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Old 9th August 2005   #1
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Posts: 517
Default ''The Old World'' -- at Saks

I am always more partial to Saks Fifth Avenue than to any other similar Manhattan institution, because at least it does use plus-size models -- and in Crystal Renn, one who actually looks curvy.

But you simply must see the new fall catalog from Saks. Apart from the fact that it doesn't use plus-size models (which is unforgivable, and incomprehensible), this is the most definitive evidence I've ever seen of an aesthetic restoration in fashion.

The theme is called

"Bohemian Rhapsody"

and it's introduced this way:

"The City of Prague, steeped in culture and regal spirit, provides the perfect backdrop for the modern fairytale that is Fall 2005"

It just glories in the Old World architecture and atmosphere of this central European capital. And it even goes out into the lands of Bohemia, and explores some of the castles in the surrounding countryside. Just look at this unbelievably beautiful image of a Bohemian castle, with inserts of escutcheons, stained glass, and old woodcuts:

"Courtly love" -- I'm in heaven. Saks certainly delivers on its promise to convey a "regal spirit" and a "modern fairytale."
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Old 14th August 2005   #2
Join Date: July 2005
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Default Romanticism at Saks

Just as the Fall/Winter 2005 Christian Dior haute couture event in Paris was a complete revision of the basic aesthetic of a runway show, so is this a bold rethink of the fundamental premise of a commercial campaign.

The inappropriateness of using straight-size models for a catalogue such as this is glaringly obvious, and we wish that we could insert images of plus-size models in place of the waifs. But this campaign nevertheless deserves the most serious scrutiny, because in every other way . . . it is perfect.

This is not only the most artistically-accomplished promotion that any retailer has ever conceived, but quite probably the most authentically Romantic product ever to emerge from the fashion industry.

Indeed, one of the catalogue's most remarkable qualities is that it displays a cohesive and harmonious aesthetic. It is, top to bottom, a work of capital-R Romanticism, revived for the 21st century.

Henceforth, anyone who seeks a prototype for an ideal plus-size fashion magazine or campaign can forget about every other promotion that we have praised, and concentrate on this book alone. Because if one could duplicate the artistry and depth of this catalogue in a publication featuring plus-size models, one would surpass even Mode at its best.

And if there was ever an instance in which fashion advertising managed to transcend its commercial genre, and warranted appreciation as a bona fide work of art, this is it.

* * *

Emily is right to say that this is a full-blown expression of the Aesthetic Restoration, and an authentic evocation of the Old World.

The team that assembled this masterpiece obviously had a very definite vision of what they wished to portray. They did not simply travel overseas and begin haphazardly shooting models set against the backdrop of modern Europe, with its discotheques, its parking garages, and its graffiti-besmeared public squares. They did not photograph the cold steel towers that now inhabit the ground where noble palaces once stood. Nor did they shoot the tourist traps of Europe, such as Neuschwanstein or Rothenburg, which--while undoubtedly beautiful--have become visual cliches, overrun by hordes of sightseers.

Rather, they oriented this campaign around a city that suffered less destruction in the war than any other central European capital--one that has largely preserved its historic character. And as it is presented here, Prague transcends any specificity, and conveys the spirit of the Old World as a whole. To browse this catalogue is to travel back in time, and to experience the ambience of pre-war Europe, even as the images import the elegance and harmony of that environment into a present-day context.

But it is when the catalogue escapes the city and ventures out into the countryside that it becomes a masterwork. With a mix of veracity and idealism, the images capture the true essence of the Old World, which was never as discernible in the big cities as it was in the rolling fields and great forests of the continent, where the peasantry and the gentry, the church and the aristocracy, coexisted in organic harmony.

The close situation of the castle and the chapel in the image posted by Emily is highly significant, as is the juxtaposition of the inserts, which position a heraldic escutcheon above a Christian symbol in stained glass. These visual pairings emphasize the historic interdependence of these two estates.

And the caption that accompanies the image--"Courtly Love"--is similarly rich with meaning. Not only does it remind the viewer that a great deal of Christian spirituality informed the tradition of courtly romance (Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales is a shining example), but the phrase also suggests a marvellous contemporary fantasy of a "courtly love affair" between a young traveller, and the scion of a noble European clan.

