Requiem for the American Dream

Haute Couture Week in Paris sees the unveiling some of the most innovative designs that we’ll see all year. The fashion industry is changing, and designers are reflecting these changes in their collections. They are imagining the future, idealizing the past, and trying to reconcile the two at the same time. Here are the highlights:

Iris van Herpen imagines the future through aesthetics; her new collection is distinct from anything else in fashion today. It is called Between the Lines, and these lines are hand-painted through injection molding onto sheer tulle. These museum-worthy creations give the impact of a second skin, allowing the audience to imagine in what ways humans might evolve within the next couple million years. I like to think that if we become a little more like our prehistoric ancestors, we might look something like this. Plus, this collection gets a 10/10 for being gender-inclusive.

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I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see which Kardashian sister rocks the look on the far right. In contrast, Giambattista Valli Spring 2017 Couture is a reverie bound by antiquity. It’s the runway version of an interesting chat with a history major regarding women’s fashion throughout the ages. What it has meant to be “ladylike” throughout modern history is deeply embedded in how women dress. In these dynamic and turbulent times, this collection clings to an idealized image of femininity that our collective consciousness has left in the past.

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The past is a fiction that can be as consuming as any fantasy; Chanel Spring 2017 Couture is about what it means to be a power woman living in present times. A range of ladylike silhouettes for business and pleasure were cinched at the waist with big, bold belts. The belts looked tight as corsets and I could not imagine myself sitting comfortably in them. The lineup was so star-studded that I couldn’t help but wonder, “in this day and age, who ought to model?”

In the past, international supermodels were discovered as fresh-faced, ambitious teenagers. The promise that anyone can become anything they want as long as they work hard enough is the American Dream. Supermodels used to be born out of entire generations watching runway and asking “who’s that girl?” Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to even find the Instagram account of “that girl” unless she’s already a household name. In which case, you’d be asking “who’s that girl… with the horrible posture?”

The American Dream is the illusion that you can become anything you want if you work hard enough for it. This illusion was especially prevalent in the United States before, after, and during the Great Depression. During the economic boom, stock brokers blew off steam after work with flappers and sheiks in secret clubs and bars. High society was becoming infiltrated by self-made businessmen, who cited the American Dream for their success.

During the Great Depression, society at large became disenchanted. People were still working hard, but the promise of the American Dream was becoming increasingly exclusive. During the boom, whether a person was “old money” or “new money” was a big deal. In other words, if you inherited your money, you’d be respected by all, and if you “earned” your money, you were somehow less. By the time the economy started stabilizing after World War II, that distinction was obscured.

In the modeling industry, the Paris Couture Week is the American Dream. However, “old” and “new” money play an important role. A model’s success is increasingly hinged on how many connections she and her family have to the fashion industry. Whereas the Great Depression obscured the distinction between “old” and “new” money, the recession of 2008 bolstered it. Instead of taking chances with new faces, designers are more likely to hire celebrities who they know will sell the clothes, the look, and the ideology.

Chanel Spring 2017 Couture boasts motifs from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s in order to draw the audience into this ideology; the pinnacle of luxury is not self-made, but inherited. Art imitates life, and life imitates art.

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