NEW YORK • In fashion, do all roads lead to France?
That is the obvious conclusion as designer after designer decamps - even just temporarily - to Paris from New York, London or Tokyo. Now, two French-fashion exhibitions in New York are examining some of the reasons.
Paris, Capital Of Fashion at The Museum at FIT focuses on the spare-no-expense, colour-drenched explosion of finery that took off in the Ancien Regime (from the 15th to 18th centuries) and has not stopped since.
French Fashion, Women And The First World War at the Bard Graduate Centre Gallery depicts how the French fashion industry persevered amid hardships and, by the war's end, gave the emerging modern world a pretty good idea of how it would dress.
"Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain" is the well-known comment by French king Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who first organised craft workers into strictly regulated guilds that fended off imports.
It was all about "shaping France's identity and giving France a cultural and economic importance on the international stage", said Dr Sophie Kurkdjian, co-curator of the Bard exhibition.
The FIT show documents "how Paris acquired and retained its status as our foremost fashion capital", according to Dr Valerie Steele, the museum's director and chief curator.
The display in the first gallery depicts France "within a global context, in dialogue with other fashion capitals", she said - engaging in savvy business tactics that have long included not just organised French labour, but also the co-opting of foreign talent.
It was, in fact, an Englishman in Paris - Charles Frederick Worth - who transformed couture from a small-scale craft into big business by creating official collections.
On display is his 1883 yellow satin ballgown with gold and silver threads and glass beads in a lightning-bolt pattern, designed exclusively for Alice Vanderbilt, wife of American industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt II, as a fancy dress costume titled Electric Light. A hidden battery allowed her to carry an illuminated light bulb above her head, Statue of Liberty-style.
In the exhibition, to show transitions at work, a black lace and silk dress by French fashion designer Coco Chanel, circa 1926, is next to a 1986 black silk crepe evening dress with embroidered trompe l'oeil jewellery by Karl Lagerfeld, one of Chanel's successors; and Pierre Balmain's spring 1954 lady-like Psyche haute couture dress in embroidered lace and silk satin is paired with a fiercely modern fall 2013 evening dress in beaded black and white raffia and rhinestones by his current successor, Olivier Rousteing.
The idea behind these pairings? "Famous names of fashion can be forgotten unless the name of the house becomes associated with an illustrious successor," Dr Steele said.
About 5km north of the FIT, the Bard exhibition underscores something Women's Wear Daily proclaimed in 1917: "Even while she is crippled through the war, the French couture continued to dictate fashions for the entire world."
Gathered on the gallery's three floors are convincing examples of how French fashion moved in new directions during the conflict.
This exhibition is the first comprehensive view of French fashion during World War I, according to co-curator Maude Bass-Krueger.
In the exhibition's book-length catalogue, Dr Bass-Krueger's essay, Fashion, Gender And Anxiety, notes that Frenchmen, especially those at the front, often did not welcome the new directions in fashion. Satirical cartoons, postcards and articles - many on display in the exhibition - show how clothing was used, Dr Bass-Krueger said, "to unmask deep-seated anxiety about what was perceived as a widening rift between men and women over the course of the war" .
The soldiers objected not only to the emerging androgynous designs, but even mourning dresses - seen everywhere following the deaths of more than one million French soldiers - were scorned, the essay noted.
But after the war, according to Dr Bass-Krueger's essay, "as the black dress evolved into a fashion statement in its own right, the seductive tones of the widow's dress became its main selling point" .
Chanel, for one, took note. Enter the little black dress. The deformalisation of dress had begun.