New York

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am

What's going on around the globe

The English and French have been at each other's throats through much of history. So it's a shock to find that a bizarre exhibition of clothes at New York's Metropolitan Museum takes as its starting point an 18th-century bout of French Anglomania.

During the 1750s, elevated sections of French society thought England was cool, especially its fashions. The Anglomania exhibition shows those fashions in some marvellously exotic dioramas consisting of mannequins, antique furniture and paintings.

But look again, and there's something odd about these views. Why is that 18th-century lad wearing punky bondage trousers? And why is his friend sporting a bright orange Mohawk haircut? In some extravagant and atmospheric dioramas, the curators have mixed antique clothes with the outre creations of modern designers such as punk seamstress Vivienne Westwood. The cheeky conceit of the exhibition is to demonstrate how the styles of the 18th century continued to influence English couture. The result is some weird anachronistic visions.

I was attracted to Anglomania by a pair of punk-rock era bondage trousers, because they reminded me of concerts I'd seen in 1977. Standing guard outside the show, in front of a huge Union Jack flag, is an 18th-century redcoat soldier. Opposite him, also on guard, stands a young punk rocker in a nifty bondage suit, replete with D-rings, a purple dog collar, and clumpy boots. The cut, fabrics and hang of the two complement each other well. But it's only a taster of the contradictions that lie within.

The curators say the Anglomania phenomenon began as an intellectual wave that sprang from 18th-century England's reputation for 'reason, freedom, and tolerance'. But it was soon reduced to a matter of style.

The English style - the look of its pageantry, royalty, sports and fashions - was imitated in Europe and the US. The curators say the link with the show's time-bending clothing is that defining styles were quickly recognised, preserved and perpetuated by the English themselves. They make up a romanticised English look that persists today.

The most direct expression of this is a frock coat designed by Alexander McQueen for David Bowie in 1986. In his days as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie looked more like Nefertiti than an English gent. But this coat, tailored for the cover of a CD, was modelled on one worn by the fictitious working-class English figure of John Bull. Posh people get a look-in, too. In a diorama titled the Hunt Ball, some post-modern hunting outfits by John Galliano (below) reference Britain's recently banned bloodsport.

But the most effective dioramas are those that mix punk and post-punk fashions with antiques. Street punk clothing was a DIY affair - I remember wearing a plastic bin liner to watch Siouxsie and the Banshees, which got a bit hot. But the upmarket punk fashions of Westwood's shops Sex and Seditionaries took inspiration from Victorian times and before. Her extravagant creations in velvet, silk and fur on show in the Empire and Monarchy room make such a statement about historical continuity that they almost transcend fashion to become art.

One can only wonder what the French aristocracy would have made of them.