In the excellent “unexpurgated” edition of Cecil Beaton’s diary that Hugo Vickers published with Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2002 almost twenty years ago, there is a compelling section on Marlene Dietrich which talks of the TV rerun of a live show given in a London theatre for her seventieth birthday. The precision of the still keen eye of the photographer, to my mind as sharp a writer as he was a photographer albeit more scathing, is punctuated by the fact that he watched the show on television. Every wrinkle, every glint of her hair or canary-yellow gown, the extraordinary hieratic aspect of an unruffled artificial model, were delivered with unforgiving cruelty and heightened impact due to the fact that this was a miniature Marlene, reduced to the size of a colour television screen of the time.
“The doll can show surprise, it can walk, it can swish into place the train of its white fur coat.” The devilish coldness of analysis stems from the remoteness of the man we imagine on the inside, as stitched and starched as he would appear in public, but here on the inside, and from the star he knew and disliked, of whom he had taken a series of front-running portraits forty years earlier (notably one in which she resembles Natalie Paley); this late encounter between the two (1973) was as boneless and shadowy as the final ball in Le Temps Retrouvé. “It showed the best that TV can do: the quality of photography was extraordinarily exact and one saw more and heard more truly than if one had been part of the wildly enthusiastic audience…” Beaton here marvels at what today has become our norm, fetishistic distant images of diminutive beauties. It’s as if we can hear him commenting on the previous day’s TV programmes with the Windsor’s, old folk together, in a twilight excerpt from the same diary.
The Parisian couture shows this year will have the immaterial splendour of being merely shows for shadows. Very much “haute solitude” that we will be asked to watch on a smartphone anywhere outside the venue where they are taking place. The usual runway, the extraordinary human warmth produced by the spotlights in the heat of summer, the smell of bodies, of your neighbour’s perfume, the small talk that becomes increasingly perilous or sterile as the people around you mill and swell in number, models in the flesh – a breed of girl with the air of rare birds suggesting there might be an international grooming centre producing the same archetypes each year -, dressers, hairdressers, people backstage, air swirling from the runway, music booming from the sound system, the silence, discordant music from photographers, the shouting, the accidents and the jostling… none of this will happen. A strange instant of disembodiment but one that will certainly prove salutary as it recreates this winter a greater longing than ever for what, in some cases, has become a routine that only death could interrupt.
My first fashion show, Paco Rabanne, dates back to the time when my mother’s close friend, a tiger tamer from the Bouglione circus called Catherine Blankart, fully dressed (or rather undressed with a few pieces of metal) for her act with Paco, took us to a show (the word was not yet in use back in 1973). I remember my emotions in front of these half-naked girls, many of whom were of Afro-American or Creole origin. I often hung out at the Paris Winter Circus (Cirque d’Hiver), accompanying Catherine backstage to the smell of lion and elephant pee, and I always felt that the Paco Rabanne runway was a feminine show, a tad boring but always very erotic. Much later, very much later, I returned to the catwalks to watch an Alaia show with Tina Turner. Then a few top numbers… Then every season for ten years. And then the notion of “circus” struck me again: things had changed, fashion was more opulent, more violent, more spectacular. The paparazzi exchanged insults, hairdressers wore Stetsons and sported tattoos, the supermodels had a name and pages in the newspapers like Roman courtesans or gladiators. Amidst the turmoil, high-flying artists like Galliano were able to produce music sensitive enough to impress the best of us, and produce emotions of beauty from which we emerged happier souls than we had been before entering the arena.
The energy of fashion, far superior to the theatre, holy mass or modern dance ballets, all of which were spectacles that I attended at different ages of my life, stemmed, I believe, from the concentration of money, power and rivalry over a very short distance and very short time, during which we were still able to get bored if it was bad, too slow, too ugly or if the music was rubbish… Yet in this condensate of a few minutes, hardly longer than a rock song, so much vibrant energy had built up and was then suddenly released without any possibility of starting again from the top.
But I’m talking in the past tense and that’s foolish…
On a mobile phone screen, without the power of fascination of a live show, without the buzz of the audience, the perspective will inevitably be different… Would Beaton have written of Marlene, if he had actually been present in the London theatre where she performed: “Marlene is certainly a great star, not without talent, but with a genius for believing in her self-fabricated beauty, for knowing that she is the most alluring fantastic idol, an out-of-this world goddess or mythological animal, a sacred unicorn. Her success is out of proportion, and yet it is entirely due to her perseverance that she is not just an old discarded film star”? The answer is no. Distance, here, is not only that of time or of the old haughty photographer who has seen it all, but also that of the medium. A fashion show watched at home featuring diminutive screen-sized women hits different chords, awakening a sense of cruelty or boredom due to the very little effort required, but also producing a certain salutary hindsight that beats nostalgia. My, how we miss the rain, the traffic jams, the jostling and all those friendly or ridiculous people who blossom here in Paris with the regularity of cherry trees in Japan.
Simon Liberati is the Femina prize-winning author of ‘Jayne Mansfield 1967’, and the author of 11 books. He regularly collaborates with Vogue, L’Officiel and Purple Magazine. His next novel « Les démons » will be available on the August 19th.