Essay: John Galliano - Modernity and Spectacle

by Caroline Evans on 2 March 2002

Fashion historian Caroline Evans unpicks John Galliano’s modern montage of references in this academic investigation of the spectacle of fashion.

Fashion historian Caroline Evans unpicks John Galliano’s modern montage of references in this academic investigation of the spectacle of fashion.

This paper starts by contrasting two sets of imagery: from the 1990s, the luxurious, opulent and theatrical fashion shows of the fashion designer John Galliano and, from the second half of the nineteenth-century, the fantasy displays, rides and optical illusions of the Parisian department store and world fair. Walter Benjamin described this technique as 'literary montage', and he wrote, perhaps disingenuously, 'I have nothing to say, only to show.'1 His intention was, however, that the images would do the talking, not singly but by virtue of their juxtaposition and arrangement. Benjamin's ideas offer art and design historians a complex and sophisticated model of how visual seduction works, because his ideas are predicated on an understanding of how visual similes function, something which other historians have not privileged. His method allows us to perceive similarities across periods apparently separated by rupture and discontinuity, and to plot historical time not as something that flows smoothly from past to present but as a more complex relay of turns and returns in which the past is activated by injecting the present into it.2

My own purpose, in juxtaposing images over a hundred years apart, is neither to pinpoint superficial stylistic similarities for their own sake, nor to make facile fin-de-siécle comparisons but, rather, to situate both sets of imagery within the context and tradition of modernity. In particular, I wonder whether it is possible to 'activate' the excess and opulence of nineteenth-century Parisian consumer culture by 'injecting' it with the excess and opulence of Galliano's contemporary designs. Both are visually similar, and both are dominated by the idea of woman as spectacle. Yet the considerable differences between their historical contexts suggest that the term 'modernity' might no longer apply to both, and that Galliano's designs should be analysed in the context of 'postmodernity'. Insofar as both moments encapsulate rapid technological change and social instability, parallels can be drawn; yet there are fundamental differences in the type of change and instability between both periods which also differentiate the effects of one from the other. Thus contemporary fashion is on the edge: of centuries, and of its own margins. Janus-headed, it looks simultaneously back (with nostalgia) and forward (with anxiety). Galliano is one of the former tendency whose work brilliantly sums up its paradoxes and contradictions; as such, his work is a significant marker of a wider cultural trend.

Galliano 1990s

'Native American', Nick Knight's image from the Past, Present & Couture series, shows a garment from the Christian Dior Autumn-Winter 1998 couture collection designed by John Galliano. Entitled A Voyage on the Diorient Express, or the Story of the Princess Pocahontas, it was shown in the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris, where the models arrived on a steam train while the audience were seated on sand-covered platforms decorated with huge bronze platters of spices to look like an oriental spice market or souk. As the visitors sat surrounded by canopies, potted palms, antique Louis Vuitton suitcases and Moroccan lanterns, consuming champagne and Turkish Delight, the train chuffed into the station and a model dressed as the Princess Pocahontas burst through a wall of orange paper at the front of the train. Only then did the train come to a halt and disgorge its cargo of models, dressed in a jumble of Native American and sixteenth-century European dress. The presentation and the majority of the garments were pure spectacle, such that the consequent press coverage was in fact rather critical of the designer for having substituted showmanship and pantomime for fashion design itself.3

The name Diorient Express stencilled onto the side of the train aptly suggested both Galliano's orientalism, which eclectically combined cultures, continents and centuries, and the disorienting effects of his showmanship. Although the Diorient Express show was, perhaps, his most excessive in terms of spectacular presentation it was far from the only one. Other shows were staged in a suburban sports stadium transformed into a forest scene with forty foot high spruce trees, the Paris Opéra converted into an English garden where the fashion photographers were given straw hats on entry, and the Carousel du Louvre, the official venue for the Paris collections, made over as a Manhattan rooftop scene, complete with battered chimney stacks, designed, like most of his shows, by the set designer Jean-Luc Ardouin. In every case, Galliano's transformation of a space involved effacing its real characteristics in the interests of imposing his fantasy vision on the space.

In keeping with the spectacular mis-en-scène of his shows of this period, each collection was based on a fantastical narrative. For example, in an earlier collection than the one illustrated, Pocahontas met Wallis Simpson in Paris, designed her own couture collection (which included beaded flapper dresses) and took it back to her tribe (the John Galliano Autumn/Winter 1996 collection); or, in the Suzy Sphinx show a punk schoolgirl who dreamt of cinema and ancient Egypt was taken from her English girl's school through Egypt to Hollywood where she starred as Cleopatra in a film, seated on a golden throne wearing a dress made entirely of golden safety pins (the John Galliano Autumn/Winter 1997 collection).

Galliano's first haute couture collection for Dior juxtaposed Maasai beading and couture historicism in full-blown evening gowns that required 410 metres of fabric. In his designs of this period, Galliano's historical research ranged far and wide. Galliano himself said 'It's a very impressionistic approach. 'It's a dialogue between past and present. The starting point is usually factual, but we allow our imaginations to run riot. The story happens differently each time. Certain things begin to go around in my head and then we start to embroider on them.'4

Sometimes his designs collaged together motifs from different cultures, juxtaposing them against each other, mixing maharaja jewels and an aigrette with Burmese neck jewellery and Afro-Caribbean braids, while styling the model to look spookily uptight and Parisian. At other times he morphed references and motifs from different periods and cultures into single fusions. His collections eclectically mix images of japonisme with those of the Weimar republic, early cinema and the belle époque, images of Empire and Maasai beading.

