Fashion archives preserve iconic garments as precious artefacts of fashion, cultural and art history, chosen for exceptional construction, concept, or cultural significance. However, this hypothetical one is a little different. Fashion can be transcendent, subversive, paradigmatic and political; sometimes, though, it’s just people quarrelling over clothes. Here is a look at four artefacts from the sagas of petty fashion drama.

The chandelier that set Schiaparelli on fire

All because of Coco Chanel - allegedly.

Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were two of the most famous designers of the early twentieth century. Chanel, milliner turned couturier and Nazi agent, had a fierce rivalry with her contemporary Schiaparelli, an Italian designer inspired by and associated with surrealism. Chanel apparently refused to call Schiaparelli by her name, referring to her as “the Italian who makes clothes”, whilst Schiaparelli spoke of Chanel as “that milliner”.

“there is just something fantastical about the vehement battles over hemlines and silhouettes and the clashes of personality of days past”

The two bitter rivals were at one of the last great costume balls before World War II, and Chanel, costumed as HERSELF (the gall!), dared Schiaparelli, disguised as a surrealist tree, to dance with her. Bettina Ballard - Vogue editor in the 1940s and 50s - wrote that “with purposeful innocence”, Chanel steered Schiaparelli into a chandelier ablaze with candles, lighting the surrealist Schiaparelli tree on fire. Guests squirted her with soda water to put the fire out.

Dior’s ‘New Look’

Dior’s debut couture collection in 1947 was received with significant praise for his revival of glamour and romanticised notions of fashion and femininity. Coco Chanel, who promoted a more understated elegance taking notes from menswear and sportswear, was disgusted, declaring “Look how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one.” When Dior visited the US in the autumn of 1947, demonstrators protested urging him to go home.

The ‘New Look’ supposedly even brought Chanel out of retirement in 1954 at the age of 71 due to her immense disapproval of the fashions of Dior and his contemporary, Cristobal Balenciaga, which she described as making women look like “an old armchair”. As we’d say nowadays, Coco Chanel seems to have been particularly adept at being petty and throwing shade.

The ‘grunge is ghastly’ button

Marc Jacobs’ infamous Spring 1993 grunge collection at Perry Ellis sparked controversy across the world of fashion. Jacobs sent models down the runway in flannels, Doc Martens, graphic tees, raglan maxi dresses and beanies, taking inspiration from music, youth culture and how ‘models off duty’ were dressing at the time. Bernadine Morris wrote in The New York Times that a “typical outfit looks as if it were put together with the eyes closed in a very dark room”, Cathy Horyn that “Grunge is anathema to fashion”. Most amazingly, critic Suzy Menkes passed out ‘Grunge is Ghastly’ buttons at shows in Milan in March 1993 just as Jacobs’ grunge collection was hitting stores. Waging a campaign as seriously as politicians do, Menkes designed, got produced AND travelled with her canvassing buttons one whole fashion season later in opposition to Jacob’s grunge as ‘Fashion’.

Since then, popular opinion has come around. Cathy Horyn retracted her statement. In 2018, Jacobs brought back 26 looks seam-for-seam with the approval of Perry Ellis.

Marc’s “love letter” to Suzy Menkes

Let’s end with an artefact of reconciliation.

The drama all began when the Marc Jacobs spring 2008 show started two hours late at New York Fashion Week. Suzy Menkes wrote in The New York Times with the headline “Marc Jacobs Disappoints with a Freak Show” (yup, this duo again - they’ve got history). The review starts scathingly: “A bad, sad show from Marc Jacobs, running two hours late, high on hype and low on delivery, symbolized everything that is wrong with current fashion”.

In the same fashion season in Paris a few weeks later, Marc was walking down the finale of the Louis Vuitton show as creative director and was photographed cheekily sticking his tongue at the audience; Cathy Horyn reported on her blog that it was directed at Suzy Menkes.

A reply was then posted by Marc to Horyn’s post:

“I did NOT stick my tongue out at Suzy Menkes […] I am not a stupid, childish or a vindictive person… I had prior to the show left a silly t-shirt and a nice note for Suzy on her seat. Why would I do anything to further upset her? Right after a show!!?? [...] Come on guys, give me a break!!!!!”

Reportedly, the shirt had a drawing of Menkes and Jacobs, and the note was described by Jacobs as a “love letter”. The two are now as good as ever.

The truth is that sometimes fashion is individuals fighting over the right silhouette of clothing, whether flannels can be fashion, the timing of a show, or just personal dislike. Fashion, both the industry and its adherents, can be frivolous, silly, petty, egocentric and audacious as it treats its stakes to be absurdly high. Even when Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada lectures on the power of the fashion industry it really is just cerulean. Fashion was sacred and personal: it is clear how much the artistic egos and critical eyes of Chanel, Jacobs and Menkes were enamoured with it and swept up in its self-importance.


Mountain View

The politics of style

Now you certainly do not see designers criticising garments or setting each other on fire; fashion journalism and controversy instead surround the ethics of the industry (originality, cultural appropriation, sustainability...). These are extremely important issues worthy of discussion, but there is just something fantastical about the vehement battles over hemlines, silhouettes and the clashes of personality of days past. This fashion archive reveals how clothes, and not the ethics or sociology behind them, were and are themselves worthy of criticism, protest, and battle to the tooth and nail.