‘They give us beauty and magic’: why prestige dramas about fashion are TV’s newest obsession

Couture and public transport have very little in common, but the adage that you wait ages for a bus and then three come at once has some current crossover. In January, a drama series about the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, and the 30 years he spent working in Paris, premiered on Disney+. Hot on its heels comes Apple TV+ drama The New Look, which lands this week, and chronicles Christian Dior and his contemporaries as they navigate the second world war. Later this year, Daniel Brühl (Good Bye, Lenin!, All Quiet on the Western Front) will play Karl Lagerfeld in a series that has been given the working title Kaiser Karl and will chart the late designer’s rise through the world of fashion in Paris in the 1970s.

It’s striking that a glut of TV not just about fashion, but the rarefied world of high fashion, should be cutting a course for our screens in such a short space of time. On one hand, the reasons why are obvious – the characters are colourful and complicated and the clothes are beautiful. There are big egos and even bigger hats, era-defining cuts and cutting rivalries. But on the other hand, if it was that obvious, why hasn’t it happened before now?

This kind of fashion TV feels like a departure. From America’s Next Top Model to Project Runway and Next in Fashion, fashion on telly in recent times has often meant reality. Or what the fashion writer Justine Picardie sums up as “shiny Saturday night TV”, talkshows and Strictly, which isn’t ostensibly about fashion, but getting dressed up. This new wave is, she says, “giving us beauty and magic in a different way”.

Mid-century fashion being the subject of these new series fits with what Helen Warner, a senior lecturer at the university of East Anglia and the author of Fashion on Television, sees as a “more general preoccupation with this time period in terms of fashion history. We’ve moved from the elites in society dictating style, as was the case in the 1800s, to a system where specific designers define trends,” she says “There is a mythology around it and a certain amount of mystique surrounding these figures.”

‘The most famous Frenchman in the world’ … Ben Mendelsohn as Christian Dior in Apple TV+’s The New Look. Photograph: Roger DO MINH/Apple

They are also household names. Take Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She is, says Picardie, who spent a decade researching her for a 2010 book called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, “one of the most famous figures in the world when it comes to women”. Christian Dior, meanwhile, “was not only the most famous Frenchman in the world”, but, in the aftermath of the second world war, “his name would have been more recognisable probably even than Charles De Gaulle or Jean-Paul Sartre because he becomes this enormous economic revival”.

Then there is the fact that they were not only big names, but that many of them were also big characters. Again, take Chanel. It is no surprise that The New Look, a show whose name comes from the sartorial revolution that Dior inspired in post-second world war Paris, is as much about her as it is about him. “She’s an incredible character,” says Picardie. She adds spice, glamour and questionable ethics to Balenciaga and The New Look, with the complicated picture of her collaboration with the Nazis making for knotty viewing. In one scene in The New Look, a perfectly cast Juliette Binoche knocks back cocktails and shoots out witty lines while sitting next to Heinrich Himmler, the commanding officer of the SS, at a dinner party.

These new shows are highlighting what many fashion fans have long known – that fashion is intrinsically shaped by its social, historical and political context. But also that it shapes it. Once again, Chanel is a fitting example. “She influenced modernism,” says Picardie. “Picasso called her the most intelligent woman in Europe. She expressed modernism through the medium of clothing.” Rising to fame during the first world war, “when women were really entering the workforce for the first time”, she changed the way women dressed. “She gave herself dignity [when] women didn’t have the sartorial dignity that was afforded to men through tailoring.”

We cannot kid ourselves that we are purely in it for the historical depth, though. Audiences are nosy. “Of course, we will watch them for human interaction and portrayal of the highs and lows of a kind of success that few of us know. But we also love a bit of tabloid titillation,” says the fashion and identity commentator Caryn Franklin – a former presenter of The Clothes Show, she knows her way around fashion on the small screen. It shows us, she says, that “they were just like us most of the time: sometimes marvellous, often deeply competitive and insecure, and occasionally badly behaved but all the while better styled and far better connected with stylish people than us.”

