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15-09-2007
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1947-1957 The Golden Age of Couture: Paris & London (V&A Exhibit)
Scotsman.com (I looked for the books on fashion thread but could not find it )

I enjoyed this article and would love to read the book.

The way we wore

BY JESSICA KIDDLE
WHEN SUMMING UP THE MAGIC of a custom-made dress, Christian Dior once wrote: "Couture is the marriage of design and material. There are many instances of perfect harmony - and there are few of disaster."
Instances of such harmonious perfection were never more frequent than in the 1950s. The couturiers Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel were also setting the showrooms of Paris's Champs-Élysées alight at the time of Dior's meteoric rise to fame, and fashion was at its most glamorous and luxurious.
As a result, the decade from 1947 to 1957 (during which Dior set up shop in Paris, dictated the popular style of the day and spearheaded the resurgence of fashion after the Second World War) is regarded as a golden era for haute couture. It was a time when the world held its breath awaiting the latest creations from Paris, and when the notion of the supermodel took hold. Thanks to advances in print and photography, the theatre of fashion began to be played out to a wider audience in glossy magazines such as Vogue.
A new book celebrates this special era in fashion history and marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Dior's New Look - the cinched-in waist, full skirt and large bust that became the signature shape of that time. The Golden Age of Couture - Paris and London, 1947-1957 has been written to accompany an exhibition of the same name which opens at London's Victoria & Albert Museum next week.
Featuring photographs of some of the most iconic designs of that age, including a black and white shot of Dior house model Renée posing in front of the Eiffel tower wearing the two-piece creation Zemire (Dior named all his designs) as well as an image of model Dovima posing with two elephants in an evening dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent, the book offers an insight into a moment and style which, although long since passed, is now more in evidence than ever thanks to the retrospective trends on the high street.
As Claire Wilcox, senior curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, and editor of the book, explains, the reason the clothes of this decade are so special is because their frivolous bustles and bows were set against the contrasting backdrop of a rubble-filled Europe in recovery from the war.
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the launch of the New Look, which used copious amounts of fabric, was an antidote to the thrift of the war years," says Wilcox. "The look was also very nostalgic, referencing pre-war fashion and evoking a sense of the prosperity which was in complete contrast to the militaristic fashion of the early 1940s.
"While a good number of houses had survived the war, Dior was regarded as the saviour of haute couture. His romantic vision created a mood of optimism after the gloom of the previous few years, while the complex artistry of his gowns drew on skills unique to Parisian couture, providing employment for numerous atelier supervisors and seamstresses."
Haute couture - which literally means "high sewing" - was synonymous with Paris long before the war, however. It was brought to the city by English-born couturier Charles Worth, who opened what is regarded as the world's first haute couture fashion house in 1858, the House of Worth, and who quickly realised that, for couture to flourish, its exclusivity and quality would have to be maintained at all costs. In 1868 he founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which regulated and monitored the growing number of couture houses.
Yet while he was instrumental in establishing Paris as the capital of fashion, it is the postwar period that jumps out of the pages of fashion history, for two reasons. First, it is memorable for Dior's unashamed use of colour, fabric, fur and embellishment (which he lavished on creations made for the likes of Grace Kelly and Vivien Leigh).
Not that couture began and ended with Dior. Houses such as Balenciaga, Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain all rose to fame during that time. As a result, anyone of social standing in mainland Europe and the UK as well as America, South America and the Far East would put aside three weeks of each season to visit the couture houses (with their lavish boutiques and mazes of workshops) for fittings.
High-ranking socialites and royalty always looked to Paris when it came to dressing for a special occasion. With an eye for fashion, some women even secured their ticket into the upper echelons of society with the right dress, while the majority would make do with more affordable copies and, thanks to licensing, either the perfume or the lipstick.
"Couture is an elitist form of design which relies on the best fabrics, trims and workmanship from great artisans all working in concert," says 1950s fashion expert and author Alexandra Palmer, who contributed to the book. "The leading socialites and celebrities would all dress at the leading houses: Marlene Dietrich at Dior, for example, and of course Audrey Hepburn at Givenchy. But private clients were mature women who were dressed as such. It was about making a statement of correctness and taste and the right label did that."
The second reason this decade is so special is that it bore witness to the development of the complex business model that saw Dior become the most successful fashion name of the 20th century through advertising, licensing, perfume and publicity. Described as "a strange mixture of theatre and commerce, showmanship and business" by British-born Ginette Spanier, directrice of couture at Balmain, it was this model born out of a couturier's ability to sell designs to commercial buyers and manufacturers (who would make more affordable versions) on both sides of the Atlantic that saw the fashion houses develop into empires and grow into the household names of today.
It was, as Wilcox puts it, also to be a "late flowering just before the end". Dior died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957, by which point couture was in decline thanks to the accessibility of ready-to-wear.
But just as they had kept going without pins or fabric throughout the war, the proudly anachronistic fashion houses survive today, though there are only a few left and private clients now number in the low hundreds (which is not surprising, considering an embellished couture dress would cost in the region of £200,000).
But while the future of couture can now legitimately be called into question, the importance of its legacy cannot.
"The influence this era had on fashion is enormous," says Palmer. "1950s couture is still the source for many contemporary designs and the interest in wearing an authentic vintage couture design means that the clothes of that era are still a means of acquiring individualism in the face of mass marketing."
Wilcox agrees: "The legacy of Dior's 'golden age' is manifold. The rarefied skill of couture in the postwar years set a standard for dressmaking that has never been surpassed. Postwar couture is indelibly associated with the New Look, a style that influenced popular design in a way that was unprecedented in fashion history and, 60 years on, its memory still has great potency."
• The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 22 September to 6 January 2008. Tel: 0870 906 3883, or visit www.vam.ac.uk
• The Golden Age of Couture edited by Claire Wilcox is published by V&A Publications, priced £35.
This article: http://living.scotsman.com/index.

