Monday, 16 November 2009

Couture Under the Hammer

Fashion Through the Ages, the sale at Christies South Kensington on December 3 is full of promise, according to the catalogue which arrived on my desk yesterday. Looking through the colour photos of the items reminded me of what I had rather forgotten: how beautiful clothes were when couture led fashion. And how accessible to women. The reason is that they were created with customers (and often individuals) in mind, and with a knowledge of their lives. They were personal solutions, not abstract suggestions, as it seems they must be in these days of mass-marketing. And, of course, they were hand made. In my view, all students who can should get to Christies and look very carefully at these clothes. They will learn a lot from what is coming under the hammer.

It is an unusual sale in that, along with the general, random garments all sales are based on, three private collections are included. Anna Piaggi, the fashion doyenne of Italian Vogue, is selling some of her vast collection of clothes spanning just about every period since the seventeenth century. The ones for sale at Christies are modern and include pieces from Gianni Versace,
Lagerfeld and Fortuny. I am a little sad because Anna once said that, in homage to her mentor, the Australian Vern Lambert, who died some years ago, she had pledged herself to leave the clothes to aboriginal peoples to enable them to cut them up and adapt them for their way of living, thereby giving the garments a second life far away in every sense from Milan or Paris. Anna has many more clothes even yet, so it still might happen.

The second collection belonged to the late Count Palmieri. It consists of a small group of waistcoats embroidered by the world's greatest embroiodery house, Lesage, which for over fifty years has provided fabulous embroidery for all the great names of Paris, including Schiaparelli, Dior, and Balmain, and is still central to couture today. There is also a fabulously over-the-top pink and lilac mink bedspread made especially for the count by Dior in the seventies. The perfect Christmas present for Madge, I would think.

For fashion historians, the most interesting collection is the wardrobe of Anne Moen Bullitt, who died in 2007. It contains not only almost forgotten but important names like the French designer Jacques Fath; the Irish couturier Sybil Connolly; and Hattie Carnegie, who was a leading figure in New York design circles in the forties and fifties; but also a probably unique group of over fifty garments by Eisa, which was the name of Balenciaga's Spanish-based fashion house. These clothes rarely come up for sale and I am just hoping that a public collection can get together the money to buy the lot and keep them together. It would be a real pity to see them go to individual bidders and become dispersed across the globe.

Still stuck for a Christmas present for the man in your life? Out of a good range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clothes for men and women, what about a court uniform (richly embroidered in gold thread and with white trousers) probably worn by an ambassador, which is likely to go for less than £2,000. It would certainly make carving the Christmas turkey a rather grander and more stately event than normal.

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