The bust might not have existed. Armour lay better on a flat figure

"My clothes are like weapons. When you zip up a dress, it makes the sound of a revolver being unlocked," is how Paco Rabanne described his creations. And indeed - he made a splash with it. Even though the dresses he proposed were heavy, uncomfortable, hurtful to the delicate female body, and terribly expensive to produce - he was still a success. He had simply hit his time. The Cold War. He died on 3 February this year, at the age of 88.

He was not a 'great tailor', not at all familiar with cut or tailoring techniques, and yet the fashion world revelled in his farewell. Although the Spanish creator had not been involved in fashion for a long time, rather associated with perfumes, the Rabanne brand still exists, but design decisions are made by the patron's successors. He himself withdrew from the fashion world in 1999.

Francisco Rabaneda Cuervo, born in Pasaia in the Basque Country on 18 February 1934, arrived in France at an early age with his mother, who had taken refuge in Paris from the Spanish Civil War. She had her reasons - the Francoists had killed her husband, a Republican colonel. It was also thanks to his parent that young Paco found his way into the world of great fashion. While still in Spain, his mother worked as head seamstress for Cristóbal Balenciaga, and when the designer moved the company to Paris in 1939, Madame Rabaneda followed him with her family.

In the French capital, Paco studied at the architecture department of the Academy of Fine Arts, earning his money by sketching for Dior, Givenchy and Charles Jourdan, the shoe king at the time.

Under his own label, he debuted (1965) with plastic jewellery and accessories. At the time, he was pals with Antoine Stinko, an avant-garde architect, and the fashion designer couple Quasar and Emmanuelle Khahn. They were all fans of artificial plastics, unconcerned with the preferences of traditional audiences.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Anyway, by the mid-1960s, the world was crazy about 'modernity' in interior design and ladies' attire - men proved more resistant to clothing utopias. However, even avant-garde women were reluctant to wear dresses made of transparent plastic....

Unwearable dresses

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For the time being, Rabanne kept a low profile with his own ideas for women's clothing, content to produce adornments. However, when he took off in the fashion arena, it was like launching a rocket. It was not so much the forms of clothing that took him into orbit, but the materials used.

This is unwearable! This is how Rabanne titled his first collection: "Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials"(1966). That is to say - a dozen unwearable dresses made of contemporary materials. Provocation. This was shown at the super-exclusive George V Hotel in Paris. The barefoot models (a novelty!) were also wearing no underwear. Shock and awe.

Soon there were brave (and wealthy) women putting this on. Beautiful, aware of their strength, sex appeal and striving to project naturalness. "And God Created Woman" (1956), Roger Vadim's landmark film, became the trampoline for Brigitte Bardot's career. And it was she, France's greatest star, who donned Rabanne's creation on her impeccably shaped body.

Alongside her, another perfectly shapely girl, internationally known as the author of the hit song, became a fan of plastic armour: "Tous les garçons et les filles". Françoise Hardy shone in the musical firmament as a teenager, also had a flirtation with film and became the muse of several fashion designers, including, of course, the plastic Spaniard.

However, Rabanne's name was made most famous by Jane Fonda as Barbarella (1968). Certainly, the film adaptation of the popular comic strip (again directed by Roger Vadim, an absolute genius when it comes to lionising new film idols) would not have been a great success without Jane in Paco's costumes, instantly hailed as masterpieces.
Fun fact: in the same year, 1968, Rabanne's mini-dresses were presented at... the Home Furnishings Fair, with the subtitle "Everything is Made of Steel, from the Pots to the Chefs". It is hard not to smile at the pictures, in which models, shackled in metal creations, pretend to be housewives preparing a meal in the kitchen. These dresses are in no way reminiscent of a frying pan or kettle, although they have the same sheen. They are more like medieval armour, chainmail. Here, memory recalls Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France (she was recognised as such in 1922, almost 500 years after being burnt at the stake). She is the pioneer of male attire on the female body. Although the Virgin of Orléans led her compatriots to victory over the English army in 1429, she met a well-known punishment two years later. For the fact that - among other "offences" - she donned armour.

No more underwear

I have already mentioned that Rabanne, in his creative exaltation, reached for raw materials that previously did not exist for the clothing industry. Do you know what Rhodoid is? Well, a material created by the French chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate Rhône Poulenc in 1936 (short for Rhône-Poulenc and celluloid). Cellulose acetate, transparent and non-flammable, commonly known by the short name acetate.It came into fashion, of course, thanks to Paco Rabanne. Other unconventional raw materials in tailoring were aluminium and steel (brrr... cold at the thought) dyed in bright colours. Compared to metal, Paco's leather 'chainmail' made of geometric scraps fused together with rivets seems more body-friendly.

