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Sober times at the haute couture

Times are tough, and Paris haute couture week reflected that

Chanel suitHaving had a look at the major collections from Paris haute couture week, I would say the general feeling is sobriety.

Orange Dior suitFrom every designer, the palette was dark - black, navy and grey for the most part - though there were splashes of other colours (at Dior, take your pick from acid green, acid yellow, acid pink, acid orange...Dior is clearly the only house where anyone's having any fun). 

The fashions were also buttoned up and protective - not snuggly protective, but more like armour. Corsets, basques, double-breasted jackets, heavily constructed skirts, leather trenchcoats. This is a definite sign of the times - clothing for getting caught in the rain or standing in the dole queue. There was little that looked positive or optimistic.

Gaultier jacketAlong with the distinctly military-style wear seen at Wimbledon (trenchcoats on Serena, full quasi-naval uniform for Federer), this is a worrying trend. You tend to get it when the right-wing is on the rise, as seen in about 1938, before the First World War and during the Napoleonic wars. Arm for war and war will follow. The only thing that makes me less worried is that these fashions also offer the distinctively feminine post-war New Look design of skirt. 

There was also a whiff of 1950s glamour about most of the collections - a serious, sober, grown-up era - and conversely the early 70s with a rather Muir-ish Biba-eyed smoky decadent look, particularly the tight head wraps at Lacroix. At Gaultier, we were back in the 60s, with Bardot beehives, but his collection in general was a bit of a mess, as were several others, including Valentino and Chanel. Whatever the decade, with the future uncertain, designers were clearly taking refuge in the past. 

LacroixPerhaps the best collection was what may prove to be a swansong - Lacroix's. Once again he is facing bankruptcy, but pulled a rabbit out of a hat with a collection which was sober, restrained and perfectly cut rather than his usual flower-festival style of clashing colours and patterns. (For those who have never seen his flamboyant haute couture style in the flesh though, it is unbelievably beautiful in close-up - much more so than you would ever guess from a picture.) In his new restrained mood, I absolutely love this black dress with its three different fabrics and subtle pattern. It also shows one of the signature shoulder treatments of all the collections: if you want to update your little black cocktail dress this year, an ample chiffon wrap tied around and secured with a pin will be much more on-trend than a shrug.  

Armani jacketFor me, the main garment that really stood out in every collection was the jacket. You could probably update your whole wardrobe this winter with just one new jacket - look for something with a bit of neckline interest, which is very flattering for women over 40. 

In the main these jackets seemed designed to shield the wearer from the elements - structured rather than flimsy, and glamourously practical, with proper buttons and often high necklines. Distinctly waisted, too, and soemtimes with a peplum. A peplum is a useful disguise if your waist is thickening, btw, as it introduces a shape you haven't got. 

Pink dior jacketHowever, at Dior, always an exaggerated show, Galliano morphed the peplums into full-on version of New Look on steroids, wth padded hips, tiny waists, basques and corsets galore. (He also sent his models down the runway half-dressed, though this need not concern us.) What it does show, though, is a definite return to a tight-waisted silhouette after a decade and a half of a longer, more elongated silhouette. 

Armani pantsuitIt remains to be seen whether the fashion industry can foist this on us. It is good news for me - this style suits me and I have many vintage jackets in this style - but it isn't for most women, who are generally more flattered by an elongated shape than an hourglass one. Many women will greet it with dismay.

For a small-busted British pear with no belly fat, it's a good shape - the wider shoulders balance the silhouette and give you a figure you haven't got. But apple-shaped or oblong women, beware. Your best bet is to hope that those Armani pantsuits with a longer, narrower jacket hit the shops in watered-down and more affordable guise. 

For hundreds more photos and reviews of all the collections, visit Style.com

De La Fressange returns to the catwalk at 51

Former muse of Karl Lagerfeld, Ines de la Fressange has been walking the red carpet for Jean-Paul Gaultier

InesdelaFressangeInes de la Fressange - former 'muse' of Karl Lagerfeld - returned to the catwalk for Paris fashion week, at the age of 51.

Way to go.

I always loved de la Fressange's look. If I were to look in my scrapbooks from the 1980s, I know she'll be there, and I can even see one of the outfits in my mind's eye - a red, assymmetric satin dress for Chanel with a long rhinestone strap. 

She was always a perfect French beauty, and she remains one - doesn't exercise, doesn't believe in plastic surgery, doesn't have Botox, just allows herself to grow older gracefully, stays thin and gets on with her life. She admitted in a Time interview that she'd been to a beauty salon last July and loved it but had kind of forgotten to go back. Like many French women, her beauty and elegance just appear thrown together.

It helps if you're drop-dead gorgeous to start with, of course, but this is such a French attitude - she probably learned 30 years ago what suited her and has stuck with it ever since. You can bet that her wardrobe is full of tailored separates, mostly black; cashmere knitwear; well-cut jeans, jackets that hit her exactly where it's most flattering.

Fressange2Gaultier, who has a reputation for working with unusual models - the outsize, older and tattooed among them - sent her down the runway in two outfits, both black. My favourite was the long tuxedo dress, which is beautiful. I'd never thought of a tuxedo jacket with a skirt, but it looks great - and useful too. So excited was he by her reception that he ran down the runway in theatrical fashion afterwards and bear-hugged her. 

As for the rest of the show, it was - as with other collections this year - monochrome. Where the Chanel show was white, Gaultier was black, mixed with large quantities of grey. Clearly fashion is getting serious for 2009, but there was also lots of gorgeous texture, corsetry and - more than anything else - transparency, as seen in this organza dress.  

Gaultier dressTransparency is a useful trick for those of us over 40, of course, so I always welcome its reappearance. A chiffon-sleeved blouse or organza cardigan can hide a multitude of bingo wings while introducing a bit of sex into an outfit.

But as for me, from the whole collection I'd give my eye teeth for that tuxedo dress. And somewhere to wear it, of course!

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