Essay

D&G’s Rêves of Ancient Hellas at Agrigento

By: Sultana Raza

Part 1

Was that woman one of the Muses, or a goddess? Would an Amazon who’d indulged in the trivial pursuit of walking the ramp be punished when she got back home? Could one spot the Three Graces in this elegant row of beauties? What about dryads? Or forest nymphs? They came in droves from Olympus, Elysium, the Hesperides, Mount Parnassus, and also from the mortal cities of Athens, Sparta, the Peloponesse, and the north.

Maybe it was a procession of Paul Delvaux’s sybils in dresses of various eras. Since these were immortals, they could afford to wear styles from different slices of European history. One could even spot a few mature faces here and there. Were they senior goddesses or queens of various fable kingdoms?

Though whites and gold dominated, dresses of various hues were sprinkled among them. One dress was of the various shades of ruins: limestone, cream, brown, light mustard, white. Byron and Shelley could have waxed lyrical about walking, talking ruins (which they’d visited) draped on nubile forms. Was that Arachne in a web of black straps and laces? Did the creators go to the temple of Didyma to pick out a few geometrical patterns from the abundance of designs to be found there?  What about vases of various shaped, not to mention the designs on said vases. Possibly, Romantics such as the poet John Keats would have gone crazy trying to wax eloquent about this forest of beautiful damsels making their way up and down this special ramp polished with gold just outside the temple.

Whether it was a homage to, or a deconstruction of the ancient Greek civilization, D&G managed to transport their audience to a surreal world of ancient splendor during their Alta Moda show in the Valley of the Temples in July 2019. More precisely, to the Temple of Concordia, which is perhaps one of the most intact structures of the ancient world near Agrigento, Sicily.

Did the models and the team appreciate the fact that they were allowed to walk in the peristyle of the temple, where the public is not allowed. In any case, there were lots of figures for Keats to choose from, had he been asked to pick out the three white-robed figures who circled around an urn in his dream, and about whom he was compelled to write in his famous Ode on Indolence. Which of these young girls resembled most the happy love of Ode to a Grecian Urn? The ones actually wearing urn-shaped dresses, complete with handles? Of course, that did reduce them even more to being objects, but would any of the savvy models present object to being labeled as objets d’art, since they were in it by their own choice. Given the fact that most models tend to have a relatively short shelf life, they are wont to make the most of it. Though there were ‘maidens (slightly) overwrought,’ happily, no‘maidens loth’ were in sight. There were enough dresses in russets, gold, and various shades of browns to satisfy even Keats when he was in his autumnal mood: ‘Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;’ could be said of some models, while the following lines would apply to all of them: ‘And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook;’ as they strutted across haughtily across the long ramp, holding their heads high.

Would Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Lady Randolph Churchill, Mrs. Patrick Campbell,

or other Professional Beauties of the day killed to have one of these golden gowns? Some of the longer robes were slightly reminiscent of Greco-Roman ladies peering out of the paintings of many Neo-classical artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton, Edward John Poynter, or Herbert James Draper. Possibly, some nymphs present at the show could have wriggled out of a few paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, specially wood nymphs from those of John William Waterhouse, or sirens from those of Edward Burne-Jones. The dress with the peacock feathers would have been right at home in the Peacock Room (at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington) designed by James McNeill Whistler. While Evelyn de Morgan, or Angelica Kauffmann might not have approved of the more revealing dresses, nevertheless, they’d have found the myriad of fabrics used interesting, nevertheless, perhaps for their own gowns and those of their models.

Could one have spotted Persephone from Ode to Melancholy? Did Psyche from Keats’s Ode to Psyche even deign to make an appearance at such an event? Yet, it was a rare fashion show which would appeal to at least 5 million viewers on YouTube alone. What is so compelling about this event? Why is this event such a must watch? Perhaps it’s a compression of all things Greek from ancient times, which managed to take people to a dream world. No doubt classicists would have a lot of fun identifying the eras and regions which inspired different elements of the show.

Would Praxiteles have approved of the images of his statues being used in this manner? Like most artists, perhaps he would be glad that his timeless sculptures are still inspiring and generating further works of art. Though the ancient Greeks sought perfection in everything, including the human body, perhaps they might not have cared for such overly tall and skinny models. Yet were they models, or otherworldly creatures for one magical evening? Would Phyrne have loved to model in such a show? Would Aspasia the wise woman have approved of fashion shows in general? Do they represent equality for women? But perhaps she’d have been lost in a spell of nostalgia for Athens of her times, could her ghost have witnessed this show now.

