If you're tracing back the history of haute couture, it really all began not with Charles Frederick Worth and the Empress Eugenie in the nineteenth century, but with Rose Bertin and Marie Antoinette in the eighteenth. The queen and her 'Minister of Fashion' concocted pastoral trifles for her royal highness to play at shepherdess in her toy village at the bottom of Versailles gardens. That was fashion as roleplaying tool - it was also about conspicuous leisure, or rather leisure's conspicuous display.
The first ensemble at Valentino was called 'Hameau'. It was a froth of chiffon speckled with a clover print. The second was titled 'Watteau', its blouse draping into a sack-back reminiscent of an eighteenth-century robe a la Francaise. The third was 'Fragonard', the fourth 'Polignac.' Suddenly, we were back in Versailles playing make-believe with Marie Antoinette. The fifth was 'Trianon', printed with a watery eighteenth-century toile de jouy. It all sounds terribly chi-chi, a rococo bon-bon of frou-frou for indulgent fancy-dress. But that would do a great disservice to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, and to their ever-progressive vision for the house of Valentino.
You scribbled down 'Marie Antoinette', but it was merely a mood of the eighteenth century that informed these clothes. There wasn't a touch of stuffiness, or structure, or stricture. Embellishment, by and large, was created from the fabric itself, whirling ruches and puckered seaming spiralling in arabesques across bodices and around hemlines. Openwork seams were outlined with scallops of cloth, sometimes faggotted like corset-lacing down the arms, and lace was employed like embroidery, sliced out and appliqued to spiderweb tulle blouses.
That weightlessness was part of Chiuri and Piccioli's enormous achievement in keeping this exercise in unabashed romanticism reverential but never too referential. Haute couture still has power because it is a window into the past. It's living history - but it can never be allowed to live in the past. Despite those echoes of Louis XVI, this collection never felt like an excursion into court costume - a path it could so easily have trodden when crystal curlicues echoed Verbeckt's gilded carvings. But those embellished blouses were paired with narrow trousers, knotted with a simple bow, or came as brief dresses sliced at the knee with a ruffle of movement. When a milk, passementerie-crusted cape slipped out over an ivory trouser-suit and lace slippers, it seemed like the rococo leapt back to relevance.
Relevant. That's a fitting summary for Chiuri and Piccioli's Valentino collection. It seems scant praise indeed, but in a couture season that oscillates between the grand gesture and whispering that wouldn't even resonate at ready-to-wear, it's the highest of accolades - and completely deserved. There was nothing that didn't feel perfectly pitched and precisely right for the here-and-now. This wasn't just reinvention or revival, but a reinvigoration, not just of Versailles but of Valentino. It was the high moment of the couture season.