To his mixes of cultures and history were added a significantly different ingredient, the image and inspiration of real historical figures. He was drawn in particular to Edwardian actresses, demi-mondaines and women of independent means, all of whom were identifiable by their striking, outré or 'exotic' appearances. Flamboyant women of wealth such as Nancy Cunard and the Marchesa Casati rubbed shoulders in his collections with bohemians like Misia Sert, the artists' model and sexual libertine Kiki de Montparnasse, the actress and demi-mondaine Gaby Deslys, and the great courtesan Liane de Pougy. These real women were mingled with images from art and cinema: society women from the paintings of Boldoni, Sargent and Tissot, cinema actresses like Claudette Colbert, Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor, and, from Britain, the aristocratic women photographed by Madame Yevonde in the 1930s. These moneyed images were mixed with references from popular culture of the past: pearly kings and queens, Hells Angels, migrant southern Italian circus folk from the 1930s. Then there were couture influences, from Madeline Vionnet's bias-cut tea gowns of the teens and 1920s and the Dior archive from the 1940s and 1950s. These too were intercut with imagery of Samoan tattooed women, Asian jewellery, African beading and native American patterned blankets, or woven with 'Europeanised' images of the orient, in figures like Suzie Wong and Madame Butterfly. Galliano's historical and cultural promiscuity can be tracked in his diaries, or sketchbooks of his collections, kept by Lady Amanda Harlech, his right hand woman from 1984 until his move to Dior as principal designer in 1996, and in his sketchbooks from 1997 onwards, some of which are reproduced in Colin McDowell's book Galliano.5 So acute and wide-ranging is Galliano's eye for the visual detail of the past, and so inventive the way he juxtaposes histories, styles and cultures, that it is hard to imagine a Galliano design which is not a visual quotation from a pre-existent source. What is unique, however is the way he kaleidoscopically fuses a range of references into a single figure.

In keeping with the spectacular quality of his designs, his fashion presentations were highly theatrical during the 1990s, both in his own name and as principal designer for Givenchy and then Dior. Although the spectacle was conceived on a grander scale in the late 1990s, all Galliano's shows had been characterised by highly developed sense of theatre. In 1984, his graduate collection from St Martin's in London, Les Incroyables, was heavily influenced by a contemporary production of Danton at the National Theatre in London where Galliano worked as a dresser while a final year student. The theatricality of this and all his subsequent collections may also have been informed by Galliano's immersion in the London club scene of the early to mid-1980s in which the relentless reinvention of the self through costume and make-up was the currency which guaranteed entry to the clubs.

In 1990 Galliano moved to Paris where he existed in a hand to mouth way; in 1993 he showed a small but very influential collection in the eighteenth-century house of the Portuguese socialite São Schlumberger. Capitalising on the fact that the empty house was up for sale, he created an atmosphere of romantic decrepitude by scattering it with dead leaves and rose petals, unmade beds and upturned chairs, and filling the air with dry ice. In July 1995 he was appointed principal designer at the couture house of Givenchy for which he produced his first couture show in January 1996 and two subsequent ready-to-wear collections before being appointed principal designer at Dior. In his couture show for Givenchy Galliano created a Princess and the Pea scenario in which two models sat twenty feet in the air preening themselves on top of a pile of mattresses. A year later, in January 1997, he produced his first couture show for Dior, audaciously staged in a fake maison de couture: in the Grand Hotel in Paris Galliano created a scaled up facsimile of the original Dior showroom, including the famous staircase on which Cocteau and Dietrich had sat in the 1950s to watch Dior's shows.6 In this, as in the 1993 show sponsored by São Schlumberger, Galliano wove instant mythologies, creating something evocative out of nothing.

With the substantial backing of a major couture house Galliano was able to create his shows on a far bigger scale than previously. Increasingly he began to use more theatrical techniques, for example replacing runway lighting with theatre lighting and minutely choreographing each section of the show three days before. Each model had only one outfit per show, thus avoiding the hectic series of rapid costume changes which characterised other fashion shows. The more conventional parade down a catwalk was replaced by a walk through series of connecting rooms dressed like film sets through which the story was told, reminiscent of the 1993 show in São Schlumberger's house when, in Galliano's words, 'the girls worked the whole house from the top floor down. It was like an old salon presentation.'7 The audience, far smaller than the usual fashion show audience, was seated in small groups in these rooms, far closer to the clothes than usual. The models, each of whom had been rehearsed like an actress by Galliano before the show, were encouraged to feel their way into, and act, the part of their characters as they paraded through the rooms, striking attitudes and poses, staging tableaux vivants as they went.

John Galliano by Nick Knight, 2001

Dream Worlds:1852-1900

From the opening of the Bon Marché in Paris in 1852, the Louvre in 1855, Au Printemps in 1865, and La Samaritaine in 1869, department stores, with their radical new techniques of retail and display, rapidly became theatres of consumption. Shop windows became astounding sources of display, as did the goods inside the store, where everyday objects were rearranged by repetition into sculptural forms of flowers, castles and boats. Displays included out of season flowers, caged live birds and, later in the century, splashing electric fountains. Electric lighting further galvanised some of these displays into fairytale scenes. In addition, department stores often drew on the conventions of theatre and exhibitions to produce orientalist scenes, including living tableau of Turkish harems, Cairo markets or Hindu temples, with live dancers, music and oriental products.8