Aphrodite’s followers would argue these models represent the power of female beauty. Byron would have had a hard time choosing one to represent his poem, She Walks In Beauty. As would Keats to pick out the femme fatale of La Belle Dame Sans Merci from the long line of professional felines walking this picturesque cat-walk. Could Dante Gabriele Rosetti forgotten about his later obsession with Jane Burden Morris, or Edward Burne-Jones his fascination with Maria Zambaco if they could have witnessed this parade first-hand? Perhaps they’d have been just as fascinated by the Valley of Temples, as with the butterflies fluttering across the temporary stage of borrowed time.

 On the one hand, most of the designers tend to be men, but they need living, breathing women to bring their garments to life. Yet, are these tall dolls all replaceable creatures with thousands waiting to fill the elegant sandals of the ones who fall off, or are pushed off the podium of ephemeral fame? As Keats said, isn’t every beautiful woman ‘fair creature of an hour?’ An hour as measured in the sand glass of the gods. Are human beings like dolls or automatons such as Pandora made by the gods?

If so, how come some human beings such as Aspasia’s friend Socrates displayed more sense than the gods by asking questions about their very existence, for example? Would the philosopher have questioned the validity of fashion shows? Yet, perhaps he would have made an exception for the show that compressed his entire era into layers of history depicted on the materials of, and seen through the lens of our times.

The designers used a wide range of fabrics on which to imprint their ideas. Identifiable in the video of the show are organzas, chiffons, velvets, and silks amongst others. A wide variety of techniques such as prints and embroideries are used to embellish the fabrics. Jewelry is inspired by both the motifs of the ancient Greek culture, as well as the flora and fauna found in mosaics or (vase) paintings of that era. Broken pieces of columns or sculptures serve as head-dresses. Possibly sea nymphs might complain that motifs from their world were quite sparse, as the island culture of ancient Greece would have a lot of sea-related themes.

Though the show’s creators said it was based on ancient Greek themes, a few Trojans managed to sneak in as well. Would Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-Antione Theodore have been shocked to see their neo-classical paintings, including those of Paris and Helen printed on a silk gazar gown, being paraded up and down the stairs of a temple in Sicily?

Possibly, because though some of the models posed in a semi-nude state, they did so in the privacy of the artist’s studio, but in public women were dressed more modestly in his times. Yet, the Belgian artist, Paul Delvaux would have loved the surreal quality of the show. What about the hundreds of thousands of anonymous artisans such as vase makers, or the highly skilled labourers toiling away to polish the columns and decorative details of countless buildings and holy edifices? Could they have ever imagined that their artefacts would end up not only in museums around the world, but also be imprinted on dresses, serve as hats and accessories, or that their designs would be incorporated into jewelry? 

Perhaps it was the most comfortable fashion show for the models, because though their footwear was extravagant, beautiful in shades of gold, at least it was flat. The setting sun cooperated as well. Perhaps Helios wanted to feast his eyes on these gorgeous females for as long as he could. Did the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux pass by to take a look, as their temple is nearby as well?

By making a show about cultural history, this one has become a historical show in its own right, and these dresses should be preserved in a museum of their own, as the wildly surreal interpretation of two imaginative creators of the twenty-first century.

***

Part 2

In general terms, the huge interest in D&G’s Alta Moda show highlights the fact that the study of History, Classics, Archaeology is as relevant as ever before. We can still learn a lot from them, as they seem to be the blue-print of Western civilization. Almost all human problems are covered by, or discussed in ancient myths, and writings. The huge popularity of Classical subjects in fiction attest to the fact that the public is still interested in these topics. For example, Rick Riordan’s YA Percy Jackson series got a lot of young boys to start reading books. Ongoing, ground-breaking scholarly research can help fiction writers to delve deeper in these worlds in order to render them through their own lens, which in turn shed light on many ‘modern’ issues. Archaeo-astronomy is an emerging field which could give more pointers about the reasons why ancient civilizations has such a good knowledge of both astronomy and astrology.

Why should we continue to invest in studying our past? Lots of well-known people had keen insight into this question:

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’” Eduardo Galeano

“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” Alexis de Tocqueville

“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” Confucius

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Karl Marx

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Harry S Truman

“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lines. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.” Maya Angelou

“The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles.” Karl Marx

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Carter G. Woodson

***

Note: I can’t help wondering if D&G had ever been influenced by any of the quotes above.

###

Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza has an MA in English Literature. Her non-fiction has appeared in LitroLiterary Ladies Guide, and Literary Yard. She has published more than 100 articles on art, film, and humanitarian issues (also in French). Being interested in Romanticism and Fantasy, she has also presented papers on Keats, and Tolkien in international conferences.

Her poems/fiction have been published in 100+ journals, including Columbia Journal, London Grip, Literary Gazette, and The New Verse News. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train, and has appeared in SetuKnot MagazineColdnoon Journal, as well as Entropy, among other publications.

Categories: Essay

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