Colin’s Column | Tomes of the Times

In his latest column, Colin McDowell reviews Paris Haute Couture, Paris In The 1920s with Kiki de Montparnasse and The Big Book of Chic.

Paris in the 1920s with Kiki de Montparnasse | Source: Assouline

LONDON, United Kingdom — The expression ‘coffee table book,’ always used with a pejorative sneer, became a literary put-down in the 1980s. And the sneer was only too often justified. A rash of such books, mainly masterbatory visual explorations of the lifestyles of the rich, had little substance behind their glossy production values. In truth, in far too many cases, they were the bimbos of the publishing world. Beautiful but dumb, they were to be enjoyed once and then forgotten. In many circles, the stigma attached to these volumes still exists, but the justification for such attitudes no long remains.

In the last thirty years, the highest production standards, coupled with well written texts, have become a feature of many good fashion books. Most of them carry essays by experts in their field who bring the very latest scholarship to the general reader, with the added advantage of fabulous illustrations and photographs.

Indeed, there is one such book on my table now. Paris Haute Couture edited by Olivier Saillard and Anne Zazzo, director and chief heritage curator at the Musée Galliera, respectively, accompanies the exhibition there of the same name, which is on through 6th July 2013. As it is published by Flammarion, the book is a beautiful object to hold and examine. But no bimbo this one it is the words that make the book something everyone who is really interested in fashion and its history must possess. Currently, couture seems to have been brought back from the very brink of death. In the 1970s, it seemed a terminal case, because it was perceived as being irrelevant, the kiss of death in fashion. In fact, it was not irrelevant, but out of sync with the cheap, easy and ‘amusing’ fashion of the time; fashion that could be hyped and sold at knock down prices to people who wanted their dress to have the immediacy of other areas of their lives.

But couture hung on and has currently become of more interest to some of us than the ready-to-wear collections that were supposed to have given couture the coup de grace forty years ago. But, as any woman who has bought couture (especially in the glory days of Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga) will tell you, if you have not been painstakingly fitted at one of the grand old French houses, it’s almost impossible to fully understand the arcane and frequently secret efforts that go into creating the perfect garment. Even a book of the quality of Paris Haute Couture cannot convey that. But its many brief essays by expert contributors help us to construct a picture of how the mystique has developed since the concept was first introduced by Charles Frederick Worth in the second half of the nineteenth century. And it is a very good read.

So, it is a pity that Paris Haute Couture is not the totally definitive work that would have made it a classic volume and the one that would tell the whole story of Paris as the only true couture centre in the world. The black hole is the period 1914 to 1918, the period of World War One, when hostilities came so close to Paris that the guns firing at the Front could be heard by residents in several parts of the city.

Why this extraordinary and important period has been so thoroughly excised from history by the writers and curators of Paris Haute Couture that World War 1 is not mentioned or even name-checked in the chronology is difficult to say. We know that couture continued throughout the hostilities and that many of the top houses of the time happily provided clothes for the wives, daughters and sweethearts of the enemy, as they did in World War Two (which is also given no serious space in this book).

Now, all countries and most people have shaming ghosts of bad behaviour in their past that they wish to keep quiet. However, this book is not a mindless parade of pictures. It’s a history book, a thing of record, written by scholars, and cutting out four whole years of its history devalues it. What is lost is not just the German connection, but also the details of the growing high fashion co-operation with the American market that can, with hindsight, be seen as the very first bat squeak of the new approach to fashionable dress that is now standard. Ready-to-wear was first considered as a valid form of designer clothing during the years of the First World War and it was this thinking that lead, eventually, to the highly organised and massively profitable global ready-to-wear industry that we have today.

How could a book of this calibre ignore this or the fact that the French fashion industry, including couture sold to be copied in New York, routed Vienna and Berlin, its major rivals, to come out of the war stronger than before thanks to co-operation between the couture houses and the exclusive stores of New York, Chicago and Boston? It is an opportunity lost. But despite these reservations, Paris Haute Couture deserves a place on the bookshelves of any serious fashion follower.

Another beautiful and necessary book is Paris in the 1920s with Kiki de Montparnasse, published by Assouline, creators of spectacular illustrated books, often on arcane subjects that nevertheless need to be documented. This is exactly such a volume. Looking at the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, not to mention the New York School of half a century ago, it is easy to forget that in the 1920s, when Paris was the cultural capital of the world, artists were very much more interested in satisfying their libidos than checking their wallets, as this beautifully produced and well written book about the artistic scene in that marvellous city and time makes clear.