In Dream Worlds Rosalind Williams describes how, in nineteenth-century department stores and world fares, the real, commercial nature of the transaction was disguised by the creation of seductive 'dream worlds' in which the consumer lost him or herself in fantasy and reverie. In these displays, the department stores' orientalist scenarios promiscuously mingled goods from different cultures and communities in a fantasy bazaar.9 Throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century department stores also mobilised the newest scientific techniques from optics and photography to create 'cinéoramas, maréoramas and dioramas to create the illusion not only of travel in exotic places but also by balloon, above the sea, and to the surface of the moon.'10

In the same period, Paris hosted a number of International Exhibitions, in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900. As in department store display, these world fairs created the illusion of exotic locations. At the 1900 exhibition in particular twenty one out of the thirty three main attractions involved taking a fantasy journey to 'distant visions'.11 The World Tour traversed the length of an enormous circular canvas panorama representing, in the words of a contemporary journalist, 'without solution or continuity, Spain, Athens, Constantinople, Suez, India, China and Japan... the Acropolis next door to the Golden Horn and the Suez Canal almost bathing the Hindu forests'.12 In front of each country 'natives' danced or charmed snakes before the painting of their homeland. Having made the tour of the world, visitors to the diorama could enjoy a simulated voyage to the moon. Voyagers in the Cinéorama could make an imaginary journey in cinematic techniques to the floor of the sea or up in a balloon, standing in a stationary basket while the pictures moved before their eyes. The Maréorama reproduced a sea-voyage from France to Constantinople and involved a canvas panorama, the smell of salt air, gentle swaying motions and music from each of the regions visited. A contemporary described the music 'which takes on the colour of the country at which the ship is calling; melancholy at departure, it... becomes Arabic in Africa, and ends up Turkish after having been Venetian.'13 At night visitors to the 1900 exhibition could be dazzled by displays of electrically lit fountains or watch the belly dancers in a reproduction of a Cairo night spot.

Dialectical Images

In the nineteenth century it was through the spectacles and dreamy scenarios staged in the department store that female consumption was nurtured, trained and encouraged, as well as in the great exhibitions which granted a vision of luxury consumption to a mass audience. Many of these visions have striking parallels in the staging of Galliano's shows in the 1990s, which drew on illusion, drama and theatre for their effects. Just as in the nineteenth-century 'reveries were passed off as reality'14, so Galliano's Spring-Summer 1995 presentation, in which a photo studio was made over as a private set and dressed with vintage cars against which the models posed as 'divas' from 1910 to the 1950s, 'was like a dream and not a show.'15 Galliano's spectacular runway shows, simultaneously enticement and advertisement, were highly innovative, but the link between spectacle and commodity culture was first made in the nineteenth-century. In his designs, Galliano piled up cultural references like the goods on display in nineteenth-century Parisian department stores and world fares, evoking Paris's reputation as a city of luxury goods in the luxury of his contemporary designs. Émile Zola's novel about a Paris department store in the 1860s, The Ladies' Paradise, describes a window display of female dummies dressed in the most sumptuous and elaborate fashion which suggests the textiles used by Galliano in his designs for Dior - snowfalls of costly lace, velvet rimmed with fox fur, silk with Siberian squirrel, cashmere and cocks feathers, quilting, swansdown and chenille.16

The rest rooms and roof gardens of nineteenth-century department stores, fitted with pergolas, zoos and ice rinks, strikingly resemble some Galliano show settings. Department stores were fantasy palaces through which the customers moved. The modern fashion show fulfils something of the same role, with the difference that the audience remains seated while the spectacle unfolds before them like a panorama. Perhaps the show itself, in which the stationary spectator is dazzled by lights, effects and rapid-fire presentation, has more in common with the fantasy journeys of the world fairs. In the spectacles of the 1900 exhibition colours, cultures and sounds were fused in a way very similar to the design fusions of a Galliano show; the 'Cairo belly-dancers' and 'Andalusian gypsies' of the world fair are not dissimilar to Galliano's performing models. The piling up of historical and cross-cultural references in a Galliano collection differ only in specific detail, rather than general effect, for his techniques of historical pastiche and cultural collage fuse disparate cultures and places, much as the World Tour did in the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition by abutting a Hindu pagoda, a Chinese temple and a Muslim mosque, enlivened by live jugglers and geishas.17 And the effect both of a Galliano show and of the displays in the 1900 exhibition is to normalise, contain and manage non-European cultures through the very process of creating them as spectacle.

The 1900 exhibition had been the first to feature contemporary fashion, brightly lit by electricity, in glass cages containing couturier-clad wax dummies. In the Pavillion de la Mode were displayed thirty examples of the history of costume, including the Empress Theodora on her throne, Queen Isabelle of Bavaria waiting in a tournament, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and Marie Antoinette at the Trianon. These historical displays of fashion randomly juxtaposed Byzantine empresses, medieval ladies and eighteenth century queens side by side, creating continuity solely through the splendour of their costume, erasing significant historical difference. Galliano's eclectic historical pastiche has something of this quality. In the 1900 exhibition twenty couture houses were represented, including Worth, Rouff (established in 1884), Paquin (established 1891) and Callot Soeurs (1896). Modern society was represented by scenes of society life, such as 'the departure for the opera', or 'a fitting at Worth.' The style of these displays resurfaced, particularly, in the staging of the Dior Spring/Summer 1998 ready-to-wear show, in a series of classical rooms dressed with period furniture and a harpsichord, around which the models draped themselves like Hollywood starlets from the 1930s. The tableaux vivants they formed recalled the wax tableaux behind glass of the 1900 exhibition, with their simulations of the luxury and extravagance of haute couture.

