This article from the recent Vanity Fair (May 2009 issue) is written by A. A. Gill, currently a restaurant reviewer with London's Sunday Times. It is in tribute to the beauty - indeed the relevance - of couture as inspiration, aspiration, and imagination. Couture also protects cottage industries, fading traditions, almost-extinct skills and craftsmanship. Enjoy...
There Will Be Beauty
It’s one of the great metaphysical mysteries of our equal-opportunity, post-feminist, oh-god-is-that-the-time lives—Why do men’s and women’s buttons do up differently? Or, rather, why do women wear their buttons the wrong way round?
Well, a long time ago, in a land far away, it was decreed that men’s buttons should do up the easiest way for a right-handed chap on the inside of a shirt, but women’s should do up for the convenience of a right-handed girl on the outside of a shirt. It was assumed that all ladies would forever and always be dressed by their maids. (Who dressed the maid?) And the silent, servile, pursed mouth of a girl’s buttonhole still judges her a fingers-and-thumbs failure for having to do herself up. It is a ghost of couture, a reminder that once all clothes were bespoke, handmade.
This season’s couture shows bloomed like gardenias in the monastery of the new austerity. The collections blew kisses at our plastic-belt-tightening in these dressed-down, hard times. Couture laughed extravagantly at the bonfire of banking, the end of ostentatious consumption. It was, let’s be frank, a let-them-eat-cake moment, and we asked, Who on earth is going to wear this stuff? Who has the gall? Where is the ball? The galas, the dinners, the soirées? Where are these yards of elegant swank going to be appropriate? Where is all this expensive good taste going to look tasteful? These were the wrong questions.
We should have asked: Do we really and truly want a world without couture? Are we willing to throw away what we have on top of what has already been lost? Is there no place for the exclusive and the beautiful? For the hysterically indulgent? And the superbly crafted? You have no idea how sensational a couture frock is until you’ve held one, or worn one, as Emily Blunt does with Victorian insouciance here. The skill in making them, the satisfaction of the stitching, the delicacy of the beading and the lacing, the softness and the stiffness, the fall and the rustle and the silhouette. It is the perfect detachable cosmetic surgery.
The ateliers that fabricate these clothes are the repositories of centuries of prestidigious patience and acute, minute observation passed from thimbled, nimble fingertip to fingertip. Couture is a promise to the future from the past: There will be entrances and orchestras again, carriages and candelabra again, parties and seasons again. There will be glamour again. Throughout the history of civilization, doom, doldrums, depression, and disaster have descended to paint the town gray. But they will also recede, leaving little but a shudder. What is left, what abides, is beauty.
The button thing. Of course, it also means that a lady is more easily undressed by a right-handed man. Need you ask? It was probably all instigated by the French.
A. A. Gill is a V.F. contributing editor.