Slaves of Fashion

Fashion and its victims.
April 2 1998 3:30 AM

Slaves of Fashion

The ancient erotic appeal of runway models.

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It isn't just the widening international scope of the fashion industry that makes clothing design everybody's business these days. It's the shows, which are ever more fantastic, and the press coverage of them, which is ever more hysterically serious. It certainly isn't the clothes. If you look around at what men and women are actually wearing in the big fashion cities--Paris, Milan, London, New York--you'll see very little evidence that runway fashion has any impact at all. The extreme garments created for the shows may be worn, occasionally, by people in fashion, showbiz, or society. But the only way the public has of relating to these items is to gasp at them and applaud them, swoon over them and deplore them, laugh at them and compare them--and it's not even the clothes that evoke these responses, it's their likenesses transmitted by the media.

On television, we see close-up interviews with designers babbling tensely just before the show and gasping with relief and fatigue afterward. This lets us know how epic the designer's personal ordeal has been, how heroic his endurance. The other epic elements of the show are insistent music, striking lighting, and a piquant setting, perhaps a skating rink. But these are beside the point. The central focus of everything is the bevy of unbelievable models and the way they work. Clothes, no matter how outrageous, don't register by themselves. It's the girls parading around in them that make the show, dazzle the audience, magnetize the cameras, and entrance the world. Them, and the obscurely thrilling knowledge that they are paid enormous sums to do it.

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I n Paris last week I attended the Vivienne Westwood fashion show. Several palatial chambers and corridors in the 18th century Hôtel Crillon were given over to the operation; they were packed with rows of golden chairs leaving a serpentine passage for the parade, and surrounded by banks of lights and ranks of camerapeople. The audience was an untidy mix, milling and chattering in several languages and photographing each other during the long wait, some dressed in startling Westwoody costumes. A tape of Baroque music began, the mumbling stopped, and on came the procession of ravishing visions. They passed inches from me, stalking and swaying, pausing occasionally, casting friendly looks on one and all. They were very young and very slim, 6 feet tall and distinctively beautiful, each wondrously clad in a wide range of strong colors and textures that were cut and fitted or draped and buttoned to mold the body and occasionally expose the bosom or upper thighs. (In this show, Westwood again demonstrated her talent for employing authentic historical styles to achieve shockingly modern erotic results.) The girls all had fluffy, multicolored piles of hair and bee-stung lips and wore very high-heeled boots or shoes, so they looked like a team even though each costume was different.

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Such ensemble work is crucial at fashion shows. On television the camera rests fleetingly and incompletely on a single outfit. But in life the important thing is the mesmerizing sequence of models. At the Marc Jacobs show for Louis Vuitton, the girls all had bare legs and flat mules and their hair hung down perfectly straight. They wore no makeup at all. The clothes were unshaped and the colors restrained. But everybody was 6 feet tall and slim, very young and very beautiful, and paraded with the same pleasing, well disposed manner and well paced gait through the perversely austere production.

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A t Lanvin, there were many nipples visible through transparent fabrics. At Guy Laroche, there were glittering red sheaths below huge wigs. At Issey Miyake, there was stiff fabric sculpted around the bodies, as always. At Jean-Paul Gaultier, everybody was muffled up in boots and long skirts with caps and sweaters, hoping to suggest the Left Bank in 1948. Through all such intensely concocted efforts, year after year, set ablaze by fierce lights and lashed at by loud music, rows of tall, beautiful, amiable young women stride and pause and turn, obligingly decked in strands of rope, piles of feathers, patches of metal, mountains of taffeta. Every once in a while, one or another will endearingly stumble.

It wasn't always like this. Mannequins have paraded in designers' collections since the turn of the century, but until World War II their status was low and so was their pay. They were employees at individual designers' studios, and their job was to resemble store-window dummies or the sketchy figures in fashion drawings. The sexual charms of prospective customers were on no account to be upstaged by those of the model. Mannequins were nameless, their standard good looks as uninteresting as possible, their erotic selves effaced. At Paquin around 1913, models wore flesh-colored coverings on arms, back, and bosom when they showed décolleté evening wear, so their bare skin wouldn't be distracting.

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I t has remained true that the fashion model's only job is to appear in clothes; indeed, in the atmosphere in which they shine as individual stars, it's all the more important that they have no other distracting talents. The appeal of these female platoons is ancient, potent, and forbidden. They are like rows of whores or slaves, odalisques or concubines, servants in Astarte's temple, Satan's demons as myriad sirens. They don't offer intricate performances that took years of severe training to perfect; they don't sing, speak, or chant; they don't earnestly appear for a cause; they aren't eagerly joining in a festival. They have no will. They parade their fresh charms in seductive, borrowed plumage for our judgment, but only for the greater glory of the sultan, the high priest, the whoremaster, the ringmaster, the devil himself, the designer and his backer who have bought them as toys to play with. It's one of the oldest erotic fantasies, recurrent in legends and fictions of many kinds, lending itself well to traditional ballet and cabaret--see Scheherezade, La Bayadère, Les Folies Bergères, the Copacabana.

We don't allow ourselves to perceive fashion shows as variations on this particular theme, because it would force us away from the comfortable notion that fashion is the mirror of our time. But we do know that deep beneath our surface approval of the wholesome worldwide tide of luxury commerce that keeps the fashion business afloat--boosting economies, promoting employment and cultural exchange, enriching the media with new material and the visual arts with new scope--it is all about sex of a very old-fashioned and dirty-minded kind. What we secretly like about fashion is seeing it perennially exposed in daring, costly, ridiculous, delicious, televised runway shows full of mobile, passive, perfect girls. Anyone looking for a further proof of the return to barbarism at the end of this millennium could probably find it there.

Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.