· A review of Nancy J. Troy’s 2003 book ·
Nancy J. Troy’s Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion examines early Parisian couturiers as they struggled to find a balance between artist and entrepreneur. Looking most closely at Paul Poiret, Couture Culture takes the reader on a journey from Charles Worth and Jacques Doucet’s use of art to elevate their cultural status to Poiret’s own use of art and theatre, before looking at the widespread issue of copies in couture in the early part of the twentieth century. This, all while drawing comparisons to the very art world with which designers like Poiret associated. Covering diverse topics such as art history, social class, and even copyright law, Couture Culture is a rich look into Parisian haute couture in the early twentieth century.
Focusing on Poiret, Troy draws on her vast knowledge of the art trade at the beginning of the twentieth century to draw parallels between Poiret’s experience and that of art dealers in Paris at the same time. As his designs became increasingly inventive, Poiret tried to distance himself from the more commercial pursuits of his couture house. Poiret was a shrewd businessman, cleverly creating one of the earliest ‘lifestyle brands.’ However, throughout his career, and even as he was almost certainly taking part in promoting his business, Poiret denied actively marketing, something Troy compares to contemporary art dealers like Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Following in the footsteps of Worth and Doucet, Poiret established himself as a collector of art, and used this to elevate his status as an artist. As Troy says, ‘In addition to its investment potential, these couturiers recognized and exploited the value of advanced art as a cultural sign of social distinction’ (Troy 2004, p. 31).
As Poiret’s business expanded across the Atlantic, gaining coveted American consumers, he found himself in a frustrating battle over copies of his designs. This was an issue that plagued all French couturiers at the time. However, Poiret’s self-classification as an artist made it most difficult, as American copyright law only recognized his designs in terms of his label, meaning his business rather than the designs themselves. This was a struggle that would follow him until he left his own couture house in 1929. Then, in 1933, Poiret lent his name to a Printemps collection, but the dresses that bore his name were no different than the other dresses in the collection. As Troy sums up, ‘Thus the garments designed by Paul Poiret were no longer individual creations, hardly even “genuine reproductions,” and they could no longer be described as art’ (Troy 2004, p. 325).
Couture Culture is a fascinating journey into the world of haute couture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though a book on fashion history, Troy’s art historical background offers an interesting comparison to the art world at the time, something Poiret himself would be proud of. While she focuses on Poiret, Troy offers parallel stories of other designers: Worth, Doucet, Paquin, Lucile, and Vionnet; the reader comes away with a sense of the climate of Parisian design from the late 1800s up until the 1930s. By touching on more than just Poiret’s design, Troy demonstrates the important role haute couture played in the early twentieth century.
Through the focus on copies and ‘genuine reproductions’ in the final half of Couture Culture, Troy calls to mind current issues. High end designers are constantly at risk of having their designs copied by fast fashion brands today. Just last year, Stella McCartney sued Steve Madden for copying her popular Falabella bag. This was not the first time Steve Madden had been sued for copying. Later, Edie Parker sued BoxBag for copyright infringement of its bags as almost identical bags popped up for a much lower price. These designers argue that the lower quality copies cause economic harm to the integrity of their brand, again focusing on the business side rather than the artistic. This has been a designer’s struggle since the time of Poiret, and we see that in Couture Culture.
Today, it is not unheard of for designers to refer to themselves as artists. In a recent article in Hunger Magazine, Matthew Miller’s brand was identified as ‘a product, yet one that can subvert the lines between art and commerce’ (Hunger TV, 2016). This is exactly what Poiret was attempting in the early twentieth century. Couture Culture, rich with sources, is an in-depth examination of Poiret’s, and his contemporaries’, attempt to toe this line between art and commerce while still maintaining their integrity as artists. Engaging, with an abundance of images accompanying each narrative, anyone interested in fashion, art, Poiret, or even the current fashion atmosphere would enjoy Troy’s survey.
Hunger TV (2016) Matthew Milller on fast fashion and his SS16 collection. Available at: http://www.hungertv.com/feature/matthew-milller-on-parasitical-fast-fashion/ (Accessed: 8 April 2016).
Kim, G. and Fashionista (2015) Stella McCartney Sues Steve Madden Over Handbag Knockoff. Available at: http://fashionista.com/2015/10/stella-mccartney-steve-madden-lawsuit (Accessed: 8 April 2016).
The Fashion Law (2015) Edie Parker sues box bag for copying its designs. Available at: http://www.thefashionlaw.com/home/edie-parker-sued-box-bag-for-copying-its-designs (Accessed: 8 April 2016).
Troy, N.J. (2004) Couture culture: A study in modern art and fashion. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.