‘A certain amount of mystery’ … Disney+’s Cristóbal Balenciaga.Photo: David Herranz/Disney+
Couture and public transport have little in common, but the adage that you wait an age for a bus and three come at once has some current crossover. In January, a drama series about the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, and the 30 years he spent working in Paris, premiered on Disney+. Hot on the heels of the Apple TV+ drama The New Look, which lands this week, follows Christian Dior and his colleagues as they navigate the Second World War. Later this year, Daniel Brühl (Good Bye, Lenin!, All Quiet on the Western Front) will play Karl Lagerfeld in a series given the working title Kaiser Karl that will chart the late designer’s rise through the world of Parisian fashion. in the 1970s.
It is remarkable that a glut of television, not only about fashion, but about the rarefied world of high fashion, should be flooding our screens in such a short space of time. On the one hand, the reasons are obvious – the characters are colorful and complex and the clothes are beautiful. There are big egos and even big hats, era-defining cuts and cut contests. But on the other hand, if it was so obvious, why didn’t it happen before?
This kind of fashion TV feels off. From America’s Next Top Model to Project Runway and Next in Fashion, fashion on TV in recent years has often meant reality. Or what fashion writer Justine Picardie brings up as “shiny Saturday night TV”, talk shows and Strictly, apparently not about fashion, but about dressing up. This new wave, she says, is “bringing us beauty and magic in a different way”.
Medieval fashion as the subject of this new series is in line with what Helen Warner, senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia and author of Fashion on Television, sees as “a more general focus on this time period in terms of fashion history. . We’ve moved from the elites in society dictating style, like in the 1800s, to a system where specific designers define trends,” she says. “There’s a mythology around it and a certain amount of mystery around these figures.”
They are also household names. Take Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She is, says Picardie, who spent a decade researching her for a 2010 book called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, “one of the most famous women in the world”. Meanwhile, Christian Dior was not only “the most famous Frenchman in the world”, but, after the second world war, “his name would probably be even more recognizable than Charles De Gaulle or Jean-Paul Sartre about him. will become this huge economic revival”.
Then there is the fact that they were not only big names, but that many of them were also big characters. Again, take Chanel. It’s no wonder that The New Look, a show that takes its name from the sartorial revolution that Dior inspired in Paris after the second world war, is as much about her as it is about her. “She’s an incredible character,” says Picardie. She adds spice, glamor and dubious ethics to Balenciaga and The New Look, with the complex picture of her collaboration with the Nazis making for hilarious viewing. In one scene in The New Look, a perfectly cast Juliette Binoche knocks back cocktails and drops witty lines while sitting next to Heinrich Himmler, commanding officer of the SS, at a dinner party.
These new shows emphasize what many fashion fans have known for a long time – that fashion is fundamentally shaped by its social, historical and political context. But also that it shapes it. Once again, Chanel is a fitting example. “She influenced modernism,” says Picardie. “Picasso called her the smartest woman in Europe. She expressed modernism through clothing.” Rising to prominence during the first world war, “when women were entering the workforce for the first time ever”, she changed the way women were treated. “She dignified herself [when] women did not have the sartorial dignity afforded to men by tailoring.”
We cannot claim that we are in it for the historical depth alone, however. Audiences are nosy. “Of course, we’ll be watching them for human interaction and a demonstration of the highs and lows of a type of success that few of us know about. But we also love a bit of tabloid titillation,” says fashion and identity commentator Caryn Franklin – a former presenter of The Clothes Show, she knows her way around fashion on the small screen. It shows us, she says, “that most of the time they were just like us: sometimes great, often very competitive and insecure, and sometimes bad but always better styles and much better connected stylish people than us.”
As for all the time, Warner’s flags often have spikes in film and TV fashion to coincide with times of economic crisis. She points to a wide range of Hollywood films made during the Great Depression, such as Mannequin and Stolen Holiday, which were “designed to facilitate tie-ups with department stores” in an effort to boost the economy. “Right now, we are in a cost of living crisis and climate emergency. Given that the fashion industry’s contribution to global emissions is well documented, I would not rule out the view that these shows are partly a response, and an attempt to manage the fashion industry’s image.”
Related: ‘They have created chaos, gone viral and created a sold-out buzz’: the rise and fall of the fashion house Balenciaga
Commerce is greasing the wheels. These big brands have huge followers on social media – Dior has 46 million, Chanel 60 million and Balenciaga 14 million less. Telly types will no doubt be wise to these metrics. “They’re a big cultural phenomenon,” says Picardie, “so the commissioning editors at the major streaming media services might have thought: ‘Obviously people are interested.'” If any of them are tempted to engage. research a little deeper, back to the era of Napoleon , which was the background of Louis Vuitton’s life, they might be interested to know that his namesake brand now has more than 55 million followers on Instagram.
Picardie focuses on the effect of the Crown. It was very popular, “it showed that people could be interested in a different, alternative view of history”. In The Crown, history is viewed through the “principle of British royalty”. In this new series of shows, history is viewed through the prism of high fashion. Why not use the likes of Chanel, an extremely complex, sharp-tongued and energetic character as a lens to retell a chapter in history that has been told many times before? Or Balenciaga, whose camera-shyness has made him something of an enigma in stark contrast to the stunt-y, viral-hungry clothes of Balenciaga’s current brand.
In both, the lens shifts between zooming in on the details – the royal family and the fashion world respectively – and out, giving us the bigger picture. In The Crown, there are episodes exploring the moon landing and the Aberfan disaster; in Balenciaga and The New Look, we are given an insight into life in Paris under Nazi occupation. Particularly through the character of Catherine Dior, Christian’s sister, The New Look examines the story of the French resistance, with Catherine’s part in it as a result of her arrest in the French capital in 1944, before being tortured and transported to the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. .
This is not happening in a cultural vacuum. These stories are also being told in museums and galleries around the world. Women Dressing Women, which showcases the work of French couturiers alongside contemporary designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Simone Rocha, is now on at the Met in New York, and in Paris the Musée des Arts Décoratifs will be showing the stunning designs of Iris van Herpen . until April. It follows large-scale exhibitions at the V&A. “The Dior show was the biggest and most successful show [fashion] show of all time, and so was Chanel – the tickets sold out in two days,” says Picardie. Bina Daigeler’s costumes from the Balenciaga show were even made in an exhibition in Madrid and there were, she says, long queues. “It was so busy that there were only people who were interested in fashion – so, so many visits.”
If you look at fashion now it might also provide tips. We are dealing with fast, even hyper-fast fashion. Supercharged e-tailer Shein can decide on a product, manufacture it and mail it to customers in less than three weeks. In contrast, the painstaking and slow process of couture can take months. Daigeler thinks the beauty of this process has something to do with its results. In a world where fast fashion is the norm, “I think it’s interesting now for people to look at what haute couture was.”
In a way the question may be true: why did it take so long for these designers to take their place on the small screen? “These are interesting people who have been sidelined and ignored,” says Picardie, whose initial research for Miss Dior, a book about Catherine Dior, in 2011, proved uninteresting, and the book would go on to become a bestseller. when published in. 2021. “It’s just now that other forms of mass culture are saying: ‘Oh yeah, maybe this is worth doing – there’s going to be an audience.’”
But for all the theorising, there is a special magic to these moments where culture comes together. Daigeler has seen it before. While working on Mrs. America, Hulu’s miniseries about feminist activist Gloria Steinem, Steinem’s film was also being made. “I often think it’s just a coincidence.” As she says: “I don’t know if it’s just something in the air.”