How does one start an essay on fashion in the middle of a raging pandemic? Perhaps TS Eliot’s Prufrock can set the stage because like his, our evenings too are
“...spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...”
while he wonders whether
“I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.”
But this is also the time that the need for escapism is at its peak, jurists be damned. Netflix knows it, as do other content creators, and has been able to capitalise on this existential need and delivered record growth in 2020. Netflix plans a staggering USD17 billion expenditure on programming in 2021. The company spent USD12.5 billion in 2020 and USD14.8 billion in 2019.
And this much-sought escapism is what Halston, Netflix’s latest offering from the atelier of Ryan Murphy, offers in good measure.
Who is Halston and Why He Matters
Ewan McGregor as the eponymous protagonist—the iconic American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick—delivers one of his best performances in this camp miniseries. With his long coats and shield sunglasses, McGregor brings Halston alive with all his brilliance and insecurities.
In the days of digital streaming of fashion weeks and latest collections being ‘dropped’ online, Halston allows a peek into one of the most exciting epochs in America’s fashion history. Ralph Lauren was still peddling his wide ties, Oscar de la Renta was designing his dream-like gowns, and suede was an inconvenient favourite. For this alone, one can ignore whatever cinematic flaws the miniseries may have.
Halston, once famous for being Jackie Kennedy’s hat-maker, springs on this fashion scene and becomes America’s first luxury superstar.
He’s helped in his journey by the unconditional love, well almost, of pop-star Liza Minnelli and designer Elsa Peretti of Tiffany & Co. fame; the scheming ways of businessman David Mahoney; and the art of publicity of none other than Eleanor Lambert, the fashion publicist who went on to become the founder of New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the Met Gala, and the International Best Dressed List.
It is as camp as camp can get: silks and chiffons, furs and diamonds, a battle of designers in Versailles, gay orgies, Studio 54, and Andy Warhol.
Forgotten Fashion Visionary
But, why do we not hear of Halston anymore? Heck, even the Americans would be pressed to recall the man who revolutionised women’s fashion by making ‘ultrasuede’ dresses that did not get ruined in the rain.
One reason could be his Faustian pact to sell his name without understanding the repercussions of it. Or perhaps he had too much of a good taste. Something that Salvador Dali warned against. “It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilise and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.” Why else would Halston, a visionary ahead of his times, refuse to tap into the potential of the denim market? He “missed the window” and handed over his superstar status to Calvin Klein.
Or was it something more basic? Halston turned into a cocaine addict, like many of his contemporaries from the Disco decade, and that began to impact every aspect of his life. His ‘good taste’ soon turned into a liability and he was eventually forbidden by the owners of his eponymous brand, to design for it.
The man who “hated things that didn’t work”, could not figure out his swan-song in real life, though the miniseries tries to offer a neat and well-rounded ending.
Halston died of an AIDS-defining cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1990. His company changed hands several times even after his death and as late as 2015.
Should We be Talking About Fashion At All?
Alexander McQueen once said, “Fashion should be a form of escapism and not a form of imprisonment”. And that seems to be Halston’s message. The miniseries can be seen as a cautionary tale, highlighting how vital it is to understand the difference between escape and imprisonment.
A perfect lesson for these COVID-19 ravaged times where many of us have mistaken one for the other, thus aiding the fatal spread.
Coming back to fashion per se, difficult times have always been followed by pathbreaking oeuvres in the world of art and fashion. Right after the ravages of the Spanish Flu and WWI, we had the Roaring 20s that changed women’s fashion once and for all.
During WWII, when clothes rationing was a norm in the West, Norman Norell’s sheath dresses got studded with unrationed sequins. The 40s also saw a sportswear revolution, thanks to the scarcity of materials like wool and silk that led to designers like Claire McCardell to create clothes that allowed freedom of movement. Fashion icons like Katherine Hepburn popularised trousers, a piece of clothing still considered outrageous for women. But as Elsa Schiaparelli says, “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”.
Perhaps, this century’s first defining fashion moment had to be preceded by a pandemic. Sometime, in near future, when no apology would be required for a discourse on fashion, people are going to get out and about and fashion would become free of the horrors of masks and banalities of work-from-home wear. After all, Andy Warhol, a friend of Halston, was pretty clear about it once: “Fashion wasn’t what you wore someplace anymore; it was the whole reason for going.”