Cathy Horyn In The New York Times

August 18, 2014

The rise of haute couture in the early 20th century dovetailed with advances in communication and travel, and so, too, the public’s unusual interest in this rarefied world. There are well-known stories of Paris policemen and taxi drivers being able to recognize couture, like a cop in the ’30s who refused to arrest a feminist agitator on the grounds that she was dressed by Molyneux. By the ’60s, everyone knew about the latest fashion, if not from Mary Quant, then from the Beatles. But sometime in the late ’80s, fashion discovered semiotics. Clothes suddenly acquired meaning (think of the efforts to “decode” a Helmut Lang show or almost any by Martin Margiela). You truly needed to be an expert to appreciate why a jacket was worn inside out or why a dress that made you look like a bag lady was cool. Susan Sontag described a similar shift in the arts in the mid-60s, noting that “the most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language.” Today, as high fashion moves closer to mass media — with brand-hosted YouTube channels, films, huge spectacles — there is pressure to simplify. I also wonder whether the surge of new brands — their shows often crammed with weird and banal designs — hasn’t caused elite designers to rethink matters. Hence more straightforward clothes.