The Genteel
January 27, 2021


Viktor&Rolf S/S 2012 RTW collection (Source: S/S 2010 RTW collection (Sources:;
Chanel's Cruise 2013 presentation in the  
gardens of Versaille. Source:

The Met Gala delivered, as it usually does, another week-long blitz of best and worst dressed lists across digital platforms.

And as it should. As the fashion party of the year - the "Oscars of fashion", if you will - it's meant to support The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and celebrate leading fashion designers and visionaries. It also doesn't hurt to spread the message with a dress code that encourages the most outrageous - and often uncommercial - creations (as Sarah Jessica Parker often proves).

But the main reason why the Met Gala matters is that it's one of the few remaining places where theatricality in fashion is still welcomed and is, well, the norm. Jeanne Beker, Canada's most-beloved fashion journalist, and host of the now-cancelled Fashion Television, recently made a relevant observation on the status of theatrics in fashion today.

In a Toronto Star interview with design duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of the artistic and theatrical fashion house, Viktor&Rolf, Beker nostalgically noted: "One of the things that I miss about the old days of fashion is the amazing shows that we saw. But I don't think it will ever be like that again. [T]here's a system in place that people have to play into."

Fans and followers of Beker and Fashion Television (the first television show that brought international fashion coverage to the masses was sadly cancelled in April 2012 after 27 years on air) would guess correctly that she was referring to the notoriously theatrical Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Viktor&Rolf; and that the level of drama, theatricality and extravagance presented by these designers for the houses they head (or once headed) in late nineties and early naughts, hasn't been the same since.

 ...if industry forces are dictating a departure from grand and theatrical elements in clothes, shows and attitudes, does that spell the end of the extravagant design spirit?

The reason? Beker pointed to the new "dictates of business" dominating fashion today: a sensible, minimalist ethos and the popularisation of ready-to-wear. Horsting agreed and elaborated on this change with respect to Viktor&Rolf: "We're moving away from very theatrical performances in our shows. We did that for a long time, because we loved it. We still love it. But we feel the need to present ready-to-wear really more as ready-to-wear - still with all the signature elements of our style obviously, but really working on the garments."

So if industry forces are dictating a departure from grand and theatrical elements in clothes, shows and attitudes, does that spell the end of the extravagant design spirit?

Very few designers have pulled together fashion shows quite like the late Alexander McQueen. McQueen's memorable S/S 1999 "No 13" show closed with the now-iconic image of Shalom Harlow rotating centre-stage in a white tulle gown while being sprayed with paint by two robotic arms twisting around her. Or remember his A/W 2001 "What a Merry Go Round" show which had models swiveling around poles and riding a carousel on the playground runway set? Few designers can compare to McQueen and his creative genius (his shows' archives from 1999-2010 are worth re-visiting), but thankfully Sarah Burton is continuing the tradition of staging fashion shows and not mere presentations.

Related: The spectacle of the fashion show and the importance of runway design.

Likewise, Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld is another house that hasn't spared any expense for its grand shows. Lagerfeld regularly transforms the Grand Palais in Paris into other worlds for the house's haute couture and ready-to-wear collections; recall the S/S 2013 "Enchanted Forest" couture show, and towering wind turbines and solar-paneled runway for the same season's RTW collection.

Chanel's S/S 2013 runway show.

Chanel's Cruise collections under Lagerfeld's direction see even greater theatrical treatment: he staged the 2012/2013 Cruise collection in the gardens of Château de Versailles, while this year he transported the 2013/2014 collection to Singapore. Likewise, Raf Simons is showing his first resort collection for Christian Dior (a house that also saw extravagant and theatrical direction under John Galliano until his unfortunate exit in 2011) in Monaco on May 19.

Related: The Little Black Jacket is Lagerfeld's latest foray into photography.

Of course another avenue where fashion and theatre intersect is in opera houses and theatres themselves. After the closure of his namesake couture house in 2009, Christian Lacroix (whose parallel career as a costumier began in 1986 when he first designed theatre costumes for Maison de la Culture in Nantes), re-directed his creative talents from the runway to the stage. He designed costumes for major ballets and theatres across Europe, and most recently for La Source ballet at Opéra National de Paris. In 2011, Lacroix shared with The New York Times: "I was often accused - when people did not like my work - of doing couture that was too 'theatrical'. Yet when I was a child, I never thought about fashion but only about making costumes."

Related: In the costume workshops of Milan's famed La Scala theatre.

But Lacroix attributes his dedication to high fashion and theatrical work to one quality they both share: "the ability to arouse emotion in the audience, as they respond to the visual effects that deepen their feelings about the clothes." Perhaps Riccardo Tisci, creative director at Givenchy, also agrees with this view. Tisci recently unveiled his first costumes for Maurice Ravel's Le Boléro ballet, currently being staged at the Palais Garnier by Opéra National de Paris.

Related: Behind-the-scenes at Rome's Tirelli Costumi atelier - where Hollywood gets dressed.

alexander mcqueen shalom harlow
Shalom Harlow at the end of
Alexander McQueen's S/S 1999 runway show.

When we feel that nostalgic pang for theatrical and emotional fashion shows of the recent past, there will always be exhibitions dedicated to the subject. From Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2011) to Christian Lacroix The Costumier at National Museum of Singapore (2009), the demand for theatricality still exists.

Viktor&Rolf have seen several exhibitions celebrating their house's avant-garde creations and shows like the 10th anniversary Viktor&Rolf Par Viktor&Rolf: Première Décennie at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris (2003) and 15th anniversary The House of Viktor&Rolf at London's Barbican Art Gallery (2008). This June, Toronto will get to experience Dolls by Viktor&Rolf as part of the city's Luminato Festival.

So no, the theatrical spirit of design and show production in fashion has not been extinguished. Despite, or because of, the cyclical nature of fashion and the current industry dictates for minimalist modus operandi, we still crave the moving and emotional experience in fashion that only theatricality can deliver.



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