Pierre Balmain, like Dior, worked for Lucien Lelong before opening his couture house in 1945. By 1956 he had 600 employees and 12 couture workrooms. This 'jeune fille' summer dress has a boned petticoat, showing the care given even to the under-garments. Ginette Spanier, Balmain’s directrice, remarked, 'If a seam is not quite right, that is a matter of life and death.'
Dress and petticoat. Pierre Balmain (1914-82). Paris, about 1950. Dress: silk grosgrain with machine-made Swiss embroidery. Petticoat: boned silk net and silk. Given by Mrs G. Sachet.
This section focuses on the production of couture. Each house was named after its creator and had a characteristic style. Some lasted for generations; others only as long as their founders were alive.
A leading house such as Dior employed hundreds of people. On the ground floor there was a boutique and upstairs a luxurious grand salon for showing the seasonal collections. A personal saleswoman (vendeuse) attended to each client, while fitters, tailors and seamstresses toiled away behind the scenes.
The London couture trade took Paris as its model. Many British designers trained in Paris, and although London could not compete in terms of output, its fashion and textile industry became increasingly profitable. For France, the couture industry was vital to the economy. In 1949 Dior alone provided 5% of France's national export revenue.
The Paris dressmaking schools, Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, were established in 1929 to train a skilled workforce of petit-mains (seamstresses) for France's vast fashion industry.
In the early 1950s, a leading Paris house would typically employ between 500 and 850 staff in the different departments. In the flou workshops, dressmakers worked delicate fabrics entirely by hand to create blouses, skirts and dresses. Dior described them as having 'doigts de fées' - fairy fingers.
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Before the Second World War bespoke fashion in London was mainly the work of tailors and court dressmakers. With the creation of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers in 1942 the small community of couture designers - 12 as opposed to 47 in Paris in 1943 - gained increasing recognition.
The Paris couture system of unifying design and production under one roof set a template for London couturiers, as did the French practice of showing biannual collections.
The London fashion houses, centered on Mayfair and Savile Row, became known for their practical, beautifully made tailoring. In 1946 the journalist Alison Settle described London couture as 'clothes which have social confidence.'
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Paris was the home of a luxury trade in fashion goods. Entire streets were devoted to glove makers, shoe makers and furriers while feathers, floral accessories and ribbon work were worked by hand in small workshops, much as they had been since the 18th century.
Embroidery specialists created a range of samples each season. Once selected, a design remained for the exclusive use of the couturier. Hubert de Givenchy said these samples served as 'the springboard to creation'.
Gowns that were to be embroidered were usually simply cut to show off their sumptuous surface detail. Their embellishment required meticulous patience, for as Dior explained, 'a ball dress may be entirely covered with millions of paillettes, or pearls, each one of which has to be put on separately'.
Couture garments required high quality, innovative textiles and trimmings. French couturiers were extremely skilled in the use of soft, draping fabrics (flou). British couturiers were well known for tailoring firmer textiles.
Each season manufacturers from all over the world would arrive at the couture houses with fabric samples or lengths. They developed a close working relationship with their clients, and sometimes collaborated with them in developing new fabric types and eye-catching designs.
By the early 1950s, rationing and shortages had eased off. Both natural and man-made fibres featured in couturiers' collections and in the twice-yearly features in major fashion magazines.
Boutiques & Accessories
Small shops or boutiques situated on the ground floor of the couture houses became increasingly common. They sold a range of luxury goods such as cosmetics, jewellery, knitwear, accessories and what were called in Paris frivolités. Clients might call in at the boutique following a lengthy fitting to pick up an off-the-peg blouse or some perfume.
Eventually, some houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin opened separate boutiques selling ready-to-wear designs for a growing youth market.
The traditional focus of couture was the creation of high fashion garments for private clients. However, sales to department stores and wholesalers became increasingly important after the war. Buyers purchased fabric toiles and paper patterns, or even original models. These designs could only be copied a limited number of times.
Some designers created ready-to-wear collections specifically for the export market, using the mass-production and sizing methods developed in the USA. By 1948, a year after launching his house, Dior opened on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. 'The dresses will be designed with one eye on US tastes and the other on the limitations of machine production,' wrote Time magazine on 16 August 1948.
A couture garment usually included meticulously constructed undergarments. They were either integrated into the structure of the garment, or made separately.