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Last edited by model_mom; 15-09-2007 at 10:48 PM.
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17-09-2007
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It's very interesting but I'm not sure if I necessarily agree that the reason the clothes ae special is because of the backdrop. I think they're special because it was an era where many things were being rediscovered or discovered for the first time...in an era where the media was starting to take a stronger hold which gave more people access. Nowadays we have media overkill and nothing new is really being created - it's the same for music, the golden days are over.

Of course once in a while people will come along with something refreshing but it will never compare to when it was being done back in the day by the masters.

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guardian.co.uk
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Elegance in the age of austerity

'Make do and mend' was the grim motto of postwar Britain, but the top couture houses had their own ideas about belt-tightening ... As London Fashion Week gets under way, Rachel Cooke invites top designer Giles Deacon for a sneak preview of the V&A's new exhibition, which revisits this sumptuous era

Sunday September 16, 2007
The Observer


I doubt there is a woman alive who, having seen The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957, would be able to single out one dress for special attention. Walking around the V&A's autumn exhibition is like walking around the best shop in the world; the fingers tingle, the heart beats more quickly, and it's all a girl can do not to reach for her credit card and shout: 'I'll take the grey, wool Balenciaga!' Still, because I was the first journalist inside the show, I will try.

The Zemire evening jacket and skirt by Christian Dior, which dates from 1954, had long been thought lost by historians of costume, who knew it only from photographs. Then, last year, a red version made for one of Dior's private clients came up for auction in Paris. The V&A bought it. 'I think people thought we were mad,' says Claire Wilcox, senior curator of 20th-century and contemporary fashion at the museum. 'The dress had been kept in a cellar by the Seine, and it had been badly damaged by water.' A complex restoration job duly began and, today, the ensemble looks as though M. Dior finished making his final adjustments to it only a few moments before. Zemire consists of a long, full skirt; a jacket featuring the New Look's trademark sloping, seamless shoulders and nipped-in waist; and a bodice. As party dresses go, it is up there with the best of them: dramatic, romantic, and curiously modern, for all that it is suggestive of an 18th-century riding outfit. Gaze on it, and it's impossible not to imagine yourself calmly descending a wide, curved staircase as the crowd of agog guests below stares up at you, trying to take in your absolute, feminine perfection.