For the Dior couture show that same season Galliano created a giant crowd scene, a fantasy carnival of confetti and human figures in apparently endless celebration. Yet it would be wrong to confuse this fantasy crowd with the actual crowd of a Parisian international exhibition of the late nineteenth-century. The crowds at such world fairs consisted essentially of middle, lower middle and sometimes working class people; the displays made luxury and excess available as a spectacle to the many who, while they could afford the entrance ticket, could never aspire to owning the exclusive and expensive consumer goods on display. The exclusivity of the couture show has more in common, perhaps, in its studied artifice and minute attention to detail, with Huysmans novel À Rebours of 1888. Its dandyish and fastidious hero Des Esseintes constructs a dream world as a counterpoint to what he sees as the nightmare of mass consumption. Rosalind Williams argues that À Rebours 'makes a powerful case for the seductiveness of a dream world - the fascination of artifice, the beauty of the imagination, the pleasure of self-deception, the flattering sense of initiation into mysteries.'18 All these could equally describe the allure of the couture show, and couture has always been at pains to differentiate itself from the mass market. Yet, Williams goes on to argue, decadence is never free from mass consumption because it shares the same desire to be ahead of the rest, and condemns its followers to the same restless pursuit of novelty. They are doomed to the same disappointment because they have invested too many expectations in the world of goods.

For Georg Simmel, the aesthetics of world exhibitions conferred a feeling of presentness so that fashion's intensified pace 'increases our time-consciousness, and our simultaneous pleasure in newness and oldness give us a strong sense of presentness.'19 It is this same sense of 'presentness' in a late twentieth century fashion show, with its brevity and drama (it lasts no more than thirty minutes) that is created precisely through the mingling and telescoping of historical themes and pastiches. Mike Featherstone argues that the writing of both Simmel and Benjamin can 'direct us towards the ways in which the urban landscape has become aestheticized and enchanted through the architecture, billboards, shop displays, advertisements, packages, street signs, and through the embodied persons who move through these spaces: the individuals who wear... fashionable clothing, hairstyles and make-up, or who move or hold their bodies in particular stylised ways.'20 This enchantment and stylisation were replayed in the hyperreal space of the late twentieth-century catwalk.

Walter Benjamin wrote that every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.21 In contrasting these images of the late twentieth-century with others from the mid-late nineteenth-, I have tried to construct a set of what Benjamin called 'dialectical images', images which were not based on simple comparisons but which created a more complex historical relay of themes running between past and present. For Benjamin, the relationship between images of the past and the present worked like the montage technique of cinema.22 The principle of montage is that a third meaning is created by the juxtaposition of two images, rather than any immutable meaning inhering in each image. Benjamin conceived of this relationship as a dialectical one: the motifs of the past and the present functioned as thesis and antithesis. The flash of recognition, between past and present images, was the dialectical image that transformed both.23

Jolted out of the context of the past, the dialectical image could be read in the present as a 'truth'. But it was not an absolute truth, rather a truth which was fleeting and temporal, existing only at the moment of perception, characterised by 'shock' or vivid recognition.24 It was not that the past simply illuminated the present, or that the present illuminated the past; rather, the two images came together in a 'critical constellation', tracing a previously concealed connection.25 Benjamin identified some key figures - one might say key tropes - of nineteenth-century Paris as 'dialectical images': the prostitute, fashion itself, commodities, the arcades. It is as just such an image that I now turn to the question of the co-incidence of woman as spectacle and modernity in this period.

Modernity and The Spectacle of Women

The wholesale rebuilding of Paris in the second half of the century, in the grand scheme concocted between Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, transformed it into the city we know today and allowed the development of the 'society of the spectacle' which, I have tried to indicate, still resonates in the imagery of the contemporary fashion show.26 In the rebuilding of Paris the old, medieval quartiers were broken up and replaced with wide boulevards, open spaces and parks. With industrialisation came urbanisation and massively increased consumption. Paris became a city for the production and sale of luxury goods, and its parks and squares became new sites of display and parade. While Haussmann's rebuilding had broken up the old Parisian working class communities, who were henceforth pushed out towards the newer, industrial suburbs, new inhabitants continued to flood into Paris. New service industries flourished, providing jobs for women as waitresses, shop assistants, seamstresses, laundresses, hairdressers, servants, and milliners. Many of these women were new to Paris, without the support of friends or family. In the absence of the old certainties of class and community, in this new space of uncertainty, anyone could pretend to be anything if they had the money to buy clothes.27 Surface was full of meaning; fashion and dress became vitally important as a way of signalling an identity, but also of reading one.

The Parisian Arcades on which Walter Benjamin based his study28 date from the first half of the nineteenth-century, and housed a variety of luxury shops, clubs and, later, brothels which created a model of consumption later in the century for the Paris of the Second Empire. In the second half of the century the department store in particular played a vital role in offering middle class women the possibility of mapping out an identity through their patterns of consumption. Shopping became a leisure activity, as the department store gave middle class women new opportunities to stroll, to enjoy, to contemplate, to observe, come and go, the same opportunities afforded in the city space to the Baudelairean figure of the male flâneur. Janet Wolff has argued that they opened up a space for the woman as flâneuse.29 Mica Nava has argued that modernity gave female consumers a way of being 'at home' in the chaos, the maelstrom, of city life, and becoming the subjects as well as the objects of modernisation.30 Nava argues that middle class women were not so much left out of the spaces of modernity, as Janet Wolff had claimed, as excluded from the story by historians of modernity. For Nava fashion, men's and women's, presumably, was important in modernity precisely because of the emphasis of both on the instability of the sign. Dress signified 'rank' but also 'choice' and 'identity' - and she contends that 'women played a crucial part in the development of these taxonomies of signification.'31

