Getting and Spending: Why look at fabulous clothes?

One of my earliest female-bonding memories is accompanying my mother on shopping sprees when we visited Chicago, her home city. She'd dive into Marshall Field's or Carson, Pirie Scott, eager to buy the hat or coat she could not find in our small town in Northern Michigan. 

Her favourite section was The Dress Room, where she bought what were called "afternoon dresses", sheaths or sweeping-skirted styles. Afternoon dresses occupied a spot a notch above today's "smart causal"; fabrics were dressy, cuts elegant but not as revealing as evening wear,  and there was not a pair of trousers to be found. Both hostesses and guests dressed for dinner in those days; that's what you wore unless it was a bar-be-que.

There was what seemed a too-brief foray into Sweaters, Skirts and Sportswear for something for me, but it was understood this was Mom's day, and stand back.

I recall asking, as I waited for my treat of Field's petit fours, why she spent so much time on the smallest part of her wardrobe. She said, "You can't choose anything else if you can't choose a good dress." She was building discernment, and carrying the wonder of these clothes—even those merely considered— back to her small-town life.

When I see a fabulous piece (these days, online) I feel an inexplicable but particular emotion, a mix of awe, reckoning, curiosity, and a smidge of shame that I would dream of a coat the price of six months' rent. There is probably a German word for this fashion version of Weltschmerz"Ah yes, such beauty exists. Who wears this? I don't. I once did, occasionally. (Sigh.) Isn't it amazing? I see I could dress better."

Here are a few such pieces, to illustrate:

Left to right:

Erdem velvet-trimmed embellished cutout crepe dress, Netaporter.

Gabriela Hearst leather-panelled silk and wool-blend shirtdress, Netaporter.

Hermès leather trench coat; Spring '21; photo,

In theory, those clothes might work for me—they are the kind of strict style I like. But for maximum astonishment, I ignore whether the creation might be suited to my life or body, and bow before Alexander McQueen, Spring '21:

Photos: Vogue.con

I think, Who is she, the woman who wear this? Is her entire wardrobe composed of otherworldly confections? On the street, even in posh neighbourhoods, I rarely see someone striding past dressed in fabulous high fashion. Is there a hidden refuge like the fairies' tearoom in my childhood book, where winged sprites in ethereal chiffons recline on tufted silk chaises, sipping chrysanthemum tea?

Am I wasting my time occasionally ogling these designs? My brain says yes, but my heart rate rises;  beauty—any beauty—releases endorphins. 

I don't, though, feel compelled to experience that frisson in order to choose my everyday attire, as my mother averred. Her longing was driven by pent-up desire to commune with the pleasures she'd moved far from; I could order such clothes for next-day delivery.

They are art, and like other visual arts, can  transport, challenge, and illuminate other ways of seeing. If I think, That's not for the real world (and what cleaner would you trust with that McQueen coat?) it's worth remembering that women somewhere wear these pieces as calmly as I do my jeans and tees.



LauraH said…
Although I don't have anywhere near your level of discernment and response to clothes, I do share your sense of ...who is wearing this and where? The clothes in question don't have to be at this price point, I wonder about many clothes, the Motion type of dressing for example. As you say, there must be a world somewhere where they are being worn...makes me curious.
After watching Schitt’s Creek, I thought all Canadian women dressed like Moira!
Roberta said…
I love Melissa’s comment. We should all have a Moira in our lives. Throughout my career, over decades, I did have similar ladies as friends. It took approximately 8 years after my retirement before I could stop wearing black and white everywhere. Slowly over the past two years I have introduced color and jeans into my wardrobe. I still do buy the best I can afford. And I do make an effort not to be boring. I’m guessing the ladies who wear/ buy designer clothes have very powerful jobs in finance, industry and government. Good for them!
Ms. Liz said…
Back in the day I used to shop twice a year - spring and fall - and really enjoyed pulling it together for corporate life. I spent most of my shopping dollars on great career wear including bags and shoes AND coats. My weekend wear and casual wardrobe really was very patchy as dressing up was more interesting to me.

I loved to look at clothes that I could not afford just to admire them and enjoy the quality and workmanship. I still enjoy inspiring fashion photos and some of the online runway videos as inspiration but I wonder, always, is the quality still there?
Jane in London said…
I don't really see this stuff being worn out and about in London, either - but then, anyone with the sort of lifestyle where this type of clothing is accessible and appropriate is probably not walking around the streets or taking public transport. Your 'fairy tea party' idea is great.

I *love* looking at wonderful clothes that I cannot afford and (often) could not, realistically, wear! It's a pleasure to have the door held open for you by the doorman at Chanel and other such emporia - harmless browsing fun, and it helps 'keep your eye in'. It doesn't bother me in the least that I can't buy.

Currently, I'm tempted to visit Burberry to see their full-length black Pocket Detail trench, which I've been salivating over online. Will I drop £2090 on this beauty? No.

And there's that niggling sensible little voice in my head reminding me that, however carefully it is cleaned, a coat made of black cotton gabardine will start to fade round the pockets and collar long before I would want to give it up! But, gosh, it is just a tiny bit fabulous...