Do I sound as though I am about to faint? Well, this is what the exhibition does to you. I invited the British designer, Giles Deacon, to see it with me, and the fact that he accepted my offer only days before his show at British Fashion Week, when he should have been in his studio having a nervous breakdown, is also testament to its excitements (Deacon, the British Fashion Designer of the Year, is known for the extraordinary and flamboyant shapes of his designs - ball gowns constructed entirely out of pleated rosettes; huge cocoons made of feathers - which themselves hark back to couture's golden age). Not that, once we were inside the darkened rooms, Deacon seemed particularly excited. While I wandered round in a blissed-out daze, he appraised the show with the cool eye of a professional. 'Those knife pleats are a nightmare to do!' he said, standing in front of a skirt by Givenchy, and that was about as passionate as he got.

The piece that interested him the most was a Dior afternoon dress of 1947, the year the New Look was unveiled. To my eyes, it was the least fascinating gown in the show: green silk with cream polka dots, it conspicuously lacked the architectural details (corsetry, padding on the hips) and the insect-like silhouette that make Dior's best designs so beguiling. But that, it seemed, was precisely the reason he liked it: 'I've never seen anything like it from that time before.' This dress is displayed alongside evocative films of young women who had enthusiastically adopted the New Look and of a young Harold Wilson, the then President of the Board of Trade, moaning that the designs necessitated the use of too much precious fabric (postwar, everything was scarce or, in the case of cloth, required for export). Wilson's words fell on deaf ears, of course.

The V&A is blessed with an amazing collection of costumes from every decade of the 20th century, but none more so than the years featured here largely because, in 1971, the photographer Cecil Beaton put together another show of couture at the V&A and, as he did, persuaded many of its dwindling band of customers to donate items to the museum's collection (in the second gallery of The Golden Age, you can see three of these dresses, by Lafaurie, Dior and Chaumont, given by Mrs Loel Guinness; Dior's primrose gown with ribbon work and beading is particularly noteworthy).

This is not to say that this show is merely a parade of darling frocks. Wilcox, its curator, is interested in the role fashion played in a postwar economy, and the first gallery comprises a series of mock streets and shop windows, each featuring a different aspect of the couture process from embroidery to shoes to marketing (in the 1950s, an entire Parisian street was given over to glove-making). You can see the five dolls Parisian designers used to promote their work abroad; the Miss Lachasse Doll, a scale model that toured Britain with a perfect miniature wardrobe, including a tiny Asprey handbag and a pair of silk stockings; and, loveliest of all, the miniature mannequins on which couturiers made perfect scale models of their designs for the benefit of manufacturers of ready-to-wear.

The exhibition also highlights the differences between what was happening in Paris, and those, like Digby Morton and Hardy Amies, who were working in London (in spite of Dior's sloping shoulders, buttoned-up British designers felt unable to let go of their shoulder pads). But, however fascinating all this, it is the clothes themselves that will have you in raptures. So technically accomplished! So tasteful! I find the Dior silhouette thrilling, but my passion is for Cristobal Balenciaga. While Dior was the great publicist, Balenciaga was secretive and private; while Dior's starting point for any design was a sketch, Balenciaga worked in fabric first, like a sculptor. This is the best gathering of Balenciaga's work in one place that I have ever seen, and it is jaw-dropping. At the end of show, having already mentally taken home at least three little black dresses, I saw what I can only describe as the outfit of my life: a leaf-green silk evening coat to be worn over a cream silk sheath. 'But where would I wear it?' I wailed, in an effort to calm myself down. Giles looked at me calmly through his outsize Hoxton specs. 'Plenty of places,' he said, and the sad thing is, I was willing to believe him.

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telegraph.co.uk

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The heights of fashion 15/09/2007

The rarefied air of the Parisian haute couture shows have been the haunt of the privileged few since the Second World War. A new exhibition at the V&A looks at the legacy of couture and of the women who wear it. By Drusilla Beyfus

Luxury means different things to different people, but it is safe to say that during the post-Second World War decade, luxury was an haute couture dress. A forthcoming costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum attempts to explain why. A couture dress took 200 hours of human effort from conception to delivery - one, a design embroidered in gilt and silver thread by Christian Dior, took 600 hours. Couture-level dressmaking calls on textiles and embroideries that often are works of art, and wearing couture has long been considered the essence of elegance.