While nineteenth-century Paris gave middle class women new opportunities for consumption of fashionable goods, it also saw the origins of a more élite form of contemporary fashion, haute couture. This was, and still is, the only branch of fashion to be exclusively female (there is no couture for men), and although it was available to comparatively few women it gradually set the tone for fashionable consumption across a broader spectrum of consumers.32 In the process, however, of fashionable consumption, be it in the department store or the couture house, women of all classes were themselves spectacularized; caught up in the web of images they sought to consume, they themselves became image. Increasingly the nineteenth-century 'dream world' became epitomised in the spectacle of woman, with her links to fashion and the city, in the figures of the Parisian woman of fashion, the shop girl, waitress or milliner, the prostitute, even the dummies in shop windows, and the allegorical figures of sculpture.33 The main entrance to the 1900 exhibition, at the Porte Binet, a monumental gateway on the Place de la Concorde, was surmounted by a 15 foot tall polychrome plaster statue of La Parisienne, whose robe was designed by the couturier Paquin. The sculptor, Maureau-Vaultier, subsequently specialised in small bronze figurines of Parisian ladies of fashion, generally dressed in Paquin gowns, which would be exhibited in the ladies' salons. However at the time the original statue was unveiled in 1900 it attracted both ridicule and harsh criticism for the connotations of prostitution which contemporaries saw its dress and demeanour. Their response highlighted the ambiguous and uneasy relationship of woman to spectacle in this period, particularly the slippage between the woman of fashion, the prostitute and the actress, confirming Mica Nava's point that spectacular fashion is an unstable sign. One could also make a connection here to Andreas Huyssen's formulation of mass culture as feminine at a later period in the twentieth-century, the inter-war years.34

For women, in particular, modernity was a double-coded experience, in which euphoria was juxtaposed with alienation, autonomy with objectification. While the middle class woman was relatively safe in the department store the working woman was prey to any importunity, and the instability of fashion as a sign could work equally to her disadvantage as to her advantage. Added to this, the salaries of working women were so meagre that, without family support in the city, many were driven to support themselves through prostitution.35 Anton Corbin argues that with the Haussmannisation of Paris the prostitute emerged from the shadows and circulated tirelessly in the city of spectacle. Alongside the world exhibitions and the shop windows of the new department stores the prostitute in turn came to show herself, as the commodity form was indissolubly linked to its image.36 In the 1900 Paris Exhibition this connection was explicit in the section devoted to theatre which was in the Rue de Paris and which became the main centre for soliciting at the exhibition.37 Already by the 1880s, Corbin argues, 'the prostitute... had become woman as spectacle. She paraded or exhibited herself on the terraces of high-class cafes, in the brasseries, in the café-concerts, and on the sidewalk... in this way... the primacy of the visual in sexual solicitation originated.38

Corbin has also described how, within the brothels, sexual practices became more elaborate, and more staged. Spectacles and tableaux vivants were enacted on gigantic revolving turntables, simple peepholes were replaced by draperies, mirrors, binoculars and acoustic horns hidden in the wall; prostitutes were required to perform a greater range of activities. What had previously been perceived as aristocratic tastes were now lower and middle class spectacles. Contemporary descriptions of brothels reveal fantasy settings not dissimilar to those of department stores, and it was not uncommon for brothels to renovate their establishments for each universal exhibition: opera settings, oriental scenes, Louis XV salons, and 'electric fairylands'.39 For Baudelaire the prostitute was the key figure of modernity because she was, in Benjamin's phrase, 'commodity and seller in one.'40 'As a dialectical image, she "synthesises" the form of the commodity and the content'41, and although Benjamin's comments about women in general may reveal his own ambivalence they also echo a certain nineteenth-century ambivalence about women, commodities and consumption.42

This ambivalence spilled out in the avant-garde painting of the time. In paintings of the femme fatale of the period, the Salomés and Judiths of the Decadence, where the image of desire was tinged with dread, the spectacular displays of consumer capitalism were transposed from the world of goods to the woman herself. Colin McDowell has suggested that Galliano's work from the mid-1990s exhibited the same ambivalence in his projection of a libidinous female image, 'bringing echoes of hookers, geishas, hostesses in opium dens'.43 In this context, his fascination with spectacular historical figures of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries echoes the ambivalence of that period. His Christian Dior haute couture collection for Autumn/Winter 1997 reconfigured the belle époque and, specifically, Colette as a showgirl. His own label collection for Autumn/Winter 1998 referred to the vampish and ambiguous sexuality of German cabaret in the Weimar period. These shows evoked pre-war Paris as a city of spectacle and luxury, and post-war Berlin as a city of modernist experimentation and decadence. Whether his references were to real historical figures or images from cinema and art, his particular fascination with women who used their sexuality spectacularly to make their way in the world harked back to the ambiguous relation of sexuality, commerce and fashion in the modernist period.