And we know because one of the most extraordinary and deeply loved denizens of Montparnasse kept a record of her life and the artists who star in her diary pages are a role call of the greatest figures of the early 20th century: Picasso, Man Ray, Chagall, Mondrian, Cocteau, Braque and Duchamp. Add to them performers such as Arletty and Josephine Baker and nightclubs and cafes such as La Coupole, The Dome and La Rotonde (‘where everyone goes’) and it is apparent that Kiki was at the centre of a very exciting and highly creative world, a world the influence of which spread far and wide and lasted until the 1940s.

The author, Xavier Girard, has taken this world and brought it to life, using as the backbone of the story the actual diary references written by Kiki herself. She was witty, sexy, almost always broke very like her friends the artists but was always ready to share whatever she had, which frequently came down to her sense of humour and her voluptuous flesh. She even bewitched that secret misogynist Ernest Hemingway, who described her beauty and the charm of her voice in glowing terms: “She was very wonderful to look at. Having a fine face to start with she had made it a work of art. She had a wonderfully beautiful body and a fine voice…” However, Kiki was a man’s woman and not all of her own sex appreciated her charms. Kay Boyle, another American writer and political activist, thought her features “coarse” and her voice “as hoarse as that of a vegetable hawker.”

Nevertheless, the artists of Montparnasse in the 1920s responded to Kiki’s beauty and sexual vitality but they also loved her gentleness, her generosity and her humorous, tolerant personality. And she loved them in return, just as she did Montparnasse, which she called “the land of liberty… all the people of the earth have come here to pitch their tents.” And anyone reading this marvellously evocative recreation of a time, a way of life and a philosophy that resulted in more exciting artists and writers than even Renaissance Italy cannot help feeling a twinge of envy at the enormous pleasure this generously illustrated and beautifully designed book recaptures.

Finally, The Big Book of Chic, also published by Assouline. No, it isn’t a fashion book or even one about clothing and dress. It is a most magnificently produced collection of photographs of the work of the American interior decorator Miles Redd, who has collected together a scrapbook of images, mostly of interiors he has created. As an exposé of one man’s taste, it is interesting and revealing. Most of the interiors in this volume are more Hollywood stage set for a 1950s musical than ‘home, sweet home’ simplicity. With lots of shiny surfaces, full strength primary colours and mirrors on walls, floors and ceilings, the pictures in The Big Book of Chic are as exotic as a Faberge egg and almost as expensive, one imagines. Poolside life and al fresco dining alternate with happy families of books snuggling together to show how cultured the owner of the room is, close-ups of comfy chairs in bold patterns and, of course, costly cut flowers. Sister Parish, Cecil Beaton, Elsie de Wolfe and Billy Baldwin decorators all long dead   are all still alive and well in America, at least with the super-wealthy whose homes are featured in this book.

But, that being said, The Big Book of Chic actually is chic. Miles Redd is director of Oscar de la Renta Home and one can see why the fashion designer chose him. Exuberent pattern, colour and rich decoration are what de la Renta has always been about and the many wealthy women who adore his clothes would feel totally at home in the surroundings featured in this book, as would many more who are not rich but love an eclectic, cluttered look and see it, for all its artificial posturing, as the relaxed way to live. Personally, I see little that is relaxing in Redd’s work (like Versailles, these are interiors for putting on a show, dressed to the nines with not a hair out of place) but I do find the illustrations in this impressive volume compulsive enough to revisit and revisit, each time finding more of interest to the eye. I have no doubt that fashion designers will love this book for its boldness, colour and chutzpah. Others will be delighted with the quotes, from Alexander Pope, the 18th century poet who knew a thing or two about interiors, and Marcel Proust, who knew a lot more.

This is one coffee table book that repays more attention than most such volumes normally get in a casual flick through in an up-market bookshop. It shares all the attitudes that are so powerful in the top end of international fashion. One criticism: the pictures are not captioned so you are left wondering if a rather cross-looking woman carrying a chair actually is ZC Guest or who the guy being dragged along by his dog is. Needless to say, although the credits give page numbers, none of the pages in this book are numbered. Whist some of us may smile at such cavalier disregard of the needs of the reader, others I am sure will hurl this tome across the room in frustration at the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ approach. It is a lovely book but a word of warning. Before you hurl, make sure no tiny pet is in the way. This book is heavy and could be a potential killer for little furry things blamelessly sleeping on a richly patterned throw. And blood would ruin the whole painstaking effect.