Focusing on the decade 1947-1957, the exhibition looks at the outfits, the couturiers and the role of the private client. The period was 'the zenith of French couture, when designers such as Dior, Balmain, Jacques Fath and Balenciaga led the way, and headlines in London and New York were held for the latest news from Paris,' Claire Wilcox, the curator, says.

Although the main houses survived on the strength of selling their toiles (design templates in cotton or linen) to American and British dress manufacturers, the private patron remained and remains the symbol of haute couture. From the beginning of its history, the high classification stood for bespoke dressmaking according to practice laid down by the regulatory body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, established in 1868. Ginette Spanier, the directrice of Balmain during the period, sums up the discipline expected of its members in the catalogue: 'If a seam was not quite right, it was a matter of life or death.'

Paule Boncourre, who worked for 10 years from the age of 15 in the workshop at Christian Dior in order to become a qualified hand, has said that in haute couture, 'Everything is in the technique; the reverse must be as beautiful as the face.'

Everything was also in the exclusive fabrics used, the vegetable-dyed tweed, the silks, satins, velvets and lace. The exhibition features what the curator acknowledges as 'a symbiotic relationship betweeen the French textiles industry and the couture houses'.

Details of the relationship between private client and couturier are generally kept under wraps, so it is intriguing to be able to examine a particular case. Lady Alexandra Dacre has contributed 14 of her Paris couture dresses, personal correspondence, a memoir and photographs to the exhibition. She was married to Captain Howard-Johnston, Naval Attaché to the British Embassy, 1947-50. Her second marriage was to the historian Hugh Trevor- Roper, who became Lord Dacre. The daughter of the First World War Field Marshal, Earl Haig, she was born in 1907 and died in 1997.

Lady Alexandra came to fashion-conscious Paris in 1948 from austerity Britain. Eleri Lynn, an assistant curator at the V&A who writes on her in the catalogue, points out, 'As an Embassy wife she would be expected to attend many dinners and balls, for which she would need a glamorous wardrobe.' Jacques Fath was to be her man, and his salon at 39 avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie her happy hunting ground.

Lady Alexandra writes unaffectedly in her memoir: 'It seemed unbelievable to be in the luxury of Paris after wartime England, where everything was still rationed… there were wonderful clothes. I had quite forgotten them in the war. A French friend took me to see Jacques Fath, who liked tall models. He made an arrangement with me whereby I would be lent two evening dresses and two day dresses every season, which would be made to measure.

'If there was a Fath dress I wanted to keep, I could pay the sale price at the end of the season. I was not allowed to go to any other house but I did not want to - Fath was perfection. He made hats too! So I could be dressed by him from top to toe. My life in Paris became like a fairy tale.' At his salon Fath would dress her, draping fabrics around her and moulding garments to her shape.

When Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edin-burgh visited Paris in 1948, Fath lent Alexandra some dresses to supplement the ones she already had. 'I seemed always to be changing my clothes,' she writes. At a gala at the Paris opera during the royal tour she put on a long white satin evening dress with a bodice decorated in agate-coloured embroidery. She writes that as she and her husband climbed the marble stairs the Garde Nationale suddenly sprang to attention and she realised they had mistaken them for the Princess and the Duke. 'That is the effect made by my splendid Fath dress.'

Her daughter, Xenia Dennen (née Howard-Johnson), filled me in with some details about her mother. She believes her mother's love of fashion stemmed in part from the fact that Alexandra's mother, Lady Haig, an acknowledged beauty, had put her daughter in 'horrible clothes' as a child.