Modernity into Postmodernity

There are many competing usages of the terms modernity, modernisation and modernism, particularly between the social sciences and the humanities traditions. A number of historians, for whom the idea of modernity is bound up with an analysis of industrial capitalist society as a form of rupture from the preceding social system, have used the term to designate the enormous social and cultural changes which took place from the mid sixteenth-century in Europe.(44) For the sociologist Max Weber, the origins of capitalism lay in the Protestant ethic; its leitmotifs were modernisation and rationalisation but also, and crucially, ambiguity.45 It is both this sense of ambiguity, and the concept of historical rupture, which inform my exploration of the links between women, fashion, modernity, the city and capitalism. It is beyond the scope of this paper (and beyond me) to plot a precise and structural connection between Western fashion and modernity by tracking back through European culture. Furthermore, such an enterprise might construct a linear history which, in a sense, runs counter to my project.46 As outlined earlier, I have instead drawn on Walter Benjamin's concept of dialectical images, juxtaposing the more spectacular manifestations of the consumer explosion of the nineteenth century against those of the late twentieth-century fashion show to illuminate the historical relay between past and present.

Throughout I have drawn extensively on Elizabeth Wilson's writing on fashion and modernity. Although Susan Buck-Morss discusses fashion in The Dialetics of Seeing, an imaginative reconstruction of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, published in 1991, only Elizabeth Wilson has focused exclusively on the nexus between women, modernity, fashion and the city.47 Wilson argues that fashion and modernity share a double-sided quality, because they are both formed in the same crucible, that of 'the early capitalist city'.48 It is this double-sided quality that informs my use of the term 'modernity'; it combines, on the one hand, fragmentation, dissonance and alienation with, on the other, euphoria, excitement and the pleasures of self-fashioning and of novelty and artifice. This double-sided quality also, and specifically, characterises the spectacle of women in the modernist period.

In Charles Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life he defined the experience of modernity in nineteenth-century Paris as 'the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.'49 These ideas were later developed in Georg Simmel's discussion of 'neurasthenia' and Walter Benjamin's concept of 'shock'. Simmel related fashion to the fragmentation of modern life and discussed its neurasthenia, that is, the overstimulation and nervous excitement which came with the growth of the metropolis. He associated fashion with the middle classes and with the city, as well as with the stylisation of everyday objects (for him the Jugendstil movement in Germany) and he pointed to a close relation between art, fashion and consumer culture, a connection which became topical again in the 1990s. Benjamin's concept of shock also related to Baudelaire's modernité in his descriptions of life in Baudelaire's Paris - for Benjamin the ur-city of modernity - as being characterised by 'shocks, jolts and vivid presentness captured by the break with traditional forms of sociation'.50 Again, one could point to present-day similarities in the changing social patterns of work, leisure and the family in the late twentieth-century. The so-called weakening of the family structure was a feature of nineteenth-century Paris too, when populations drifted to the cities in huge numbers.

Both Simmel and Benjamin imply the idea of rupture with the past, a sense which could also be said to have characterised the last twenty years of the twentieth-century. Hal Foster suggests that today Baudelaire's 'shock' has become electronic; he writes that we are wired to spectacular events and 'psycho-techno thrills'.51 The question raised in Hal Foster's observation is whether our electronic shock is radically different from Benjamin's, or whether traces of the past still echo in the present.52 Whereas Baudelaire, Simmel and Benjamin wrote about the effects of inustrialisation on urban populations, the late twentieth century has been characterised, rather, by an information revolution which started thirty years ago with the first satellites in space but has escalated in the last five to ten years with the spread of electronic and digital forms of communication.

This technological revolution, although very different in its effects, has produced a sense of upheaval and change which can be compared to the effects of industrialisation in nineteenth-century Paris. Above all, the rise of the information society has produced a comparable sense of rupture in contemporary sensibilities and social practices.53 The 'intoxicating dream worlds' of the nineteenth-century, with its 'constantly changing flow of commodities, images and bodies'54 was replaced in the late twentieth-century by the rapid flow of signs and images. Although the contemporary experience was lead by communications and new technology, rather than by industry, both were periods of accelerated transition which perhaps explains the prominent role of fashion in each. Fashion itself is about rapid change, and can articulate modern sensibilities in a time of transition. Indeed, Gilles Lipovetsky has argued that the instability of fashion trains us to be flexible and adaptable, so that modern fashion is socially reproductive and not, as some would argue, irrational and wasteful. He writes that 'fashion socialises human beings to change and prepares them for perpetual recycling,'55 and argues that the kinetic, open personality of fashion is the personality which a society in the process of rapid transformation most needs.

Most theorists of postmodernism have posited it as a moment of absolute rupture with the past. Yet there are also enough similarities, as I have sketched, to suggest, as Lyotard does in The Postmodern Condition, that postmodernism is simply another stage, or development, of modernism and that there is no radical break with the past.56 Galliano's retro images, ushering back the historical styles of modernity, remind us of the way the past can continue to resonate in the present. His nostalgic designs conjure up an earlier period idleness and luxury, yet the historical period he draws on was also, like the present, a time of mutability, instability and rapid change, when all fixed points seemed to be in motion, and in which the image of woman was correspondingly highly charged. For the image of woman as commodity and consumer is as ambivalently coded today, in the work of Galliano, as a hundred years ago in the Parisian woman of fashion.

