Forever blowing bubbles

An effervescent industry, predicated on impermanence. Colin McDowell casts a historical eye on the vagaries and caprices of fashion

Colin _1Illustrations by Isabel Nascimento

We all know that the Victorians reached a high point of sentimentality about death, children and domestic pets, even to the level of obsession – and we haven’t fully cast off their attitudes even now. But we manifest our obsessions in different ways. John Everett Millais was a popular and highly successful late Victorian portrait painter who fully understood the sentimentality of his times. So he was not necessarily being ingenuous when in 1886, at the peak of his career, he painted his grandson – a young Little Lord Fauntleroy lookalike, dressed in green velvet, blowing bubbles languidly into the air – and called it A Child’s World (he later changed the name to Bubbles). It was a sensation, although few realised that it was basically a crib of Dutch low-life genre paintings of “artful dodger” street urchins, trying to make an honest living by begging instead of thieving. Had that been more widely known, the cultural history of Bubbles might have stopped right there.

As it is, the painting fitted the tone of the times so perfectly that it was bought by Pears, the soap company, and used as a symbol of the purity of its product. Working on several semantic levels, the association with the innocence of childhood made Pears soap a bestselling toiletry for many years. When I was a boy, it was the soap my sister and I always used. Over fifty years later, Pears soap is still sold today. 

We all have our own ideas about the importance of the bubble. Many believe it references an individual’s life from birth to death and there is logic in that interpretation: we are all trapped in a life bubble created by our characters, personalities, opportunities and skills. But I prefer to believe that we can be more optimistic and even more proactive than that. Our lives are not, in my opinion, one big bubble, but rather a series of bubbles in which circumstances largely take control, for good or bad. These “life bubbles” bring us a measure of control over our worlds, but like real bubbles, they do go pop after a while. Which gives us choice. When it happens, we can think our lives and dreams are over, or we can take the opportunity to stake out a new path. Whether it is to do with health, work or personal relations, it is an invitation to surround ourselves with the next bubble because, once the previous bubble has burst, it is gone for good, leaving nothing behind but a damp patch and memories, good or bad. 

I have never had a planned career, but I have had many bubbles that have taken me into widely disparate worlds, all of which I am lucky enough to have enjoyed. I have even found a small measure of success in them, not in monetary terms, but in other, much more important ones. The longest lasting, and therefore probably the best, bubble of my life (following university, teaching, acting and military bubbles) has been fashion, which I almost by accident made my own mini-bubble within the bigger life one. Designer, illustrator, editor, writer: I have tried and enjoyed them all, which is why I would like to examine fashion bubbles in rather more depth.

Fashion has always been subject to change, often quite violent and arbitrary. Take the French Revolution. When it first got rid of the elaborate and costly velvets, silks, satins and gold embroidery that were the standard at Versailles – surely the greatest palace of mindless self-indulgence ever conceived in the post-ancient world – it replaced them with Revolutionary-peasant plain dress, deliberately demonstrating (it was hoped) the probity

of the previously deprived. Simplicity and austerity were the order of the day but, no matter what the message of the dress, the reality was that people who had been derided and considered little better than animals took their revenge in an orgy of destruction designed not only to kill the aristocratic class, but also to destroy its way of life. But when the carnage and cruelty had calmed down, clothes did not return to the old style. Instead, the classic simplicity of the Directorate took its place in France and was taken up in Britain, where it was known as the Regency. A bubble had burst and a new one formed, a process that renewed itself throughout the 19th century.

During the 20th century, other violent changes took place in fashion bubbles. After the First World War, the shape of women’s dress was radically altered by the change in their status and imperatives. Having worked on terms of equality with men for the war effort – even being allowed to wear trousers, a thing previously unheard of for a respectable woman – women had no intention of returning to the old ways. Coco Chanel and Jean Patou realised that a bubble had burst and they were right. A new bubble was formed and like all new bubbles, it destroyed any hope of the old bubble’s ideals and prerogatives ever returning. Quite rightly, women expected to enjoy the privileges and advantages given automatically to men because they had given what they were called upon to give to the war effort as well.

The right to work; the right to drink and smoke; the right to dress as they wished; the right to have total control of their sexual, social and moral lives; the right to hold and express opinions of their own. It all seems so obvious now that it is becoming quite hard for us to remember that, in those early bubbles, the fight for equality was fierce – a fight many women still feel has still not produced a true balance between the sexes.

But, as I have said, fashion bubbles are like soap bubbles. They do not last long. Twenty years after the appearance of the flapper and the appalling privations of the Second World War, fashion was ready for its next bubble. It was to come from a most unlikely source. 

