Fashion, wrote Oscar Wilde “is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” I’ve been pondering this epigram recently, hobbling up and down the rue des Beaux Arts in Paris. For the last few years, I’ve stayed here while covering the fashion shows, around the corner from the hotel in which Wilde died in 1900. And every day I have walked past the plaque commemorating him: hence the pondering.
Wilde has credentials as a fashion hack. Not only did he create literature’s greatest handbag, he also edited a fashion-heavy magazine entitled The Woman’s World, in which he delivered his famous aperçu. The gig clearly wearied him.
Oh Oscar! You don’t know how easy you had it. These days, serious fashion editors must attend scores of fashion shows each year. By the time we arrive for the season’s last leg in Paris, after three weeks in other cities, the ugliest and most intolerable cruelty of all awaits us. This, despite Wilde’s airy hauteur, has nothing to do with clothes: it’s the chairs.
Lanvin, Hermès, Dries van Noten, Lemaire. These are just a few of the luxury fashion houses that have continued an ancient Parisian fashion tradition: obliging guests to watch their shows while seated on a piece of furniture whose design is exquisitely uncomfortable. This antique folding chair has a seat made of five stapled slats of splintery wood and is apparently available in unlimited supply. Rows of them are lashed together with zip-ties to ensure you are intimately acquainted with your neighbours: each chair is a little over 40cm wide. The angle of the chair’s back is even worse: with a pitch of around 125°, you can recline only if you’re prepared to stare at the roof.
This may sound like a first-world problem. But we spend hours in these chairs, squished on top of each other and awkwardly contorted. Collections designed to spark transports of delight are difficult to appreciate when your sciatic nerves are twanging like guitar strings.
So why are the most exclusive shows kitted out with chairs that torture their eminent spectators? My enquiries initially produced no answers – only impassioned expressions of fellow-feeling. “They are the worst – and they have been around for ever,” said Virginie Mouzat of Vanity Fair France. Sophia Neophitou of 10 Magazine has developed a complex coping strategy. “Splaying is out of the question – so forget manspreading. I often side saddle on them. Or we do that thing where one person sits forward and the person alongside leans back. But you can’t really lean back because it looks like you are being indifferent.”
Then I got a lead: the chairs, an old lag said, first appeared over 20 years ago at the shows of Ann Demeulemeester. Her Parisian press agent, now as then, is an evergreen fashion fixture named Michèle Montagne. My tipster suggested she was the guilty party. So as she loitered on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot before Demeulemeester’s show, I hit her with my “J’accuse.” Was she responsible for our torture?
“Yes,” she replied blithely. They are “antique chairs from a circus – they lean back so far so you can look up at the trapeze artists.” Over the years, she added, several had collapsed when sat upon too forcefully. But, she added, “while they might not be comfortable, they are so poetic.”
As I waited for the show to begin in one of Montagne’s chairs, my sciatic nerve fired up afresh. A rumba of lumbar pain rippled through my torso. After what seemed like an eternity, the clothes came out: stiffened linen shrouds and the odd crushed velvet dress. They were very beautiful, and not a little Wildean in inspiration. And Wilde himself might have savoured the paradox of the chairs. Behind the ecstasy of the catwalk lies so much agony – the tantrums, the tears, the unrealised designs and asphyxiating bodices. So maybe it’s appropriate that we, who derive so much pleasure from fashion, should feel some of the pain that goes into it.