The art of dressing up

In 2005 the son of suspended Tory MP Derek Conway, at the centre of a Parliamentary payments probe,

Over the past few years, "vintage" has become the word of choice for fashionistas. What began as an eccentric and endearing English excuse for old clothes has been hijacked by the high street. Which means that couture has had to up the stakes by raiding the dressing-up box that is art history.

At this year's Paris Couture week, the spring/summer collection of John Galliano, designer-in-chief at Christian Dior, frothed with art-historical references. Galliano, whose influences ranged from pop to Rembrandt through empire-line imperialism, described the concept as "Andy Warhol is Napoleon in rags". Meanwhile, Giorgio Armani's very first couture collection (typically more classic) was inspired by the fin-de-siecle portraitist Giovanni Boldini. It's official - historicism is the new vintage.

Allusion to art in fashion is not new. In the 1930s, the Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga popularised off-the-shoulder jackets with wide lapels, directly quoting the 17th-century court dress in portraits by Diego Velazquez. Balenciaga looked to the same artist for the formal elements of corseting, which provided an overture to the predominant silhouette of the 1950s. The taste for knickerbockers and bows in the Fifties was partly due to a renewed interest in the work of the 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough, whose portraits of women in turn illustrate a peculiar episode of aristocratic sartorial historicism: dressing up in costumes that recalled Anthony Van Dyck's portraits of the Stuart court a century earlier. In fashioning themselves in the style of a past age, Gainsborough's sitters were following an 18th-century trend of conscious nationalism.

The bastion of historicism in fashion today is Vivienne Westwood. In her first collection, Pirate (1981), she embraced art and fashion history, though painting was not a major source of inspiration until her autumn/winter Portrait collection of 1990-91. Using the Wallace Collection as her muse, she produced various interpretations of the definitive dress shape of the early 18th century, lifted from the fetes champetres of the French painter Jean Antoine Watteau.

Westwood further referenced the rococo in her spring/summer collection of 1996, entitled Les femmes ne connaissent pas toute leur coquetterie ("Women do not understand the full extent of their coquettishness"). This collection featured her most palpable art-historical reference - the green silk taffeta Watteau dress now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This gown evokes the pleasure and sexuality of the painter's women, with the emphasis on flirtation, the luxury of the material and the constriction of the female form through structure.

A new exhibition at the V&A will explore how designers are haunted by history, and should provide thought-provoking analysis of the need for reinterpretation in fashion. The lead being taken by British designers in reinventing the past could be seen as part of a wider re-evaluation of nationality. As we struggle to understand our sense of nation in 21st-century, post-imperial Britain, British designers are taking empire lines back to the world fashion stage. It is encouraging that couture's retrospective view is facilitated by a renewed interest in art history. Who could ask for a more worthy dressing-up box?

"Spectres: when fashion turns back" is at the V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) from 24 February to 8 May. An accompanying book of the same title is published by V&A Publications (£30)

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