Paris Fashion Week: Dior and Saint Laurent Bring Back French Chic

PARIS — Emily’s not in Paris any more. Her Disneyfied, funfair version of French style, the kind that created its own mini culture war, has been banished by the names — Dior, Saint Laurent —- that once defined the term.

You want that mythic thing known as French chic; that chimera that answers the Quixotian quest of How To Dress? Fine, here it is in great, sometimes bombastic, style. After all, it’s part of the soul of the nation. Cherchez la femme.

At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri did, riding a time slip back to the postwar 1950s to Edith Piaf and Juliette Gréco and Catherine Dior, a sister of Christian and a resistance fighter-turned-florist. Patsies none of them. But this is not the 1950s of (more) Hollywood cliché: not happy housewives or bullet bras or even the very structured New Look of Dior himself. We’re in a different world now.

In case you missed it, there was a hint in the cavernous show space in the Tuileries, undulating overhead, courtesy of the bulbous, many-tentacled soft sculpture in flowers, beads and fabric by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, twinkling with its own phosphorescence, vaguely suggestive of an alien life form or the female reproductive system or the multiverse (or all of the above).

This is the darker, tougher ’50s; the ’50s “destructured” — Ms. Chuiri’s words, at a preview. Think destroy, but for the boning and corsetry that once constrained and shaped the body, so that what is left is the suggestion of a shape with none of its corresponding limitations.

In a collection done almost entirely in black and white, with some shots of dark rose, sapphire and emerald, Ms. Chiuri crumpled and crushed her way forward. Button-up shirts with the sleeves rolled up were worn with midi skirts (full, pleated, pencil), all of them woven with Inox, a metallic thread that allows the material to be crinkled at will, so it looked as if it had just been pulled out of the memory bank. Pea coats had a bit of a fillip at the back; jackets, just a bit of Poirot-like padding; gingham and leopard and Watteau florals, a faded kind of glory.

Above all, it looked easy — to wear, to understand — which is not the same thing as uncomplicated. The belts that went with almost every outfit, a little black grosgrain ribbon with “Christian Dior” in white at the back, had been made on a 19th-century loom reworked for today so the logo could be woven into the fabric, rather than embroidered on. But then, casual perfection is part of the point (though it could have been made even more succinctly in 35 looks instead of the 96 on the Dior runway.). It’s what elevates the basic from the banal. See one spectacular leather skirt speckled with an entire garden of three-dimensional leather blooms.

At the end, amid a bunch of strapless César awards dresses embedded with jet beads that sparkled under the spotlights like fairy lights, came a T-shirt woven with the words “Je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”) under a crinkled skirt suit spotted with tiny rhinestones. Wear that, Emily.

Or take Saint Laurent, where the designer Anthony Vaccarello went back, not to the ’50s but to the ’80s era of power dressing extraordinaire. In a black box under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, he recreated the ballroom of the InterContinental hotel where Mr. Saint Laurent used to hold his couture shows, complete with grandiose gold chandeliers and a raised runway carpeted in moire, and then offered up an ode to … shoulder pads.

To the woman as inverted triangle, with those battering-ram-size shoulders in a variety of jackets — pinstripe, Prince of Wales, aviator, velvet — narrowing down to pencil skirts narrowing down to the needle-sharp stiletto points, all worn with sunglasses at night.

Because, you know, he can.

Like Ms. Chiuri Mr. Vaccarello works with a very limited sartorial vocabulary, iterated over and over again, the better to distill his idea of the perfect line: jacket after jacket over a tank top that plunges into a deep U; a skirt hemmed just above the knees; some skinny sweatpant leggings; and a whole lot of scarves, sometimes tied into a pussy bow at the throat and then floating behind like a train, sometimes swathed all around the torso and caught up on one shoulder with a hunk of gold hardware.

As a look, the silhouette is a fashion equivalent of the power pose, though also a cliché, albeit one erring on the side of Robert Palmer fantasy rather than frivolity; one that treats the subject (women) like an object in a photograph. After all, it’s hard to be a real power player if you are reduced to tottering along on tenterhooks because your heels are too high and your skirt is too tight and you are worried about your breasts falling out of your top.

On the other hand, the cashmere sweat-leggings (sweggings?) paired with a blanket-size piece of velvet or chiffon draped around the torso and trailing to the side, offered an alluringly modern way to get dressed up. You could imagine them draped languidly over a sofa at Raspoutine as the sun rose. They just exuded that certain — well, je ne sais quoi.