Of Ball Gowns and the Subconscious

Of Ball Gowns and the Subconscious

PARIS — It’s been a strange, discombobulating dance at the couture, sneaking glances between shows at the impeachment proceedings going on in the United States, the spread of coronavirus in China, and the plutocrats talking sustainability at Davos. World events have a way of raising the stakes on a collection; what can a designer do to really merit any attention at all?

Some, like Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf, do it by engaging with the broader conversation: using small squares of lavishly toned fabric samples as haute patchwork on Laura Ingalls Wilder-worthy babydolls and ball gowns, often worn under enormous crushed metallic hats. Some, like Bouchra Jarrar and Julie de Libran, do it with intimacy: inviting guests into their homes to see how pared-down suiting and pretty little party dresses might matter in the actual world.

And some, like Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, do it with dreams.

The master colorist of the couture and its anti-cynic, whose clothes often seem built on generosity of spirit, Mr. Piccioli was riffing on the subconscious backstage. There, Edgar Allan Poe and Carl Jung were on his mood board and layers — of fabric and understanding — were on the table.

Or catwalk, rather. Narrowing his signature billowing silhouette, bringing it closer to the body in trumpet skirts and high-neck, long-sleeve embroidered columns, he played games with construction, so what looked like a gown with a peplum was actually three easy pieces — a long skirt hung from a light-as-air tank, plus a little vest atop that, plus a detachable ruffled belt — and what looked like a skirt and top was a single garment. Strips of satin at the hip of a three-tone bustier gown hid sweatshirt pockets, and tuxedos shifted over translucent panels.

What you thought you saw was not, in fact, what was actually there. Sound familiar?

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