Historically Speaking: Fashion Shows: From Royal to Retail

The catwalk has always been a place for dazzling audiences as well as selling clothes

The 2007 Fendi Fall Collection show at the Great Wall of China. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

As devotees know, the fashion calendar is divided between the September fashion shows, which display the designers’ upcoming spring collections, and the February shows, which preview the fall. New York Fashion Week, which wraps up this weekend, is the world’s oldest; it started in 1943, when it was called “press week,” and always goes first, followed by London, Milan, and Paris.

Although fashion week is an American invention, the twice-yearly fashion show can be traced back to the court of Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. The king insisted on a seasonal dress code at court as a way to boost the French textile industry: velvet and satin in the winter, silks in the summer. The French were also responsible for the rise of the dress designer: Charles Frederick Worth opened the first fashion house in Paris in 1858. Worth designed unique dresses for individual clients, but he made his fortune with seasonal dress collections, which he licensed to the new department stores that were springing up in the world’s big cities.

Worth’s other innovation was the use of live models instead of mannequins. By the late 1800s this had evolved into the “fashion parade,” a precursor to today’s catwalk, which took place at invitation-only luncheons and tea parties. In 1903, the Ehrich brothers transported the fashion parade idea to their department store in New York. The big difference was that the dresses on show could be bought and worn the same day. The idea caught on, and all the major department stores began holding fashion shows.

The French couture houses studiously ignored the consumer-friendly approach pioneered by American retailers. After World War II, however, they had to tout for business like anyone else. The first Paris fashion week took place in 1947. But unlike New York’s, which catered to journalists and wholesale buyers only, the emphasis of the Paris fashion shows was still on haute couture.

The two different types of fashion show—the selling kind, organized by department stores for the public, and the preview kind, held by designers for fashion insiders—coexisted until the 1960s. Suddenly, haute couture was out and buying off the rack was in. The retail fashion show became obsolete as the design houses turned to ready-to-wear collections and accessories such as handbags and perfume.

Untethered from its couture roots, the designer fashion show morphed into performance art—the more shocking the better. The late designer Alexander McQueen provocatively titled his 1995 Fall show “Highland Rape” and sent out models in bloodied and torn clothes. The laurels for the most insanely extravagant runway show still belong to Karl Lagerfeld, who staged his 2007 Fendi Fall Collection on the Great Wall of China at a cost of $10 million.

But today there’s trouble on the catwalk. Poor attendance has led to New York’s September Fashion Week shrinking to a mere five days. Critics have started to argue that the idea of seasonal collections makes little sense in today’s global economy, while the convenience of e-commerce has made customers unwilling to wait a week for a dress, let alone six months. Designers are putting on expensive fashion shows only to have their work copied and sold to the public at knockdown prices a few weeks later. The Ehrich brothers may have been right after all: don’t just tell, sell.

Historically Speaking: The Tradition of Telling All

From ancient Greece to modern Washington, political memoirs have been irresistible source of gossip about great leaders

The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2018

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The tell-all memoir has been a feature of American politics ever since Raymond Moley, an ex-aide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, published his excoriating book “After Seven Years” while FDR was still in office. What makes the Trump administration unusual is the speed at which such accounts are appearing—most recently, “Unhinged,” by Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former political aide to the president.

Spilling the beans on one’s boss may be disloyal, but it has a long pedigree. Alexander the Great is thought to have inspired the genre. His great run of military victories, beginning with the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., was so unprecedented that several of his generals felt the urge—unknown in Greek literature before then—to record their experiences for posterity.

Unfortunately, their accounts didn’t survive, save for the memoir of Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which exists in fragments. The great majority of Roman political memoirs have also disappeared—many by official suppression. Historians particularly regret the loss of the memoirs of Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero, who once boasted that she could bring down the entire imperial family with her revelations.

The Heian period (794-1185) in Japan produced four notable court memoirs, all by noblewomen. Dissatisfaction with their lot was a major factor behind these accounts—particularly for the anonymous author of ‘The Gossamer Years,” written around 974. The author was married to Fujiwara no Kane’ie, the regent for the Emperor Ichijo. Her exalted position at court masked a deeply unhappy private life; she was made miserable by her husband’s serial philandering, describing herself as “rich only in loneliness and sorrow.”

In Europe, the first modern political memoir was written by the Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), a frustrated courtier at Versailles who took revenge on Louis XIV with his pen. Saint-Simon’s tales hilariously reveal the drama, gossip and intrigue that surrounded a king whose intellect, in his view, was “beneath mediocrity.”

But even Saint-Simon’s memoirs pale next to those of the Korean noblewoman Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816), wife of Crown Prince Sado of the Joseon Dynasty. Her book, “Memoirs Written in Silence,” tells shocking tales of murder and madness at the heart of the Korean court. Sado, she writes, was a homicidal psychopath who went on a bloody killing spree that was only stopped by the intervention of his father King Yeongjo. Unwilling to see his son publicly executed, Yeongjo had the prince locked inside a rice chest and left to die. Understandably, Hyegyeong’s memoirs caused a huge sensation in Korea when they were first published in 1939, following the death of the last Emperor in 1926.

Fortunately, the Washington political memoir has been free of this kind of violence. Still, it isn’t just Roman emperors who have tried to silence uncomfortable voices. According to the historian Michael Beschloss, President John F. Kennedy had the White House household staff sign agreements to refrain from writing any memoirs. But eventually, of course, even Kennedy’s secrets came out. Perhaps every political leader should be given a plaque that reads: “Just remember, your underlings will have the last word.”