The fashion industry, ephemeral by design, will occasionally capture a moment in history and pin it like a butterfly to the page. Maison Christian Dior has achieved this mysterious feat twice.
Counterpoints Abusing Jews by norman lebrecht
In 1947 his New Look, generous in length and silhouette, signalled the end of wartime austerity and the return of bourgeois egotism. Twenty yards of material were used in a single frock. Collective restraint, bred in war, died with the birth of the Dior brand. By 1949, Dior accounted for 75 per cent of Paris fashion sales. Seen today in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the New Look declares the age of its creation more accurately than the lines around a fallen tree.
The second defining moment in modern fashion almost brought about the fall of Dior. In February, the brand’s head designer, John Galliano, was accused of anti-Semitic abuse at strangers in a public place in the Marais district of Paris. There was no immediate response from Dior. Two days later, a British tabloid published a video of an incident in which Galliano, in a Marais restaurant, was heard telling two women “I love Hitler” and “your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f***ing gassed”. Dior condemned the racist sentiments, announcing Galliano’s suspension in terms vague enough to protect his imminent collection at Paris Fashion Week.
It took a celebrity strike to sack Galliano. Natalie Portman, clutching her Best Actress Oscar, threatened to quit as the face of Dior perfume unless Galliano was fired. The designer was finally dismissed, leaving chief executive Sidney Toledano to present the collection with a wavery line about Dior’s values of tolerance and anti-Nazism (Dior’s resistant sister, Catherine, was deported to Ravensbrück in 1944; her brother dressed Nazi wives and collaboratrices). The fashion world rallied in solidarity. By the end of Fashion Week, all the press was concerned with was who sat where in the show. Just another hissy fit on the catwalk, then.
Except it wasn’t. More thoughtful observers of this unedifying spectacle perceived something about it that exemplified the zeitgeist of 2011, every bit as much as the New Look did of 1947. Galliano did not rant in isolation. Glenn Beck, the Fox TV loudmouth, attacked the financier George Soros in terms borrowed from the Elders of Zion, Julian Assange, the media-darling Wikileaks man, slagged off his former Guardian allies as Jews. The Guardian itself continued to post the text of a play by Caryl Churchill which the lawyer Anthony Julius denounced as anti-Semitic.
Whatever Galliano said, or is alleged to have said, was uttered against this backdrop, signifying a climate change in social attitudes. Ever since the Holocaust, anti-Semitic speech has been either suppressed or couched in such cloying ambiguities that only sworn racists could be sure they knew what was meant. In 2011, its expression has become once again permissible.
Why that evil genie has been unleashed is a matter of anguished debate. Some see it as a by-product of the Israel-Palestine conflict, others (such as the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland) find it to be the resurgence of a hatred that may lie dormant but cannot be eradicated. No matter which line you take, the public return of anti-Semitic abuse was signified and, in some sense, legitimised by the antics of John Galliano and the equivocations of his media apologists. Dior has once again defined our age. It is apparently a time to abuse Jews.
By lesley chamberlain
ARussian philosopher exiled by Lenin noted that post-1917 the Left now had moral authority right or wrong. True believers still hold that view and the hallowing of the pioneer German Social Democrat Rosa Luxemburg is a case in point. The first complete version of her Letters has just appeared in English, 140 years after her birth.
Polish-born Luxemburg was an independent -minded woman who combined a Swiss university education in politics and economics with a passionate desire to help the abused working class in Poland and Germany. But do we need the 14 volumes of her theoretical Works set to follow? She was a late-Enlightenment figure who combined a Kantian disdain for human exploitation with Marxist-driven but also highly poeticised agitation for an economically more just society. In 1919 with Karl Liebknecht she led the communistic Spartacus uprising in Berlin and both were subsequently murdered by the far-right Freikorps.
The problem today is not her sympathy with the exploited workforce but her faith in dialectical materialism. Any 21st-century reader can see that no hocuspocus Historical Necessity is going to bring about socialism or any other kind of state. Any debate about Luxemburg has to set her fine intentions against her ideological errors.
In predominantly social democratic Germany Rosa is respected for contributing to the mainstream socialist tendency of European politics today. But what did we get in London? The gathering of a sect to worship her. There are still people who believe that History is trundling towards some inevitable goal of quasi-divine justice. Like others who still believe in the divine right of kings, I suppose.
That great critic of Marxism Leszek Kolakowski observed that Luxemburg’s spontaneous personality actually blinded her to the fact that she was as doctrinaire as her friend Lenin when it came to “the line”. Yes, Luxemburg criticised Lenin, yes he betrayed her memory, but neither fact is enough to make her an angel.
A recent launch event for the Letters was a fond remembering of the radical 1960s for those who took part. Those who praised her uncritically had never made the intellectual journey the once devoted Marxist Kolakowski did. They never had to test their beliefs in practice by sending people to prison, and worse, and driving them out of their country. Now, if only we could have had a debate on that level.
Old despots’ home
By christopher fildes
George Washington put his money into British government stock, and the Bank of England paid his dividends to him on the nail, throughout the War of Independence. Those were gentlemanly times—and, after all, he was helping to finance the Royal Navy.
Nowadays the Privy Council would be meeting on a Sunday and seizing or freezing his assets. There would be talk of making Chesapeake Bay a no-sail zone, if we could find enough ships, and in due course of bringing him to trial, with a predictable verdict. Put like e
April 2011 John Gross (2008) by Matthew Carr. We reproduce this portrait, courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, as a tribute to the artist and the sitter, both of whom died recently. John Gross (1935-2011) was the critics’ critic, whose genial genius dazzled London and New York for half a century. Matthew Carr (1953-2011) stood out among artists of his generation for the originality and virtuosity of his drawings