Madrid’s Museo del Traje – Spain’s national museum of fashion history- is offering a special treat for visitors this summer. ‘The Golden Age of Haute Couture’ is pretty much what the name suggests: one of those large-scale thematic review shows that turns is attention to a suitably exclusive world of high-end luxury that most of the visitors to the exhibition could only ever dream of entering. In other words, it’s the perfect summer exhibition theme since it operates simultaneously on two levels; one as valid edification and an elaboration of a topic worthy of research, the other pure frothy escapism.
But, what is particularly interesting about this exhibition, should one just happen to be in Madrid and looking for an interesting afternoon out, is that it could offer something new to even the most jaded of visitors who have attended every spectacular museum show on the topic in other large cities.
While entirely acknowledging and representing that Paris remained the ultimate seat of haute couture, this exhibition pays particular attention to Spain’s own haute couture – or Alta Costura- traditions and talents from the 1920’s to the 1070’s.
Certain names such as Cristóbal Balenciaga might remain immediately internationally recogniseable. Various others will prove less so. Pedro Rodríguez, Asunción Bastida, Carmen Mir, Santa Eulalia, Pedro Rovira, El Dique Flotante, Elio Berhanyer or Manuel Pertegaz may all prove recogniseable names in their native Spain and, of course, to learned fashionistas who have bothered to do their reading. But they are hardly international household names.
Yet all of these couturiers were associated with the Cooperativa de Alta Costura Española, Spain’s own couture society and some with it’s predecessor in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Salón del Arte del Vestir.
Some, such as Asunción Bastida, had exotic and colourful lives that included designing glamorous costumes for films. But, many others operated in a world of restrained and exclusive luxury, if for no other reason, then as a result of Spain’s complex political landscape during the twentieth century. One strand that emerges, for example, is that of regionalism; Barcelona had its own school of couturiers who were amongst the most fashionable in the country, a kind of Catalan competition with the Castilian capital.
This makes the exhibition all the more poignant and timely since it not only throws some light on the neglected national traditions all too easily overshadowed by Paris’ glaring limelight, but it also enables a contemporary audience to consider the rather peculiar position of Spain’s couture traditions during its apparent Golden Age.
Save for a few bad choices made by some during the Occupation, couture in Paris had little to be ashamed about. Whereas in Spain, Alta Costura, traditionally the bedfellow of money and power, might have found it extremely difficult to answer certain questions in relation to who its clients were during the turbulent substantive part of the twentieth century, least of all for those maisons that had clients on both sides of the fiery political rift.
One of the great things about this kind of exhibition is that, unless one is completely devoid of depth, it’s easy to put the history back into fashion history.