Best Of 2017: Colin McDowell Talks Frocks And Rebellion
Broadly speaking, there are two types of rebel behaviour. Either making a lot of noise or just quietly getting on with whatever the rebel wants to see changed. We all know that, but we sometimes forget that, quiet or not, rebellion is a serious – and often dangerous – thing. Even in the world of frocks.
It always has been that way, and women have frequently been at the vanguard of the new. It is possible that Eve, the very first female rebel, was also the very first fashionista. Perhaps she tempted Adam with the apple because she had a feminine intuition that God would provide an ivy leaf as the beginning of her capsule wardrobe.
Think of Cleopatra, another alluring woman who rebelled against all the rules in her determination to get her way in all things, not least how to have her own way with the man she enslaved. As Shakespeare tells us, her beauty and magnificence made her every inch a queen, to such an extent that she “unmanned” Antony (the greatest warrior of his age), who was overwhelmed by her taunting perfumes and priceless jewellery.
But it wasn’t just the gold and the grandeur, we suppose. Antony was a lost soul because of the richness of her beauty and, I like to think, the glamour of her wardrobe, which means he lines up alongside Adam as not only one of the very first fashion victims, but as almost an archetype of man as victim of female wiles down through the centuries.
Moving forward across the centuries, Louis XV spent a fortune on whatever he fancied: his homes (he moved the court and seat of government back to Versailles from Paris); and his wardrobe – silver and gold, satin and fur. And, above all, his sexual pleasure with his many mistresses, chief among whom – leader of the pleasure pack, we could say – the one who most of us know about, Madame de Pompadour, a true mistress-demon in the unique French style, who had her way in all things to do with the regal bedroom.
But let’s not forget Marie Antoinette, generally recognised as the very first real fashion obsessive, in that she loved every new idea and revelled in her ability as queen to change fashion simply by what she wore – which had to be instantly adopted by her attendants and other ladies of the court. The effect was to be paralleled in the 20th century by Dior’s New Look, which, despite Chanel’s dismissal of it, made any other skirt length look dowdy and old-fashioned. The miniskirt had the same effect 20 years later. Such complete fashion turnarounds worked so quickly because they were aimed at specific markets. The New Look was initially for wealthy women in their mid-twenties and older and the mini was part of the glorious period of the Swinging Sixties, when the age of fashion plummeted by creating, for the first time in history, a fashion only really suitable for the young and not at all suitable for their mothers – and by doing so, completely changed the attitudes towards dress and its vocabulary. Fashion writers no longer talked about glamour, poise or elan. Young magazines wrote about fun, sexiness and freedom. And the world has never looked back.
But what the modern fashion world has done – and very successfully – is look sideways to find inspirations that are not just powerful but revolutionary. And interestingly, after centuries of European fashion domination, the main thrust of fashion in the past 25 years has come from the other side of the world. Japan was a late entry onto the international fashion scene, but its impact and influence have been immense and still continue. Anyone who was at the Paris fashion shows in the early 1980s will never forget the effect. Not only did the Japanese designers tear up the international rule book, they also approached modern dress and the whole concept of beauty and elegance from a position that, in centuries, western dress had not even considered. It was a totally original “take” on fashion but, even more, this was real rebellion, in that designers such as Rei Kawakubo taught fashion that women should be making the choices for themselves, not men. She is not the demon that Paris thought, but she was, and is, a rebel against the idea that only men know how to dress women. Her explosive entry into western fashion broke the glass ceiling and made it possible for women to become top designers in serious numbers.
Of course, design innovation in any field is important if we are to keep moving forward and, although fashion plays a leading part in this continuum, the people who matter – the people who have always mattered – are the customers who buy and wear the clothes. They have to be strong and they have to have total conviction because, nine times out of ten, they will initially be misunderstood if they are too “way out”. This is where the demon rebel comes into her own – as an example and a leader.
We have only to think back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli (two creative heavyweights if ever there were) kicked male designers into touch with classic demon/rebel approaches that seem nothing to us now but were scary at the time. Chanel was accused of trying to turn women into lesbians with her relaxed and masculine-inspired clothes (which were, paradoxically, very flattering to female figures), while Schiaparelli undermined the pomposity of couture by creating clothes that actually made people laugh out loud – true sacrilege in a profession that took itself far too seriously, as only too often it still does today.
I often wonder why men’s fashion changes so slowly and women’s doesn’t. My conclusion is that, ultimately, women have more confidence and courage than men. In the 1950s, when I was young, for a man to meet his mates wearing a pink or yellow sweater and suede shoes was asking for ridicule and scorn, if not worse. When a woman wears a look not quite acceptable, especially if hot from a show of an avant-garde designer, she usually kindles envy that is only too often from her own sex. The leading figure in the past 20 years was Isabella Blow, who was a passionate advocate of anything new – and the bolder, the better. Having worked with her, I can say without fear of contradiction that she was more devilish than demonic and was never happier than when a designer of the calibre of Alexander McQueen leapt the fence with her and ran through the pastures of high fashion, creating clothes that even now are avant-garde.