Christian Dior was aged 42 when he created the New Look in 1947. His career until that point had been undistinguished and included its fair share of failures. But when he was asked by the French textile millionaire Marcel Boussac to revive a failed fashion house, his own personal bubble of courage (we all have one!) came to the fore. No more associations with failure for him. He boldly said that he had not been born in order to raise failed fashion houses from the dead and demanded to be backed in his own name. Boussac agreed and invested the equivalent of €1 million in the untried designer. Maison Christian Dior was created. His first collection – dubbed the “New Look”, reputedly by Carmel Snow, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar – made Dior’s name famous across the globe. And although women wanted this romantic, elegant look immediately, men were less sure, as were government departments in the post-war period of refugees, rationing and the unbearable suffering of millions of displaced persons across Europe. But Dior’s bubble was too strong to burst. The New Look woman lasted into the 1960s, although Dior lived for only ten years after his revolutionary opening show. 

By luck, divine intervention or sheer commercial nous, Dior had been the right man with exactly the right attitude towards women of the time. His inspiration was his childhood memories for his mother in the early years of the century. He fell in love with her appearance, which, fittingly for the provincial life of Brittany and the Dior family’s social life, was fashionable but not extravagant. Except for the proportions, which were what Dior remembered most: skirts which looked huge from his childish viewpoint, waists that, in contrast, seemed tiny. He captured the appetites of women who had been starved of beauty and glamour during the war and just wanted to be feminine again. And, with the New Look, they certainly were.

The reason was simple: the really impressive bubbles come from left field. Unexpected, impractical and largely disapproved of by our elders and betters, all the best bubbles are so strong that they sweep away any opposition. There are some things – like Star Wars or Adele’s songs – that are so big they annihilate any opposition. This was what Dior did in his first eponymous fashion show, thus ensuring his place in that temple of fashion worthies also occupied by Poiret, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Charles James and Yves Saint Laurent.

Fashion bubbles are always burst by another bubble, of course, which will, in time, suffer the same fate. What next changed dress and created perhaps the most influential fashion movement in the history of European civilisation was the dramatic drop in the age of fashion’s target audience. This was eagerly pounced on by designers, always alert to demographic changes and ready to capitalise on new markets. Mary Quant, Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges realised, well before the vast and powerful fashion houses, that for the first time in history an entirely new customer had emerged. Women under 30 were increasingly well educated, in good jobs, living independently and making their own life decisions. Their mothers’ svelte high-fashion looks seemed utterly contrived and were rejected as seemingly more important than the woman wearing them – and too often chosen for them by their dressmakers, couturiers, husbands or lovers. The old saying “No woman ever buys couture with her own money” was a truism even back then! The man who understood this better than anyone and who permanently empowered young women with his fashion was Yves Saint Laurent (who had actually been trained by Dior himself).

The new fashion customer was not looking for elegance. She was ready for sex – and not sex disguised as love, as in previous generations, but a liberation made possible by the pill. Women could dress for sexual provocation, knowing that unwanted pregnancies would not necessarily follow. So they bared their thighs, encased their derrières in tight trousers and went topless on the beach as part of the unprecedented social freedom they could enjoy.

Colin _2

The old guard was being left behind. Norman Hartnell, the doyen of London couturiers, who dressed the Queen Mother and her daughters, was asked if he thought the mini would catch on. He replied, “I hope not. Women’s knees are like rock cakes, my dear.” He had clearly never looked at Twiggy, the original British supermodel, whose effect on fashion was greater than that of any model before her.  

Meanwhile, mothers were still trapped in their own bubble – few of us can leap from one to another with total success – and facing many a battle. There is a (probably apocryphal) story of one who went with her daughter to buy a dress from one of the boutiques (a very new concept) in Chelsea. When her daughter came out in a straight, unadorned mini-dress, the mother gasped in horror, “No, darling! You look dreadful!” To which her daughter replied, “But I feel wonderful, mummy.” The dress was bought. The gate to the future was opened, leading to a path that has now brought us to a fashionable and sexual ideal which starts very young and is over very soon.  

This proved an immense fillip to mass-produced fashion, but the change that made this fashion bubble really new was the development and growth of fashion – as opposed to traditional style – as a preoccupation of young urban men. Undoubtedly a spin-off from new, relaxed attitudes to sexuality, men in the 1960s and 1970s found colourful, bold ways of dressing, using velvets and lace. Its epicentre was central London, specifically Carnaby Street and the King’s Road, and from that time on, men (both hetero- and homosexual) have enjoyed their own fashion bubbles for the first time in 150 years. With some men taking a chance on skirts and kilts, designers are now introducing pussy bows for men, and further baring the body. It all seems to go one step further each summer – men are clearly not inclined to be left behind. More power to their bubble!

But beneath all the fun and joy of the bubble, life is increasingly serious – and fashion is running scared. It has gobbled up its ideas at a tremendous rate. It becomes increasingly difficult not only to say anything new, but also to say anything interesting in dress. We all know fashion is in trouble when Kim Kardashian wears jeans deliberately torn at the knee as a fashion statement and it is copied by people of both sexes and a wide age group. We also know that hugely expensive fashion road shows in unlikely places across the globe, and catwalk shows in Paris for audiences of a thousand plus, are a childish and – considering the poverty, oppression and exile that we read of every day – tactless way of showing off the wealth of one’s company, if not exactly the strength of one’s creativity. History has a clear message, going right back to the Romans: bread-and-circus excess always ends in disaster, even if it takes years to come. §