Yet, for all the similarities, there are also some fundamental differences related precisely to changes in technology around the image which have transformed modern fashion, including the marketing of Dior and Galliano, despite their nostalgic evocations of the past. It is the paramount and altered role of the image in contemporary culture, and particularly in fashion, which differentiates Galliano's practice from his nineteenth-century referents, however insistently he harks back to them in his design motifs. Whereas historically the imagery of fashion was an adjunct to fashionable dress, increasingly the relationship of the two shifted, so that fashion began to function equally as image and object, nowhere more so than in the spectacular fashion shows staged in London and then Paris in the 1990s. Only a very small number of people experienced the old-fashioned intimacy of a Galliano show, seated close enough to the models to see the fine detailing of the clothes, like the original Dior customers in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet many more people became familiar with the 1990s' collections than in the 1950s, as these designs were increasingly conveyed to a mass audience through the new visual media: magazines, books and videos, on the television and on the Internet. An haute couture collection which would not appear in the shops, such as John Galliano's collections for Dior, or Alexander McQueen's for Givenchy, would almost certainly only be experienced through images. Susan Sontag has argued that in the modern period our perception of reality is shaped by the type and frequency of images we receive. Sontag writes that from the mid nineteenth-century 'the credence that could no longer be given to realities understood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood to be images, illusions', and goes on to cite Feurebach's observation of 1843, also cited by Debord at the beginning of The Society of the Spectacle: 'our era prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being.'57

But if the new technologies have altered our access to image and meaning, nevertheless many of the techniques of the image, in retailing and marketing, remind us of their origins in nineteenth-century Paris. In this there is an ambiguity. The new emphasis on the image contains within it the trace of the past. A feathered and sequinned evening flapper dress by Galliano for Dior does not merely gesture stylistically towards the past but conceals deeper, structural similarities beneath its surface. If there is a similarity, it is in the spectacular patterns of consumption of the nineteenth century modernist city, specifically Paris, a city in which women frequently stage themselves as spectacle, be it the bourgeoisie consumers of the department stores, or the more ambiguously coded showgirl. Woman, like the image itself, is an unstable sign.

And if there is a difference, it is that the spectacle in the 1990s has mutated into pure image. Never before have so many seen so much of what goes on behind its closed doors: but only as a representation. Spectacle is not represented in these haute couture fashion shows, as the visits to the moon or the far East were supposedly represented in the cinéoramas or dioramas of the nineteenth century: now the spectacle is a representation. Print and digital media have taken the space occupied by world fairs, and we consume this kind of spectacle primarily through visual media: magazines, newspapers, television, the internet and video.58 If the technology improves to give pictures of high enough quality, even fashion photography could become digitalised in the future, banishing film. The photographer would licence the magazine to use the images he transmitted to them electronically, via the computer, making analogue techniques of reproduction outmoded, perhaps appropriately for a kind of fashion which can be consumed exclusively as image not as object. Couture clothing will never appear in the shops. Its appearance to us as image is phantasmagoric. And, appropriately, the role of the fashion show has changed with its increasing public visibility. No longer necessary to sell the clothes to buyers and clients, for the collection will have been sold a few weeks before the show, it remains a ghostly spectacle, a view into a designer's mind, captured fleetingly in images. As such, it evokes Susan Sontag's claim that 'a society becomes 'modern' when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images'.59

Yet these images are not free-floating signifiers but part of a network of signs which constitute an expanded 'society of the spectacle.' In the 1990s, Galliano was described by the British fashion journalist Sally Brampton as 'the greatest 3-D image-maker alive'. Brampton argued that he was partly responsible for the greatly increased attendance at the Paris shows, which she described as 'a media feeding frenzy as newspapers and television stations around the world give increasing prominence to fashion.'60 These images do not exist in some rarefied realm of art for art's sake, but as a commercial and marketing stratagem. Stéphane Wagner, professor and lecturer in communications at the Institut Francais de la Mode said in 1997 'If we accept that much of haute couture is about squeezing out maximum media coverage - good or bad - then the more spectacular the presentation and collection, the better. And from that point of view the English are the best by far.'(61)

Although traditionally Paris has been a centre of luxury, London has always had the edge in terms of imaginative presentation. This is due in part to the system of education in certain British art and design schools, in part to the comparative lack of infrastructure in Britain, so that young designers leaving college have nothing to loose and everything to gain by putting on spectacular and extravagant shows which will catch the attention of press and buyers. For them, as for their Victorian predecessors in the production of consumer goods, the spectacle is 'the theatre through which capitalism acts.'(62) Most practically, it is how they will get a backer. In rare cases, it may lead to them being recruited by a major Parisian couture house. Spectacle, therefore, does not function outside of the realms of consumption and discourse but, rather, from within those structures, as their 'voice.' What is new, however, is the way that new technology and communications have expanded the network of spectacle into the new visual media.

Originally published in The Fashion Business: theory, practice, image, edited by Nicola White and Ian Griffiths, Oxford: Berg, 2000.

