Picks and Pans Review: Couture: the Great Designers

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Caroline Rennolds Milbank

Excessive in a lot of ways, this weighs in as one of the most glamorous fashion books of the 1980s—also one of the heaviest. At six pounds, three and a half ounces, it is fun to browse through but certainly too much dead weight to drag into bed at night for a casual read. The author, a New York clothing consultant, is also more reverent than need be. She traces the lavish world of haute couture from its beginnings in the mid-19th century when Charles Frederick Worth, the gentleman responsible for the crinoline, held sway in his Paris salon. She carries the tale to his present-day counterparts, such disparate talents as the Italian classicist Giorgio Armani and the avant-garde Japanese designer Issey Miyake. To make order out of this sprawling subject, Milbank tidies up (a bit compulsively) by placing the 61 designers she writes about into various sections with such headings as The Founders, The Purists and The Entertainers. By any label they're an amusing bunch. One of the business' most playful designers, for instance, was Elsa Schiaparelli, the star of Paris couture during the 1930s, whose big splashes included a sweater with a trompe l'oeil bow tie, hats shaped like ink pots and "The Big Apple," a pocketbook with red suede sections. Perhaps the 20th century's greatest talent was Christian Dior, the Frenchman who ushered in the "new look," the post-World War II fashion of nipped-in waists and voluminous skirts. One young American wrote home praising the master's constructions, so impeccable, she gushed, that underclothes were de trop. Then there was the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny, a genius with pleats. Even today, 37 years after his death, the secret of his exquisite pleating is still hotly contested. (Milbank says Fortuny probably stitched the pleats in place when the fabric was moist and then set them with heat.) In spite of the wealth of material and Milbank's cool, well-researched essays, her work remains curiously sterile. Bouquets, in any case, to the designers of Couture for having produced a beautiful, visually inviting book. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $65)

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