Another of his ideas: disposable paper dresses, decorated with stick-on, colourful ribbons. The advantage? The speed of producing such tunics (three minutes) and the possibility of individual decoration by the wearer.

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Paco Rabanne challenged all rules of tailoring and sewing 'to the human body'. Instead of the machine (or the manual fusion of individual clothing pieces), he relied on welding, gluing, seaming. Any hemming, finishing of the outfit? Why, it was all done mechanically.

But let's ask the most important question: what, what external circumstances helped his career? As we all know, many factors contribute to success, and perhaps the most important is hitting the right time. Paco shot into the era like Valentina Tereshkova, Yuri Gagarin and the crew of Apollo 11. Another seemingly insignificant event nevertheless linked to Rabanne's vision: the public burning of bras by Women's Lib participants. This detail was not used by his models either. In general, the female bust may not have existed. On a flat figure, plastic chainmails fitted better.

Wala inspires

What made so many women let themselves be persuaded to wear the armour of Rabanne's design?

I have my own theory: it was about proving that the weak sex has strength. In fact, it would work better in an interstellar civilisation, which was to be the salvation of humanity in the event of a nuclear cataclysm. Women had a huge role to play... The collective imagination was stirred by a truly cosmic sensation: in June 1963, the Soviet fibre worker, member of the aeroclub in Yaroslavl, Komsomol woman Valentina Tyreshkova underwent training and... fulfilled a lifelong dream: aboard the Vostok 6, she embarked on a flight into space. It lasted 2 days, 22 hours, 50 minutes and 8 seconds. Is it any wonder that in such an aura a feminist upsurge was brewing? And that the fair sex was preparing to conquer new planets?

For this, a new image was needed, in keeping with the character of the era. The "liberated" women of the 1920s and 1930s belonged to the past, having their hair cut "in the bosom", dancing the charleston, sipping cocktails, wearing silk stockings and slippers on poles. After the Great Depression of 1929, there was nothing to be happy about; after the Great War, art - let alone fashion - began to be a dubious beautification. True, Christian Dior did offer the New Look in the most difficult post-war times (1947 and it was a spectacular success), but everyday ladies could not afford to spend such dizzying sums for outfits.

Women wanted to be beautiful, yet natural. And not so cuddly or subject to male domination - potential candidates for cosmonauts! In the 1960s, models were often photographed next to cars, on scooters and other vehicles. If the ladies were involved in something more mundane than travelling, these activities also bore the hallmarks of "modernity": women vacuumed the flat with an electrolux, put laundry in the washing machine or cooked something in the pressure cooker as if by default - a pleasure in fact. In the domestic setting, they were also in fashionable style: simple dresses, teased hair and false eyelashes, because the eyes had to appear as deep as a starry night.

Imitation from bottle caps

Now something from the domestic backyard. In communist Poland, Rabanne's creations were unattainable for most women, although there were some attempts at imitation. Halina Frąckowiak's outfit at the Opole 1970 festival has gone down in history - also a kind of stylised armour, a miniskirt and a bra made of golden metal, both parts joined by metal swirls on the singer's bare and shapely belly. It couldn't have been comfortable, but what one doesn't do for effect!
Halina Frąckowiak's outfit at the Opole 1970 festival made history. Photo: PAP/Ryszard Okoński
This event was not reported in the media, also from the early 1970s, the Academy of Fine Arts held so-called fuksówka parties in the carnival, a sort of shake-up of the freshmen. Traditionally, artists in spe tried to shock with their creations. I was there, so I know. I will never forget my costume with which I made my debut at the student ball.

I worked on the outfit for several weeks and collected material for months. I tried to create something resembling space armour by sewing metal discs onto a large mesh men's T-shirt - a mini for me. Where to get them from? From ... the caps on bottles of spirits! Of course, I discarded the bottom screw-on part, leaving the top alone. The project proved to be unworkable. Gathering the raw material, then cutting the sheet metal and drilling a hole in it was beyond my technical capabilities. I didn't give up - I switched to milk caps, easier to obtain and much more amenable to tailoring. A week before the event, I abandoned this system too.

I took the easy way out: I sewed buttons, chains, metal tags and whatever else I could find onto the shirt. As a result, it came out great. The dress had one thing in common with the original - the weight. Although thin, the dress was not airy. On top of that, it made threatening sounds when danced, cooing and clanking. But it was a success. I certainly owed it to Paco Rabanne.

– Monika Małkowska - Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Jane Fonda poses for the publicity poster for the film 'Barbarella'. The actress's costumes were designed by Paco Rabanne. Photo: Screen Archives/Getty Images
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