I was watching a documentary on haute couture the other night while I was adding the interfacing to the shoulders of my coat. The documentary went behind the scenes to meet some of the women who buy haute couture, as well as following a dress made by Karl Lagerfeld for a runway show.
Haute couture is *extraordinarily* expensive. However, it is not simply conspicuous consumption - it is expensive because of the materials and craftsmanship. One of the former workers at a couture shop estimated that a couture garment takes up to 150 hours to create. 150 hours with the most skilled hands on the planet, with the finest materials, with no slightest thought to stinting on anything, anywhere. The result? Everything I've ever read about couture says that it is like nothing else - that it feels like part of your body, it is so beautifully fitted. One of the people interviewed said that the fabric preparation meant that the garment would not wrinkle, treat it as you wished. These garments are works of craftsmanship, finest craftsmanship.
Of course the people who buy a blouse that cost about the same as my car aren't sitting on uncomfortable chairs or wearing uncomfortable shoes or eating off of ugly chipped plates. And these are the class of people (growing smaller all the time) who have always been the supporters of the arts. If we are to have a painting that takes three years to complete (check the dates on some of the works of the old masters) then we must have someone willing to pay to take care of the artist and his retinue for three years while it is being completed!
So - if we are to have dedicated artists, who do nothing more than create the finest ... whatevers ... then we must have people who can afford to support said artists. Is that right? When children starve, should someone make something pretty for someone who could afford to feed a town on the cost of the pretty thing?
And yet art, and beauty, they are necessary to the human soul. Humans create art, all humans create art, all humans enjoy beauty - in some form. Although I don't wear garments that feel like a second skin, it pleases me to know they exist. And in their recycled form (as museum donations), I am able to enjoy those garments insofar as they are beautiful. Not so much as the owner... but still. And stepping away from wearable art - what of sculpture and paintings and fountains and beautiful furniture and gardens.. the original owners wanted to inhabit a beautiful space, to be inspired, to feel a sense of wonder. And now I can visit the palace of Versailles or the Forbidden City - and I can marvel.
I'm leaving this question open, because it's a real question, and I don't know that it has a final answer. Do we walk to the side of utility - do we become socialists, and share everything out and make sure every belly is fed and every head covered and... and... and... before we start making luxury crafts once again? And when is it okay? Where's the line? Or do we side with Marie Antoinette, letting the peasants starve in our cloth-of-gold dress?
For myself... I tend to be mentally of the Arts and Crafts movement. I strive to get rid of the ugly stuff, and pay for good craftsmanship, beauty and utility. Beauty matters to me - but so does charity, and I am well aware that all of this world will burn while the souls of men will last forever. But ah - beauty. My heart dances to your song with its every beat... I could never be plain - I love pretty things far too much.
And I'll confess, one of my fondest daydreams of Heaven is being able to create... I do hope I get to make pretty things for all my friends, and I'd love to make everyone my friend. Not a bad way to spend eternity, n'est pas?
So write me a response and let's think about beauty and its place in this world together.