The world of haute couture is an alternate reality: Time is measured in precise fittings, affordability doesn’t matter and surreal creations are fueled by corporate fashion entities flicking millions of dollars into the fires of designers’ most shivering dreams. Couture fashion is about selling an aspiration no one knew they had. Similarly, the goal of poetry is to jolt sensations previously untouched.
To quickly summarize haute couture, it is the top echelon of clothing production. It is regulated by the French government by laws that forbid application of this nomenclature to companies that do not employ narrowly defined guidelines for custom fitting, hand craftsmanship and perfect quality. There are 14 official couture houses, including Chanel and Dior, whose clients mostly have oil or royal gold coffers.
Couture is basically the sublime foam of fashion. It rides in on a surf of lace, crashes into billowing waves and seeps dramatically over the human form. Clothing freed from quotidian practicality transforms the body into a living sculpture made of skin, bones, chiffon and silk. Not all poetry is as excessive as this clothing, but it does have a similar freedom to be whatever it wants to be. (The financial improbability of both couture and poetry is a whole other topic that I will set aside right now.)
Poetry and fashion are both made things that draw attention to their own manufacture. The bones of poetry — words and lines and stanzas — and the bones of dresses — seams and darts and closures — are both elements that strive to be elegantly invisible despite their obviousness. Turn a shirt inside out and the seams are fault lines; turn a poem upside down and you know right where to tear it up … between the stanzas, of course. (Unless you read e.e. cummings — then it will be confetti!) In deconstruction, the original construction is revealed and questioned.
One of the best examples of construction becoming its own aesthetic statement was a couture collection John Galliano designed for Dior in 2005 featuring gowns that documented the process of their own making — the models wore nude corsets to look like dressmakers’ forms, showing tailor’s markings, fitting pins and all of the padding that is usually hidden in the layers of women’s couture garments. On top of this swathes of fabric were draped as though a dress were in the works on the dress form, but no — this was the dress. The process was the product.
Just as fashion borrows from poetry’s tactics, poetry, in turn, thrives on themes that are imminent in questions of dress: transformation, shedding or adopting an identity, materiality and sensuality. This last theme is subversively taken up in Billy Collins' Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes wherein he writes,
“The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness. …
and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.”
Doty draws on the readers’ complicit respect for Dickinson and respect for “Poetry” then draws us into an unexpected sexual encounter. After leaving the reader wondering if he or she should see Dickinson as a serious poet or a sensual woman or both, he turns back to how the poem is commenting on the function of poetry.
This is just like a dress using inside-out darts as a design detail. First you make a dress, then you fit it with darts to mold it to the wearer’s curves, then you show those darts inside-out to display their form-fitting function. With the knowledge of what is going on, is the dress still sexy? Is the poem still penetrating? I think it is even more so.
Another interesting usage of clothing in poetry is its symbolic power to bridge a space between the earth and heaven. Clothing can facilitate departure, be shed in the air and be acquired as eternal vestments. Case in point is the final line of Harryette Mullen’s "Black Nikes," which goes, "The thrill of victory is, we're exiting earth. We're leaving all this dirt." How did she break away from earth and fly off? Shoes! Black Nikes apparently. I actually have black Nikes also, so she gives me a certain faith in life (un)eternal.
Among the writings that occupy this liminal space, the most eloquent must be “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by W. B. Yeats, where the narrator dreams of giving his reader the night sky, which he calls “the heavens’ embroidered cloths” but he is too poor for this textile so he can only afford to put his dreams under her feet, at which point he instructs, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
The poem swirls all divisions of heaven and earth in its use of cloth. This is also the story of couture: A simple earthly fabric is elevated to near-divinity, then brought back down as a capitalist object to be sold and bought, then replaced by immaterial and free “dreams” — all that is left. That cloth almost literally floats in the interstitial place between dirt and stars, love and rage, damnation and salvation. It is in a place called limbo — a place where the best fashion, and the best poetry, always floats.