In the past, powerful women were rather thin on the ground, but that meant that their influence as tastemakers and trailblazers was greater. Let’s just go back a century or so and think of the great actresses in the theatre and, a little later, the early cinema screen. The theatrical diva Sarah Bernhardt, perennially swathed in exotic animal skins; the dancer Isadora Duncan, the first woman to perform in public without shoes or corsets, which scandalised her own sex but delighted men; and Mae West, who took verbal wit as close to obscenity as was allowed in 1930s America and dressed in figure-hugging satin for day and night to highlight her amazing figure (in particular her monumental cleavage). Even Schiaparelli pretended to be shocked by it, but the bottle for the fragrance she called Shocking was modelled on West’s figure. It was a global bestseller.
And the designers who broke the mould were strong, rebellious women such as Schiaparelli and before her, Chanel. As Diana Vreeland once said, Chanel invented the 20th century for women, and she did so by giving them a completely modern wardrobe based on the casual confidence of the country gentleman. Schiaparelli’s great achievement was to make clothes not just witty but also bold. Her rebellious approach to design often resulted in clothes that were more art than fashion. The influence of both designers has been with fashion ever since, as their artistic and commercial success encouraged women as different as Donna Karan, Jean Muir and Mary Quant to follow their own star.
But it has to be admitted that the greatest influence of all over women’s dress in the second half of the 20th century was not a woman but a very young man. We’re talking about Yves Saint Laurent, of course, the gentle revolutionary. His Rive Gauche line and the many boutiques where it was sold brought fashion in line with the age of the customers, once comfortably (in every sense) in their late thirties or forties, now early twenties or even teenage. It was true revolution and it swept across all fashion capitals: Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes and, just a little later, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano took London to the forefront of rebel fashion, led on and encouraged by the music and club scene, which was, for at least a decade, stronger in the English capital than anywhere else across the globe.
The new feel was all about raw, fearless creativity and it appealed to both sexes, for whom My Generation by The Who almost became an international anthem for youth across the globe.
And then we come to the most influential of all modern demon rebels. I am thinking of Marc Jacobs who, stimulated by Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and the music of Nirvana, and above all, their poverty-chic secondhand clothes way of dressing, created the most trendsetting collection of the last years of the 20th century. Labelled grunge, it horrified many mainstream-fashion followers, other designers and much of the media, but young “outsiders” loved it. Here, finally, was a look that rebels around the world could identify with. Most of it could be replicated by buying secondhand clothes at markets and thrift shops and doctoring it, making a fashion entirely the individual’s own. More powerful than punk, which suddenly looked too formulaic and predictable to many, grunge had the short-term result of getting Jacobs sacked from Perry Ellis. But, in my opinion, it set Jacobs on his dramatic rise to becoming the most influential designer since Yves Saint Laurent himself.
But now all designers can be rebels and they will nearly always find women who believe in – and understand – what their rebellion is about, women who do not need a lead from singers such as Madonna and Lady Gaga, as in the past, but prefer to identify with each other.
And yet, the reason for all rebellion – undermining the status quo in order to make a new orthodoxy – is still very much alive in fashion and, surprisingly, shows its strength most uncompromisingly in Paris, which is still, even today, the fashion leader it has been without any serious rival since the 18th century. And the new generation of designer that has gravitated there is teaching us a new language of fashion. We may not like it, but we need it.
We need to remember that demon rebels begin by frightening and end up leading us to pastures new and fertile. So when you next see a DHL shirt paraded on a supercool rebellious catwalk, don’t be irritated, don’t be scared. See it for what it just might be: the first, tentative search for a new language of fashion from a designer who has realised that none of the old and oft-repeated tropes and attitudes can satisfy the new rebel demons.
But I guess that, looking back, it is powerful women who have the strength of their convictions to such an extent that they are a deep part of their personalities – the demon rebels – who get it first and are prepared to put up with insults, rejection and even physical hostility from both sexes rather than give up their beliefs. We only have to think of Marchesa Casati in the early part of the previous century who once gave herself a serious electric shock while wearing a wired-up out t of her own concoction. Her reason for doing so? The thing that should always fuel new fashion: the fact that it has not been done before.
Let’s not forget that fashion moves forward by providing us with “electric shocks” that literally change our attitudes. We need the fearless designers who are prepared to face insults and derision for what they believe in but we also need women such as Daphne Guinness and Blow, who support them by proudly and courageously wearing their creations. As rebel demons know, that which is initially scoffed at often (but not always) becomes the desirable norm.
Text by Colin McDowell
Illustration by Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…