‘A certain degree of mysticism’… Disney+’s Cristóbal Balenciaga.Photo: David Herranz/Disney+
Couture and public transport have little in common, but the adage that you wait ages for a bus and then three come at once has a current crossover. In January, a drama series about Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga and his 30 years working in Paris premiered on Disney+. Following closely is the Apple TV+ drama The New Look, out this week, which chronicles Christian Dior and his contemporaries as they navigate World War II. Later this year, Daniel Brühl (Good Bye, Lenin!, All Quiet on the Western Front) will play Karl Lagerfeld in a series given the working title Kaiser Karl, charting the late designer’s rise to fame in Paris. In the seventies.
It’s striking that an abundance of TV, not just about fashion, but about the rarefied world of high fashion, should pave a course for our screens in such a short space of time. On the one hand, the reasons why are clear: the characters are colorful and complicated and the clothes are beautiful. There are big egos and even bigger hats, era-defining cuts and cutting rivalries. But then again, if it was so obvious, why didn’t it happen sooner?
This kind of fashion TV feels like a departure. From America’s Next Top Model to Project Runway and Next in Fashion, fashion on television has often meant reality lately. Or what fashion writer Justine Picardie summarizes as “shiny Saturday night TV”, talk shows and Strictly, which is not ostensibly about fashion, but about dressing up. This new wave, she says, gives us “beauty and magic in a different way.”
The subject of mid-century fashion in this new series fits with what Helen Warner, associate professor at the University of East Anglia and author of Fashion on Television, sees as a “more general preoccupation with this period in terms of fashion history. . We have evolved from society’s elites dictating style, as was the case in the 19th century, to a system in which specific designers define trends,” she says. “There’s a mythology around it and a certain amount of mystique around these figures.”
They are also household names. Take Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She is, says Picardie, who spent a decade researching her for a 2010 book called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, “one of the most famous figures in the world when it comes to women.” Christian Dior, meanwhile, was “not only the most famous Frenchman in the world,” but in the aftermath of World War II “his name would probably have been even more recognizable than Charles De Gaulle or Jean-Paul Sartre, because he is driving this huge economic boom.”
Then there’s the fact that not only were they big names, but many of them were also big characters. Take Chanel again. It’s no surprise that The New Look, a show whose name comes from the sartorial revolution that Dior inspired in post-World War II Paris, is as much about her as it is about him. “She’s an incredible character,” Picardie says. She adds spice, glamor and questionable ethics to Balenciaga and The New Look, with the complicated portrayal of her collaboration with the Nazis making for difficult ratings. In one scene in The New Look, a perfectly cast Juliette Binoche downs cocktails and shoots out funny lines as she sits next to Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS, at a dinner party.
These new shows emphasize what many fashion fans have long known: that fashion is intrinsically shaped by its social, historical and political context. But also that it shapes it. Once again Chanel is a fitting example. “She influenced modernism,” says Picardie. “Picasso called her the most intelligent woman in Europe. She expressed modernism through clothing.” She rose to fame during World War I, “when women first entered the workforce,” and changed the way women dressed. “She gave herself dignity [when] women did not have the sartorial dignity that men got through tailoring.”
However, we cannot fool ourselves that it is purely about historical depth. The public is curious. “Of course we will be watching them for the human interaction and the portrayal of the highs and lows of a kind of success that few of us know. But we also like a bit of tabloid sensation,” says fashion and identity commentator Caryn Franklin – a former host of The Clothes Show who knows fashion on the small screen. It shows us, she says, that “most of the time they were just like us: sometimes great, often very competitive and insecure, and occasionally badly behaved, but all the while better styled and much better connected to stylish people than we are.” .’
As for the timing of all this, Warner notes that peaks in fashion film and television often coincide with times of economic crisis. She points to a series of Hollywood films made during the Great Depression, such as Mannequin and Stolen Holiday, which were “designed to facilitate tie-ins with department stores” in an effort to boost the economy. “Right now we are in a cost of living crisis And climate emergency. Given that the fashion industry’s contribution to global emissions is well documented, I wouldn’t discount the idea that these shows are partly a reaction, and partly an attempt to control the fashion industry’s image. ”
Related: ‘They caused chaos, went viral and created a sell-out buzz’: the rise and fall of fashion house Balenciaga
Trade greases the wheels. These big brands have huge social media followings: Dior has 46 million, Chanel 60 million and Balenciaga a more modest 14 million. Television types will no doubt be wise to these statistics. “They’re a big cultural phenomenon,” says Picardie, “so maybe the commissioning editors at the major media streaming services thought, ‘Obviously people are interested.’” If any of them are tempted to dig a little deeper into them going back to the Napoleonic era, which provided the backdrop to Louis Vuitton’s life, they might be interested to hear that his eponymous brand now has more than 55 million followers on Instagram.
Picardie points out the effect of The Crown. It was wildly popular and “showed that people might be interested in a different, alternative view of history.” In The Crown, history is viewed through the ‘prism of the British royal family’. In this new series of shows, history is viewed through the prism of haute couture. Why not use people like Chanel, an incredibly complex, sharp-tongued and charismatic character, as a lens through which to retell a chapter of history that has been told many times before? Or Balenciaga, whose camera shyness has made him something of an enigma, in stark contrast to the stunt-y, virus-hungry clothing of current Balenciaga brand.
In both cases, the lens alternates between zooming in on the details (the royal family and the fashion world respectively) and zooming out, giving us the bigger picture. In The Crown there are episodes exploring the moon landings and the Aberfan disaster; in Balenciaga and The New Look we get a look at life in Paris under the Nazi occupation. Primarily through the character of Catherine Dior, Christian’s sister, The New Look delves into the story of the French Resistance, with Catherine’s part leading to her arrest in the French capital in 1944, before being tortured and transported to the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp . .
This does not happen in a cultural vacuum. These stories are also told in museums and galleries around the world. Women Dressing Women, which showcases the work of French couturiers alongside contemporary designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Simone Rocha, is now on display at the Met in New York, while in Paris the Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibits the fantastic designs of Iris van Herpen. until April. It follows blockbuster exhibitions at the V&A. “The Dior show was their biggest and most successful [fashion] show of all time, and that includes Chanel – the tickets sold out in two days,” says Picardie. Bina Daigeler’s costumes from the Balenciaga show were even made into an exhibition in Madrid and, she says, there were long queues. “It was so busy that it couldn’t just be people interested in fashion – so many came.”
If you look at fashion now, this can also provide clues. We are in the grip of fast, even hyper-fast fashion. Supercharged e-tailer Shein can choose, manufacture and mail a product to customers in less than three weeks. The arduous and slow process of couture, on the other hand, can take months. Daigeler thinks the beauty of this process and its fruits play a role. In a world where fast fashion is the norm, “I think somehow it now makes it interesting for people to look at what haute couture was.”
In a sense, the real question might be: why has it taken so long for these designers to take their place on the small screen? “These are interesting figures who have been sidelined and ignored,” says Picardie, whose initial research for Miss Dior, a book about Catherine Dior, in 2011 met with no interest, even though the book would become a bestseller upon publication in the US . 2021. “It’s only now that other forms of the wider culture are saying, ‘Oh yeah, maybe it’s worth doing this – there will be an audience.’”
But for all the theorizing, there is also a certain magic in these moments when culture comes together. Daigeler has seen it before. When she was working on Mrs America, Hulu’s miniseries about feminism activist Gloria Steinem, a Steinem film was also in the works. “I think it’s often just a coincidence.” As she puts it, “I don’t know if it’s just something in the air.”