”) designer Penny Slinger. Never mind that the dress came unhinged as the model walked on—it appears that the House of Bernarda Alba reference may be quite apt after all. It does look like a casa that the matriarch would keep her daughters captive. Mr Lorca would have appreciated Maria Grazia Chiuri’s imagery: home as lockup. Or the body confined by couture?