‘These are interesting figures who have been sidelined and ignored’ … Disney+’s Kaiser Karl. Photograph: Disney

As to the timing of it all, Warner flags that spikes in fashion film and television often coincide with times of economic crisis. She points to a raft of Hollywood films made during the Great Depression, such as Mannequin and Stolen Holiday, which were “designed to facilitate tie-in opportunities with department stores” in an attempt to boost the economy. “Right now, we find ourselves in a cost of living crisis and climate emergency. Given that the contribution of the fashion industry to global emissions is well documented, I wouldn’t discount the idea that these shows are in part a response, and part an attempt to manage the image of the fashion industry.”

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Commerce is greasing the wheels. These big brands have huge followings on social media – Dior has 46 million, Chanel 60 million and Balenciaga a more modest 14 million. Telly types will no doubt be wise to these metrics. “They are a big cultural phenomenon,” says Picardie, “so maybe commissioning editors in the big media streaming services thought: ‘Clearly people are interested.’” If any of them are tempted to delve a little deeper, back to the Napoleonic era, which was the backdrop to Louis Vuitton’s life, they may be interested to learn that his namesake brand now has more than 55 million followers on Instagram.

Picardie points to the effect of The Crown. Wildly popular, “it showed that people could be interested in a different, alternative view of history”. In The Crown, history is looked at through the “prism of British royalty”. In this new raft of shows, history is looked at through the prism of high fashion. Why not use the likes of Chanel, an incredibly complex, sharp-tongued and charismatic character as a lens through which to retell a chapter in history that has been told many times before? Or Balenciaga, whose camera-shyness has made him something of an enigma in stark contrast to the stunt-y, viral-hungry clothes of the current Balenciaga brand.

In both, the lens alternates between zooming in on the particulars – the royal family and the world of fashion respectively – and out, giving us the bigger picture. In The Crown, there are episodes exploring the moon landings and the Aberfan disaster; in Balenciaga and The New Look, we are given a view of life in Paris under Nazi occupation. Particularly through the character of Catherine Dior, Christian’s sister, The New Look delves into the story of the French resistance, with Catherine’s part in it leading to her arrest in the French capital in 1944, before she was tortured and transported to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

‘Picasso called her the most intelligent woman in Europe’ … Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel in Apple TV+’s The New Look. Photograph: Roger DO MINH/Apple

This isn’t happening in a cultural vacuum. These stories are also being told in museums and galleries around the world. Women Dressing Women, displaying the work of French couturiers alongside contemporary designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Simone Rocha, is now on at the Met in New York, while in Paris, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs will be exhibiting the fantastical designs of Iris van Herpen until April. It follows blockbuster exhibitions at the V&A. “The Dior show was their biggest and most successful [fashion] show of all time, and so too Chanel has been – the tickets sold out in two days,” points out Picardie. Bina Daigeler’s costumes from the Balenciaga show were even made into an exhibition in Madrid and there were, she says, long queues. “It was so busy that it couldn’t have been just people who were interested in fashion – so, so many visited.”

Looking to fashion now might also provide clues. We are in the grips of fast, even hyper-fast, fashion. Supercharged e-tailer Shein can decide on a product, manufacture it and put it in the post to customers in less than three weeks. By contrast, the painstaking and slow process of couture can take months. Daigeler thinks that the beauty of this process and its fruits play a part. In a world where fast fashion is the norm, “I think that makes it somehow now interesting for people to watch what haute couture was.”

In a sense the real question could be: why has it taken so long for these designers to take their place on the small screen? “These are interesting figures who have been sidelined and ignored,” says Picardie, whose initial research for Miss Dior, a book about Catherine Dior, in 2011, met with no interest, while the book would go on to become a bestseller upon publication in 2021. “It’s only now that other forms of the wider culture are saying: ‘Oh yeah, maybe it’s worth doing this – there will be an audience.’”

But for all of the theorising, there is also a certain magic to these moments where culture converges. Daigeler has seen it before. When she was working on Mrs America, Hulu’s miniseries about feminism activist Gloria Steinem, there was also a Steinem film in the making. “I think often it is just by chance, a coincidence.” As she puts it: “I don’t know if it’s just something in the air.”

The Guardian

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