Jane in London
Beth said…
I liked your story of shopping with your mother -- what a different time it was! My mother hated shopping for herself, and would rarely buy anything. I liked to look, and my taste didn't suit the small town where we lived. Because we all sewed, the browsing was often more through Vogue Pattern Magazine than in stores. One Christmas, I persuaded my grandmother to make me a shirtdress in red satin, and we were always buying complicated patterns; I used to pore over the schematics in the back of the magazine, and I'm sure that's why I'm still interested in haute couture, even though I would never spend the money or have anyplace to wear the clothes if I did. The recent documentaries about designers like Alexander McQueen and Dries van Noten fascinate me.

This "performance video," of the Dries Van Noten Fall/Winter collection, was interesting because it shows the fabulous fabrics moving on the body, and also because it highlights how much of a performance wearing this kind of art-fashion really is.
Mardel said…
I do love shopping for the high-end clothes, at least dreaming and looking. The reality is that these clothes aren't really available in my city although there are a few who wear them. Talbots and Eileen Fisher seem to be the top of the heap, although a store does bring in Lafayette 148 NY on order a few times a year. I love to look but it mostly happens when traveling now and that has been a long time. I do like imagining wearing the clothes, and I have noted that, since my day to day life is pretty much gardens and home, I do want to put a little more effort into going out. Who cares if it is only bridge or drinks with the girls. Perhaps that is all the more reason to celebrate.

I won't be wearing these clothes, but I adore looking, and I think it still informs an important part of our inner lives.
Carol in Denver said…
More than high fashions, what is interesting to me is how they are made: I love to see videos of the workrooms. Myriad people, mostly women, in white coats, with great skill and care bring the designer's visions to life. Recently I was fascinated by the little pockets some of them wear around their necks to hold scissors, pins, etc.
JoJo said…
Ah, but we could shave our heads...
Allison said…
I honestly think that many ‘runway’ clothes are made just for that. Designed for theatrical impact and not for reality. They are stunning to look at and often as much a feat of engineering as they are a triumph of the designer’s atelier. A case in point, one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s favourite designers is Alexander McQueen but I have yet to see her dressed in anything like the garments you show here. Often a famous woman will be shown IRL wearing a designer dress and beside her photo will be the runway model in the original. It’s obvious the dress has been modified for ‘the street’. The leather Hermés coat with modification could easily hit any street and be worn forever. Even the AMcQ garments could find a home in an ordinary ( albeit wealthy) woman’s dressing room with some judicious changes.
In short I don’t think designers ever intend for real people to wear many of these fabulous clothes. They are confections designed to be admired by the hoi polloi who should then be grateful that such gods of creativity exist our earth.
I love your tale of shopping with your mother. I have similar Toronto based stories, Eaton’s downtown or Eaton’s College St. and Simpson’s were my mother’s fashion hangouts along with a string of boutiques and the venerable Holt Renfrew along Bloor St. Lunch ( like the character in Muppets Christmas I was just there for the food!) was in a dining room at one of the department stores or if we were running late meeting up with Dad at the Silver Rail for dinner.
Duchesse said…
All: I'm aware there are designs made strictly for the runway or publicity. And I am speaking of the highest end of designer ready-to-wear, such as Jane mentions seeing at Chanel. I don't see women wearing that, let alone the most creative work from McQueen, but that may say more about my milieu than whether they are bought. A friend had a long career in international banking and she told ne she'd go into boardrooms where women wore (in current dollars) $8,000 suits, but they were businessy, not fantastic confections.

I only rarely go in a boutique like Prada or Vuitton just to look, but I've spent hours in Le Bon Marché, where clothes at this level are browsable in a more relaxed setting.

Allison: As a Torontonian you will understand why my eyebrows went up when I confused Silver Rail with Brass Rail! Once, just before a work trip to London which involved time for me to shop, I went into Holt's and spent every discretionary penny I had because they had a sale on Perry Ellis (in the days when he actually designed the clothes.) Never regretted it.
Eve said…
Food for thought, as always !
I am just wondering why the models in the fantastically fancy McQueen clothes are wearing such ugly, clunky black shoes that just break the fantasy ?
Duchesse said…
Eve: To those of us brought along with a certain aesthetic, this jars. Now, one sees floaty chiffon dresses with sneakers, and heavy,dark shoes or a boot like those shown with refined styles. It's a look. I too would opt for a finer shoe.
What should they be wearing? I'm so glad to see alternatives to torture heels that hurt the backs as well as the feet. La Duchesse has shown some much more flattering footwear than torture shoes.

My mother was an excellent seamstress and attentive to details, in fabrics and "notions" as well as garments. Despite their quality, the clothing shown doesn't appeal to me; I like simpler things.

Recieved a "hoarder" ad from The Bay, "You can never have too many tops". I lost a lot of weight while hospitalised, so gave away many far-too-large tops. Do need some new clothing, but am glad to have had to do a cleanout.

bon printemps!

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