“Haute couture” — high fashion — has long been good for a laugh. One of the best therapies for gloom in Tokyo is to stroll along the southeastern end of Omotesando, in Aoyama, where the fashion boutiques cluster. The prison-block architecture (rain-streaked cement tastefully accessorized with rust) is not too cheering, but the minimalist displays in the windows work every time. The very idea that someone would, with a straight face, put a price-tag equal to two weeks of ordinary folks’ salary on a transparent mini-dress with a crooked hem and ripped-off sleeves is one of the better jokes out there.

But is it? Although they have traditionally ignored the gibes of “hoi polloi,” the hoity-toity couturiers are reportedly fighting back this year. Prompting their ire was the critics’ response to the spring fashion shows in Paris earlier this month. After sitting through show after show of clothes fit to wear only on stage, in a mental hospital or at a homeless shelter — including tutus, straitjackets and ball gowns held together with bits of string — everyone from the tabloids to The New York Times either fell about laughing or got miffed. Finally, it seemed, it was time to call the emperors’ bluff on their new clothes.

Not so fast, said the emperors of design. Who said anything about clothes? Haute couture is not about clothes; it’s about art. People are not necessarily expected to wear these handmade, one-of-a-kind “pieces.” (They can if they want, but who would, at $25,000 a pop? What if you spilled ketchup on it?) Clients evidently understand this: One Lebanese customer was in the news again last week for having made her “usual” 20 or 25 purchases in Paris, where most make do with one. Many of them, she says, are purely “collection pieces”: articles for hanging up and looking at, the way many foreigners in Japan hang antique kimono — or, better yet, traditional Japanese work pants or faded old indigo jackets — on their walls.

The designers’ conception of themselves as artists is naturally designed to alter the grounds of the argument. Once the hangup about wearability is out of the way, anything goes. Everyday ideas of what is practical or pretty are suddenly rendered beside the point. “Art,” it is implied, has higher purposes of its own — abstract things like Truth, Novelty and Imagination. Beauty with a capital B is no longer in vogue these days, although it presumably survives in the eye of the beholder. It certainly does not leap out at you from, say, Mr. John Galliano’s collection of designer wear based on the outfits of the Paris bums he jogs past every morning: cashmere socks with holes knitted into them, organza stamped with newsprint to look like old newspapers, dresses made of burned, soiled and torn fabrics, all worn by models apparently in dire need of the rice patrol.

Yes, this sounds like art all right, if by art one means the kind of thing made famous in recent years by the Britpack and other aspiring postmodernists: “installations” deliberately intended to flout artistic and social conventions and, with luck, to trigger shock and outrage. (Unfortunately for the artists, but reassuringly for art, they tend to trigger hilarity and boredom in equal measure.) The big fashion houses, it is clear, are no more nor less than an alternative art galleries.

Yet where does this leave us? Even if one agrees to take the world’s top couturiers on these terms — as artists rather than tailors, disciples of the new, foes of habit — the question still remains: What artistic “truth” are they seeking to convey with their long-standing obsession with deprivation? One can see the point of striving for change, of bucking conventions regarding design, materials and technique, of challenging fixed notions of what a “garment” or even a human body really is. But why high fashion should equate art with looking sick, starved, destitute or demented — or all four at once — is not clear. Especially not when the products of this inverted vision of human fulfillment are on sale to the very rich for thousands of dollars apiece.

It was reported last week that the latest fashion trend among U.S. teenagers is duct tape, applied to (or substituting for) clothing that is as old and grungy as possible. The social statement buried in this trend is familiar enough: youthful rejection of society’s perceived materialism, conformity and snobbery. Duct tape, of course, would fit right in on a Paris or Tokyo catwalk this year, along with this truth: Only a well-off kid would choose to actually wear it, since only a well-off kid would not have to worry about looking poor. The same goes for Mr. Galliano’s obscenely overpriced and patronizing tatters.

Unfortunately, he and his like-minded colleagues are deadly serious. It would be better if they were joking after all.

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