  1. Quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England, 1989. References in this article are to the paperback edition, 1991: 73 & 222
  2. For a discussion of fashion and Benjamin's historical method, see: Ulrich Lehmann, 'Tigersprung: Fashioning History', Fashion Theory, Vol.3, issue 3, September 1999: 297-322
  3. For example, see Susannah Frankel, 'Galliano Steams Ahead with Any Old Irony', The Guardian, 21 July 1998: 10
  4. Colin McDowell, Galliano, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997: 51
  5. Ibid. McDowell reproduces several interesting pages from Galliano's sketchbooks which show the breadth of his eclecticism.
  6. McDowell, ibid: 38
  7. McDowell, ibid: 169
  8. Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & Oxford, England, 1982. For a review of the literature on the nineteenth-century French department store see Mica Nava, 'Modernity's Disavowal: Women, the City and the Department Store' in Pasi Falk & Colin Campbell (eds), The Shopping Experience, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1997: 56-91?
  9. Williams, ibid: 66-72
  10. Nava, op. cit.: 67
  11. Williams, op. cit.: 73
  12. Michel Corday, 'À l'Éxposition - Visions lointaines', Revue de Paris, 15 March 1900. Quoted in Williams, op. cit.: 74
  13. Williams, op. cit.: 75
  14. Williams, op.cit.: 65
  15. Joseph Ettegui, owner of Joseph: from Videofashion News, vol.19 no.20, 'Paris Reflections', Spring-Summer 1995
  16. Émile Zola, The Ladies Paradise, trans. with an introduction by Brian Nelson, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 1995: 6
  17. Philippe Jullian, The Triumph of Art Nouveau: the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Phaidon Press, London, 1974: 169
  18. Williams, op. cit.: 145. Williams argues that dandyism, and Huysman's À Rebours, were an élitist challenge to mass consumption.
  19. Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1991: 74
  20. Featherstone, ibid: 76
  21. Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', Illuminations, trans, Harry Zohn, Fontana/Collins, London, 1973: 257
  22. Buck Morss, op. cit.: 250
  23. Buck-Morss, ibid
  24. Buck-Morss, ibid: 185, 221, 250 & 290
  25. Buck-Morss. ibid: 290-291
  26. My use of the term 'spectacle' derives from Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie, Verso, London 1888 (first published 1967) in which Debord argues that everyday life is colonised by a new phase of commodity production. Debord, however, situates this phase in the 1920s, whereas others locate it as far back as the court of Louis XIV: Williams, op. cit. and Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, England, 1993:432. I have discussed modernity in the context of nineteenth-century Paris, following both Walter Benjamin and, more recently, T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, Princeton UP, Princeton, & Thames & Hudson, London, 1984. Thomas Richards provides a useful model of the application of Debord's ideas to nineteenth-century Britain in The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, Verso, London & New York, 1991. A very useful consideration of the convergence of spectacle and modernity, in relation to late nineteenth-century woman, is Heather McPhearson's 'Sarah Bernhardt: Portrait of the Actress as Spectacle', Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol.20, no.4, 1999: 409-454. Thanks to Carol Tulloch for bringing this invaluable article to my attention.
  27. T.J. Clark, ibid: 47
  28. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLauchlin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass & London England, 1999
  29. Janet Wolff, 'The invisible flâneuse: women and the literature of modernity' in Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, Polity Press, Cambridge England, 1990
  30. Nava, in: Falk & Campbell (eds), op. cit.: 57
  31. Nava, in: Falk & Campbell (eds), op. cit: 66
  32. Diana de Marly, Worth: Father of Haute Couture, Holmes & Meier, New York, 1980. De Marly argues that Worth had, by the 1870s, initiated many of the business and bureaucratic practices which would, in the twentieth-century, define a couture house.
  33. For example, see Jullian, op. cit., for an discussion of the allegorical figure of electricity at the 1900 Paris exhibition.
  34. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1986. See chapter on 'Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other'
  35. Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, Virago, London, 1991: 49-50
  36. Alain Corbin, Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France After 1850, trans. Alan Sheridan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1990
  37. Jullian, op. cit.: 175
  38. Corbin, op. cit.: 205
  39. Corbin, op. cit.: 123-5
  40. Buck-Morss, op. cit.: 184
  41. Ibid
  42. Nava, op. cit.: 81. Yet he also suggests fashion can be emblematic of social change: Buck-Morss, op. cit.: 101. There is a discussion of his ambivalence in Jane Gaines & Charlotte Herzog (eds), Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, Routledge, New York and London, 1990: 1-27
  43. McDowell, op. cit.: 117 . 'John, we are told, loves women, but it is not easy to avoid the thought that, within that love lurks a fear which must be laid to rest by pastiche or, even more compelling, the suspicion that it is a love so intense it also encompasses a degree of hatred'
  44. Bryan S. Turner (ed), Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, Sage Publications, London, Newbury Park, New Delhi, 1990 discusses the major debates and cites key texts.
  45. Bryan S Turner, 'Periodization and Politics in the Postmodern', in Turner (ed), ibid: 1-13
  46. Benjamin, too, wrote: 'in order for a piece of the past to be touched by present actuality, there must exist no continuity between them' for the historical object is constituted as dialectical image by being 'blasted out of the continuum of history'. Cited in Buck-Morss, op.cit.: 219
  47. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Virago, London, 1985. See too Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, Virago, London, 1991, which, like this paper, uses Walter Benjamin to connect the nineteenth-century city to the urban consciousness of the present.
  48. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, ibid: 9
  49. Charles Baudelaire, 'The Painter of Modern Life', The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne, Phaidon Press, London, 1964: 12
  50. Featherstone, op. cit.: 65
  51. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: the Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass & London England, 1996: 221-2
  52. Featherstone, op.cit, argues that postmodernism is a continuation of modernity, and that is why the writing of Simmel and Benjamin still resonate in the present: see his chapter 5, 'the Aestheticization of Everyday Life': 65-82
  53. For a discussion of the effect of new technologies on sensibilities and social practice see: Anthony Giddens, Reith Lectures, BBC Publications, London, 1999
  54. Featherstone, op. cit.: 70
  55. Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994: 149
  56. Jean-FranÁois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984
  57. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1972: 153. More empirically-based studies of the impact of new visual technologies on sensibilities see: Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass & London England, 1990; Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998
  58. Throughout the majority of the twentieth-century the couture houses prohibited the use of cameras at the collections and press photographs of fashion shows only became common in the 1980s and '90s.
  59. Sontag, op. cit.: 153
  60. Guardian, 14 October 1998
  61. Quoted in: Stephen Todd, 'The Importance of Being English', Blueprint, March 1997: 42
  62. Richards, op. cit: 251



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