You might wonder how I came by the name of this section. You might not, but let’s assume you do. Why coup d'œil, why indeed a French word at all? Why not something in English? Why not fingerspitzengefühl? Obviously in choosing a name there are various factors to consider. I wanted something French mainly because haute couture is a French term, so it speaks to that origin.
My favourite designer is Alexander McQueen, and Lee was English so I did also consider a variety of particularly English phrases (that is, the specific country in the United Kingdom, not just the language), most of which attempted to play off the ‘McQueen’ element, or something like ‘Alexander the Greatest’. McQueen’s work makes up a disproportionately large part of my interest in fashion, but venerating his (now fixed) oeuvre is not the sole purpose of this project of mine and so that was the end of that idea.
Which leaves something of a quandary; how best to articulate one’s perspective in a catchy, one- or two-word phrase and encapsulate some of the thematic work at the same time. In a lot of ways the early part of the process is quite fun, the brainstorming and the freedom to range from the downright absurd to the quaint to the intellectually sublime. After all, it needs to speak to both purpose and aesthetic.
I mentioned fingerspitzengefühl because like coup d'œil it has its genesis in military history and was briefly a possible contender, despite being long and a little awkward, as many German words seem to native English speakers. In a literal sense it means the ‘feeling in one’s fingertips’, yet it also carries connotations of sensitivity, awareness, and perception (via an allusion to a particularly deft touch) and so has become suggestive, in different contexts, of intuition, diplomacy, and personal instinct.
That’s not really what I’m about. Much of the fashion industry is about that, without doubt, but my purpose here is to bring some kind of definition or acute observation to the critical assessment of fashion and its various modes of expression, so fingerspitzengefühl is precisely what I don’t want. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the mechanism behind most contemporary commentary about fashion would be very accurately described as fingerspitzengefühl. This project is about breaking out of the subjective (that is, personal taste) and into something closer to the realm of the objective. To my mind, personal instinct and feel or touch must give way to analysis, by observing the observable, drawing out and working through the myriad facets of a garment and, if possible, teasing what meagre words might suffice in an attempt to express the sublime.
Boldness, sans bull and blood
Take this image as an example. With Alexander McQueen it always seems, to me, to be so easy precisely because he is so bold. The sublime seems so close to the surface. The classic red polka-dot bodice and skirt are the fundamental underpinning of this garment. Its cloth says light and breezy. Delicate, with a veneer of thin-ness which certainly reveals itself to be a poor second skin, alluded to by the exposed right breast cup; the brassiere structure is a twisted knot, like rope or other means of bondage, whilst simultaneously reminiscent of the tendrils of exposed veins. The captivity of the figure is expressed within the very means of its construction, not unlike the overarching symbolic activity the garment critiques.
The polka-dot pattern is broken only by interspersed stripes: some straight, some angled; some bold, some pin-thin; like rivulets of blood interrupting the prettiness of the pattern, they break the ‘skin’ of the design and bring a level of dissonance and discomfort to the very viewing of it. The shoes, stiletto-heeled (one would expect nothing less) with one simple arching strap, hold the foot hoof-like, with remarkably little detail other than the boldness of their colour: red, for blood, like all the rest. It is as though the foot is bathed in solid blood.
Lastly, and most impressively, is the statement par excellence, the dramatic, and in a practical sense ridiculous, spears which have run the figure through. They cannot be ignored. In this photograph, the mannequin grasps each, as one would if attempting to disembowel one’s self with such implements of brutality. The pole handles are wrapped in fabric also (dressed, as it were), and are tipped with vicious metal barbs, which have penetrated and snagged the train of the skirts, delivering both another metaphorical blow as well as creating a permanent structural movement in the hang of the garment itself. This movement, so frivolous in the form of the billowing skirts — the artifice and entertainment — could be a great wash of blood — the jarring physical cruelty — from a punctured artery.
The piece is as sublime as it is visceral and suggestively graphic. The presence of so many shades of red, the impaling of the central figure, the impressive sense of movement and strength simultaneously undermined by its patterned dissonance and the sheer vulnerability of the figure wearing it, all perfectly underscore the needless brutality of the so-called sport which it signifies: bullfighting. That McQueen can say so much about the inhumanity of the glamorous murder of an animal for the enjoyment of a crowd, via a means which parallels it in sheer visual extravagance and savagery is what gives this piece of art its grandeur.
I chose this image precisely because it evokes a sense of striking, of its penetrative power and disdain for surface layers, for the lance-like piercing declaration, and metaphorical impact. It is, incidentally, also a truly beautiful piece of couture.
So, in contrast to fingerspitzengefühl, coup d'œil, besides being petite and humming out of the mouth rather nicely once you get the hang of it (think koo-doy-yei), literally means ‘stroke of the eye’. In my opinion fashion is fundamentally about visuals: certainly the type and feel of a cloth or the sound it makes could often be a consideration for a particular piece during its creation but the ultimate purpose of an item of fashion is to appear. It speaks through its visual aesthetic, and any analysis of it must begin and inevitably end with the eye.
My understanding is that, in modern French, coup d'œil is synonymous with something like ‘at a glance’, inferring something that can be summarised or assessed with the eye. A quick look. Yet I also enjoy the suggestion of striking, cutting through what might be visually superficial to get to what is buried beneath — meaning. Expression, resistance, reinterpretation, homage.