The Empress' New Clothes

The Empress' New Clothes

The Empress' New Clothes

Fashion and its victims.
Dec. 5 1996 3:30 AM

The Empress' New Clothes

Madonna plus Dior does not Evita make.

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The other day I put my hand on two full, ankle-length skirts at the back of my closet, one tweed and one black velvet, with the idea of finally getting rid of them. After two decades of nonwear, they seemed overripe for removal. But then, in a sudden fit of prescience, I stayed my hand. I thought, like many others have lately, of Eva Perón.

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What brought her to mind was the advance hype for the movie, starring Madonna, of the musical Evita, because a lot of that hype is about clothes. Madonna, like Evita before her, conveys personal power through bodily presence. Garb matters a great deal to her, as it did to Evita, and it matters twice as much when they are brought together. Given the movie's period flavor, this means that the modes of the late 1940s and early 1950s are in for a determined revival.

Ididn't see Evita on Broadway, but I did see a recent exhibition in Paris featuring Perón's wardrobe in original magazine photographs dating from her rise. These shots, from both American and French publications, concentrated on Evita's patronage of Christian Dior, fashion's Man of the Hour in the late 1940s, inventor of the "New Look" and savior of the war-wounded French couture. Evita's and Dior's moments of prominence were simultaneous, and they did make a stunning duo--her daringly potent public beauty, his daringly rich and ultrafeminine fashions. The alliance was short, 1950 marking the pinnacle for each. Evita was dead in 1952, Dior in 1957. Both, however, proved enduringly compelling after death.

Dior arrived on the Paris fashion scene after World War II, just in time to do away with the enforced practicality of women's wartime clothing--usually refurbished old clothes, or military uniform--and to revive Romance. The designs of the war years had been stamped with a certain gallant jauntiness and comic quirkiness, expressed in restricted amounts of fabric. Dior's new insistence on elegance for women was an inspired move toward a whole world of pleasure and languor that had been suspended and nearly forgotten.

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W hittled waists and prominent breasts were shaped by exquisitely cut and fitted jackets that curved over flaring hips, while sleek coils of hair supported delicately feathered hats. Crisply radiating pleats and sumptuously layered folds of fabric were deftly manipulated into sweeping skirts, draped shawls, billowing bows--a universe of precious textiles, often embroidered or sequined, to spread out from the hourglass torso. When skirts did not sweep, they molded the figure to well below the knee; dashing cuffs, collars, and stoles did the sweeping. Feet emerged at the bottom, delicately shod. Coats swung out like the mantles of Venetian nobleman.

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The whole effect evoked the French Second Empire of a century earlier, the lush, moneyed social world presided over by the Empress Eugénie. Dior was clearly creating himself in the image of Charles Frederick Worth, the father of hautecouture, dressmaker to the empress and her court, and to the whole affluent world. Dior was proposing to make empresses out of an emerging international clientele, and to re-establish France's pre-eminence as the source of serious fashion, just as the empress had done. Perón was the ideal client, an upstart with huge drive, deep pockets, and great beauty--as Eugénie had been in her time.

There has been a great deal of cant in the past 30 years to the effect that Dior's era forced helpless women into a posture of submission with its fussily constructed garments, cumbersome skirts, cinched waists, and rigid hairstyles, crippling their feet in high heels and imprisoning their hands in white gloves. It looks as though we're now meant to forget that quaint line of thought, and to regard such fancy trappings as appropriate to the ruthless fight for political ascendancy. Call it the Dictatorial Mode.

The historic models for that notion are the Renaissance queens--Elizabeth I of England and Catherine de' Medici of France. Plotting with or against their statesman, courting the populace, negotiating treaties, or ordering executions, those formidable rulers never failed to appear ostentatiously clad in vast padded and jewel-encrusted dresses, their torsos boxed in whalebone, their hair glued into smooth rolls upholding pearls and plumes.

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S ubmissiveness clearly had no part in such dazzling feminine armor, which not only fails to hamper but actively enlarges female power. Modern women, weary of expressing strength of mind and body via sports clothes and messy hair, may be ready to look again at Dior, to see how he helped create Evita's remarkable triumphs and to ponder how similar effects could enhance theirs. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art certainly thinks that we're ready, at least in New York. The institute is mounting an exhibition of Christian Dior's work, to coincide with the opening of the movie and demonstrate the superiority of Dior's vision by displaying the actual clothes. After all, Madonna wore reconstructions in the film, and they won't really look like the real thing.

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One reason for this is that Madonna's pregnancy during shooting required her Dior finery to mask her thickening midsection, whereas photos of Evita in the clothes show that her slimness and tiny waist--maintained both by will and by deteriorating health--were a strong focus of her visual appeal. In the early stages of her career, Evita was fleshier and raunchier and blended better with Madonna's present persona.

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P regnancy aside, what Madonna has that Evita didn't is visible muscles and strong shoulders. The postwar Romantic look involved sloping shoulders, a very straight spine, delicate bones, and no muscles whatsoever. In fact, the sicker and physically weaker Evita became, the more the fashions became her. Her dominating will was all the fiercer, her grip on the people, too. The whole point of the fashion was the tension between the force of female personality and the delicacy of the feminine body.

In fact, the sloping shoulder was the noticeable feature of the new clothes of the Dior era, coming as it did immediately in the wake of the Joan Crawford/Rosalind Russell period and its vigorous shoulder padding. Garbo's characteristic hunched posture of the mid-1930s was wholly obsolete. We had fallen under the spell of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, whose shoulders curved with easy finesse, and whose heads sat high atop swanlike necks, just waiting for crowns.

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A straight spine is something Evita did have that Madonna and most others now either lack or choose not to show off. Ever since we gave up posture for fitness, big square shoulders with a tendency to hunch are no longer a disgrace but the appropriate sign of strength, especially if worn with strong biceps. A hint of hulk is apparently not unwelcome in the modern woman's image, and a slightly humped back, spinal curve, and forward-thrusting neck go well with that. They look very good on Madonna, not to mention Demi Moore; they add a thrilling touch of masculinity to female chic. But they don't go so well with Dior.

Modern women love to be thin, but they also want their strength to look physical, not just emotional or mental, in the Romantic vein. The Dior style went with the kind of physical force that is masked like a ballerina's. In classical ballet, a woman's greatest feats of bodily discipline and endurance must look effortless, and her elasticity, miraculous. The emphasis is on expressive power--on imaginative and spiritual range. Her body's mechanical power is just as great or greater, but it's there to support the interpretation, not to show itself off. That's for gymnasts.

It's possible that women would still rather look like gymnasts than ballerinas. The Madonna/Evita/Dior combination may generate only token changes in fashion, with small details making the period allusions (hairstyles and makeup, hats and gloves, collars and cuffs) on top of the present basic shapes. We may not be ready to hide the female body's true strength, to celebrate feminine charm with luxury and high artifice. Women may have to get more used to their real power in the world before they can afford to look as if they practiced the discipline of elegance, not that of the gym. But, in case we do arrive at that point, I'm straightening my back and keeping my long, full skirts.