In creating the New Look after the war, Dior used firm underpinnings such as girdles, under-wired bustiers, and tulle and horsehair petticoats. He placed extra padding on the hips and bust to ensure a smooth womanly figure.
As the 1950s progressed, foundation and support garments became increasingly sophisticated. Lightweight materials such as nylon and new stretch fabrics ensured greater comfort.
At houses such as Dior and Balenciaga, the collections were presented first to the fashion press, then to commercial buyers from Europe and America, and then to private clients. Finally, they were shown to the interested public on a daily basis for many months. Each garment was made specifically for the house model who wore it, so that it fitted perfectly and looked its best.
Every design was photographed and registered by name or number. However, despite a law passed in 1952 that a couture collection was copyrighted for one season, couturiers filed dozens of lawsuits a year in an attempt to prevent illegal copying. Anyone caught sketching during a collection was asked to leave but some professional copyists were able to memorise the garments by eye.
Dior's collections took place in the perfumed, crowded grand salon, and were often attended by celebrities and film stars. Balenciaga's sometimes lasted two hours and were conducted in complete silence, apart from the number of each design being called out. Balenciaga eventually banned the press from his collections.
The role of an editor, said Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of American Harper's Bazaar, was to 'recognise fashions while they are still a thing of the future. The dressmakers create them, but without these magazines, the fashions would never be established or accepted'.
Photography and illustration played a key role in how fashion was perceived and portrayed. In this post-war period, however, photography began to dominate. Using natural lighting, unexpected locations and dramatic poses, it introduced an air of modernity that fashion editors liked. It also made photographic models such as Suzy Parker and Barbara Goalen household names.
The spring/summer and autumn/winter collections were the culmination of the couture house's activities. The showing of the new designs followed fixed laws of precedence, beginning with suits and ending with evening wear. Day outfits included casual ensembles (ensembles simples), morning suits (tailleurs matin), casual afternoon suits (robes d'après-midi simples) and sophisticated dress suits (tailleurs habillés).
Couture clients invested time and effort into commissioning their wardrobes, and the relationship with the designer was an intimate one. Hardy Amies wrote, 'It is often forgotten that we execute orders: we do not sell clothes. If you went into the Boutique you would buy a suit, but if you walk upstairs you order a suit. At the fittings you will be able to express your desires as to the position and finish of many details. The whole process should be a harmonious co-operation between designer, tailor and customer, with the saleswoman as a sort of referee'.
Daywear was followed by formal afternoon dresses (robes après-midi habillées), cocktail dresses (robes de cocktail), semi-evening (robes demi-soir) and short evening dresses (robes du soir courtes). These distinctions became simpler as the decade progressed and social codes began to break down.
Cocktail dresses first appeared in the 1920s and gained a new popularity after the war. They were worn at early evening or '6 to 8' gatherings, where guests usually stood and mingled. The gowns could include complex bustles and skirt details, which would be crushed if sat on.
In his book The Little Dictionary of Fashion (1954) Christian Dior described cocktail dresses as 'elaborate and dressy afternoon frocks', preferably in black taffeta, satin, chiffon and wool. These confections became the personification of the 'little black dress' and were often accessorised with gloves and small hats.
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The fashion show culminated with evening dresses (robes du soir), dance dresses (robes à danser), long evening dresses (robes du soir longues), grand evening dresses (robes grand soir) and spectacular gala dresses (robe de gala). Traditionally, the end of the collection was marked by the wedding gown (the robe de mariée).
Sumptuously embroidered and accessorised with jewels, these gowns provided a glittering show at receptions and balls, the opera or the theatre. Some were specially commissioned for a specific occasion, and worn only once. Many couturiers were also willing to lend expensive gowns for important diplomatic and state occasions.
The creation of couture was a matter of national pride, particularly in France. Christian Dior said, 'My mannequins sail forth like a brilliant armada, all sails flying, going forth to conquer the world in the cause of the new fashion.'
Dior's death in 1957 brought this golden age to an end. With the changing social and economic climate fashion moved from the fitting rooms and ateliers into the streets and boutiques. Yet, its legacy of artistry and craftsmanship survives in the remaining grand houses of Paris and the bespoke workshops of Savile Row.
This evening gown is by Christian Dior, Paris. They are designed by London-trained John Galliano, artistic director for Dior since 1997.