Rei Kawakubo showed her latest Comme Des Garcons collection in the Palais de la Femme - you don't need to be a translator to work out that means the Palace of Woman. That was an decidedly out-of-character clue as to the nature of Kawakubo's latest offering - another exploration, amongst very many this season, on the nature of femininity through pomp, circumstance, and the trappings of traditional feminine attire. Of course, it was the season's finest and most compelling.
Kawakubo's first model emerged dressed in a capacious white satin gown, hands bound in front of her with an enormous bow. That's pretty potent symbolism - a woman trapped by her attire, trapped by her femininity in fact. The collection ran through a gamut of feminine references, all white - cage crinolines imprisoning the body, bouquets of white flowers smothering arms or nestled around the opening of capes. Sometimes those bouquets rose up and devoured an entire silhouette, smothering the body from head to foot. Those looks were reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent's 1965 'Russian Doll' bridal dress - in fact, there was a touch of sixties couture to much of these clothes, sleeves belling grandly and tumbling to the floor in thick satin damask or silk gazar. I say sixties couture but they could easily be ecclesiastical vestments. Ironic that Kawakubo sends women out in papal robes: even with female priests, that's one role women will probably always be barred from.
The simple-minded take-away here was that white was the new black. That's a statement Kawakubo could love or loathe, but its interesting that just as she transformed black into the colour of fashion in the early eighties, today she transformed white from the ceremonial to the everyday, and from something sweet to something sinister. There were echoes of the Ku Klux Klan in pointed satin hoods - maybe they were unintentional, but anyone with a toe in popular culture would allay them. At the end, Kawakubo's femininity became destroyed and destructive, graffiti defacing white satin coats and finally enormous gowns pilling over the models, mountains of silk ruffles, lace and corsages of milky flowers obscuring them entirely except for clasped hands. The prison of femininity.
But is it a prison? Kawakubo explored the idea of women being engulfed by these symbolic garments, but they were also loaded with protection. After all, a woman swathed in pellucid satin from head to foot is untouchable, both in the sense that her body cannot be accessed and in the sense that nothing can be permitted to defile the creamy material. Those dresses sometimes had the feelings of a plaster cast - you can't get more impregnable than that. The hats, bubbling around the head, occasionally swallowing it in its entirety, were crosses between powdered Marie Antoinette coiffures and helmets.
Kawakubo's women did not seem like victims of defilement - they were victims to their clothes, surrendering to femininity (isn't white the colour of surrender too?). But maybe that isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps a truly feminist point of view is to allow women to be fragile, to embrace the feminine, without necessarily giving up their strength. That comes back to the Palais de la Femme - a Salvation Army building that offers refuge to women and children. Rei Kawakubo's fashion did the same.