The following pairing is comparably symbolic. In the image on the left, which features the chapel as a backdrop, note how the gold trim on the model's cloak gives it an almost sacerdotal quality. On the other hand, in the image on the right, the defensive gate and the steed are aristocratic elements, in keeping with the castle that is discernible in the distance.

The attention to detail in this campaign is simply astonishing. Far from merely flirting with the trappings of "aristocratic chic," it instead presents a remarkably complete picture of the world in which the aristocracy made sense--indeed, the world that the aristocracy largely created and preserved, for over a millennium.

Today, we generally associate aristocrats with opulent palaces and ballrooms. And while this catalogue does acknowledge that milieu of superficial glitz (leading off, as it does, with snapshots of the upper-crust nightlife), it goes on to present a much more rounded picture of the nobility.

In fact, it identifies the two principal historic functions of the aristocracy: first, as a military class--the traditional defenders of the nation and its people,

and second, as the caretakers of the land--the land that each generation bequeathed to the next, and with which the nobility existed in a symbiotic relationship, as closely tied to its fate as the peasants who tilled their fields.

(What a gorgeously romantic top that is, by the way; one that would make an ideal adornment for a more goddesslike figure.)

In another testament to this campaign's pursuit of authenticity, it does not shy away from portraying some of the most oft-misunderstood practices of the aristocracy, such as the ancient pastime of wild-game hunting (an activity that may seem inexplicable to us today, but becomes comprehensible when one remembers that the original purpose of the hunt was to hone a knight's skill in combat).

But with its numerous museum settings, the catalogue also alludes to a role that the nobility still plays today. Indeed, this role is undoubtedly the contemporary aristocracy’s best destiny, now that most of the crowned heads of Europe have been stripped of their traditional responsibilities. And that role is--patrons of the arts.

But not as mere sponsors; rather, as active participants, taking their cue from the activities of HRH The Prince of Wales, and his attempts to resuscitate British architecture.

These images remind us that it was the aristocracy of the Old World which sponsored the creation and preservation of much of what we now deem "Western culture." (Indeed, as far as there is a High Culture in the West, it can justifiably be termed . . . Aristocratic Culture.)

One of the most memorable pages in the catalogue shows us this image of a young noblewoman poring over an ancient tome. (Note her fabulously Celtic accessories, by the way, and her regal robe.)

The enormous storybook recalls the premise of this campaign as a "modern fairytale." And with that premise in mind, several of the images in the catalogue appear to be scenes from a collection of Schauerromantik narratives (Gothic Horror tales), such as this evocative image of a damsel wandering through the forbidden wing of a castle,

or this eerie photograph of a maiden haunting a cobweb-enshrouded forest, like a temptress in a Romantic poem, ready to ensnare unsuspecting mortals in her web of seduction.

Still in the fantasy vein, but rather more seraphic than demonic, is this pair of dreamlike images, depicting a storybook picnic in a lovely meadow. Note the ever-so-cute detail of the teddy bears. The images convey the impression of a girl-woman, a fairytale princess living in the present day, all grown up and ravishing, but still possessing an unsullied innocence.

Again, the outdoors images are by far the loveliest in the catalogue, and they solidify the viewer's understanding of aristocratic Europe as a society that was organically tied to the fecundity of the land. This image of a young lady reposing in a bed of straw is utterly captivating, and paints a prettier and more authentic picture of the agrarian beauty of the Old World than we ever see in contemporary culture.

Likewise, this enchanting spread (which is among the most attractive in the catalogue) reminds us that the distaff arts were not merely the stuff of mindless toil and drudgery--as modern ideologues would have us believe--but cherished family crafts that were rich with meaning; creative outlets that helped to strengthen the bond between mothers and daughters.

The above image also reminds us that the romantic fashions that are so wildly popular today exhibit a distinctively Old World quality, and are not far removed from the styles that were worn in Europe throughout the centuries (and still are, in many areas--especially in the countryside).

* * *

All told, this campaign is much more than just a quaint retrospective of a bygone era. It is fresh vision, vibrant and original in a way that no Manhattan-based cityshoot ever could be.

This catalogue presents the beauty and the richness of the Old World, but it also provides an astonishingly comprehensive picture of the society which nurtured that culture, and offers a genuine sense of what it was like to be a part of that world.

The popularity of the many historical campaigns that have appeared this season--and of the fashions that they promote--demonstrates that not even a century of physical demolition and ideological deconstruction has diminished the appeal of aristocratic Europe. It testifies to a popular desire that the enchantment and wonder of the Old World not only be preserved, but that it be allowed to thrive again, and to enrich our contemporary culture.

Last edited by HSG : 14th August 2005 at 12:47.
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Old 4th September 2005   #3
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Default Re: ''The Old World'' -- at Saks

What I find very interesting about today's "New Romanticism," and its veneration of the Old World, is that it is much like the original Romanticism of the early 1800s, except with one fascinating difference:

19th-century Romanticism was about a new appreciation of folklore and the artistic traditions of the peasantry (their songs, their ballads, their fashions and crafts) by the aristocracy, which dominated culture at that time.

By contrast, the New Romanticism inverts that relationship, and is about today's general public (the modern equivalent of the lower classes) rediscovering the artistic traditions of the Old World aristocracy.

I think it has something to do with exoticism. In the past, culture was defined by the upper classes, and for them to learn that the common people had rich and vibrant cultural traditions of their own was a profound discovery. And this discovery revitalized European art.

Today, by contrast, "popular" culture, the culture of the masses, dominates the world around us. Western High Culture -- aristocratic culture -- has been pushed aside for decades, to the point that it itself has become something exotic, and nearly forgotten. I predict that if this "New Romanticism" continues, we could see a re-invigoration of Western culture not unlike that which attended the original Romantic movement.

Last edited by HSG : 6th November 2009 at 11:41. Reason: Broken link removed
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Old 4th September 2005   #4
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Default Re: ''The Old World'' -- at Saks

As somebody who has lived in three Central European countries (including Plzen and Prague in the Czech Republic) for a year or more, I should point out the tremendous irony of shooting this layout in THIS LOCATION with THOSE MODELS. Today, Central Europe is perhaps even MORE vulnerable to straight-size mythology than North America, which is particularly grotesque in contrast to its opulent, turn of the century splendor. From Vienna and Prague, to Bratislava, to Budapest and into the Eastern Marches of the old (Austro-Hungarian) Empire...the cities are adorned with full figured marble statues, fountains, Mucha stained glass featuring art-deco goddesses. It is exactly the way it was THEN, and the way it should be now. And it's true, as a former inhabitant and aficionado of all things Czech, that Prague is the pearl of this region.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to the slavish cultural obsession with thinnness. The cult of thinness has MORE sway here in Central Europe (as of this writing I am slightly further East, still in Austro-Hungarian land) than in America or Western Europe for that matter. This has much to do with 'new media' that were not here twenty years ago and that the local population has eagerly embraced in its desire to assimilate all things 'western.' However, I would argue that there has been a lack of critical thinking in embracing the media onslought, perhaps the same lack of critical thinking that made it possible for authoritarian regimes to take root in a region already divided and conquered for centuries.

It is truly depressing to see this cultural grandeur confronting an artificial aesthetic that is, at its very source, postmodern and abstract, not based at all in biology. When I see a woman with a visibly protruding skeleton, I shake my head in despair. When I see a woman who looks ripe and well-fed, I can't help but think how marvelous she looks in front of some of the finest artistic and architectural wonders of all time, and maybe, what she might have looked like eighty years ago, in a ruffled bodice with bustling skirts. These women, the round and the fertile, are, like the buildings around here, living testament that even with bombings, Communism, and pollution, some things, like the timeless natural femine form, will withstand and persist well beyond our exhaustive and punitive efforts to destroy what is, after, all, only human.

I hope the next Saks catalogue uses women who do justice to Prague's opulent and regal surroundings! And the next time you go to Cluj/Koloszvar/Klaussenburg Romania, stop in at Cafe Mozart and marvel at the contrast between the classic beauties on the wall and the postmodern ones serving you Eiskaffee. Utter aesthetic discordance.
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Old 22nd September 2005   #5
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Default Re: ''The Old World'' -- at Saks

Speaking of Prague, anyone who will be in New York from now until January 6th 2006 and wishes to get a taste of Bohemian culture might enjoy a new exhibit that just opened at the Met, titled Prague, The Crown of Bohemia}

It concentrates on the medieval period, and especially on the design arts: "panel paintings, goldsmiths' work, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, silk embroideries, and stained glass."

It certainly could be interesting -- but of course, nothing compares to actually travelling there. When I think about how Christina Schmidt seems so wise beyond her years, I suspect that the fact that she's been exposed to so many European cultures at such a young age has a great deal to do with it.
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