'Fath liked her because she was the right shape, height and colour and he liked brown hair,' Dennen told me. She mentioned that her mother wouldn't slavishly follow the couturier's dictates and had a mind of her own. An instance was her dress for her wedding to Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was a cocktail outfit in two pieces, made in brown wool and embroidered in gold thread. The dress was cut with a bared shoulder line, shoulder straps and a skirt falling from a defined waistline in soft pleats to just above the ankle. A cropped jacket with narrow sleeves and broad collar transformed an evening outfit to daywear. A velvet hat completed the effect.

Lady Alexandra was not allowed to alter the original designs but none the less she decided to have her wedding dress made up in the wrong side of the fabric. 'My idea, because the colour of the right side did not suit me.' It was for such commissions - one does not order a wedding dress every day - that the friendship between client and vendeuse mattered in particular. Lady Alexandra's vendeuse was Madame Dufy, sister of Raoul, the artist, and directrice of the house. Lady Alexandra wrote following the wedding dress order, 'Madame Dufy was very thrilled. I think she sensed that I had not been happy in the past.' After Fath's death in 1954, Lady Alexandra took her vendeuse with her to the house of Jeanne Lanvin.

How did Fath see his tall, thin, brunette Englishwoman? The models suggest that in true Parisian style he liked to improve on nature. He would employ pleating at the hip, sashes, big bows, belts, bodice embellishments and full skirts, all of which modified the straight lines of her physique but always keeping the best of what was distinctive about her height and slenderness. He put her in narrowly cut sleeves, V-necklines, prints and colour. A day dress in the Johnston tartan with a bodice decoration was done specially for her. The catalogue notes, 'Fath was well known for his daring and often contrasting use of colour, and the Johnson tartan suited him well as he particularly liked the sea green. Most elegant ladies only really wore black or brown.'

Fath was unusual among Paris couturiers in being a dandy himself. He and his wife Genevieve, who ran the business side, were a couple whose own parties, balls, dinners were regarded as part of the social season. 'Self-taught… he had a skill for what would become increasingly important to the world of fashion - publicity,' Eleri Lynn writes.

Like many of the outfits shown, Alexandra Dacre's cache of clothes were originally collected by Cecil Beaton for the V&A in the late 1960s and early 1970s as examples of 'the best of women's fashions of today'. It culminated in an influential exhibition, 'Fashion: An Anthology', at the museum in 1971, which was an early alert to the legacy of couture.

He explained his pitch thus: 'I would hope to flatter the donors by only asking for specific garments that I had seen or admired.' His letter to potential donors proved persuasive and stressed that dresses contributed would be those he considered should be preserved as historical documents. His yardsticks were the designer, the status of the owner and on certain occasions, the circumstances in which the item was worn. Beaton's biographer, Hugo Vickers, says that he was so successful that Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Onassis's sister, complained that after a visit from Beaton she had nothing left to wear.

Alexandra Dacre was an enthusiastic and conscientious donor. She wrote to Beaton about some of the things she planned to send to the museum, 'I can date the grey dress and the white taffeta dress with black spots exactly because I had them when I was expecting my youngest child. The dresses were not altered in any way except that they could be let out. Afterwards, they were altered by Fath to fit my normal size, without charge.' She writes that she had hurriedly taken off a rose with a black velvet stalk and leaves (from another dress) and sewed it on to the white taffeta, which had lost its rose. 'The original was larger and more floppy than the one I had put on and had a rosebud. It did not have black leaves.' She adds, hopefully, 'Your department could probably find another rose.'

The show makes clear who patronised which couturier and who, by implication, had the foresight to save their things from the jumble sale. Several donors have been photographed in dresses they sent illustrating how the outfits were worn and with which accessories.

Gloria Guinness (Mrs Loel Guinness) is photographed with her daughter Dolores, both sporting evening Balenciaga, by Henry Clarke for French Vogue. The former spread her patronage among a number of houses, including Dior, Courrèges, Givenchy, Lanvin, Castillo and Jeanne Lafaurie. Eugenia Niarchos, married to the Greek ship owner Stavros Niarchos, is photographed with her sister Athina Onassis, later the Marchioness of Blandford, both in evening clothes, the former in classic Dior, the latter in draped Jean Desses. Of Eugenia, Hugo Vickers remarked, 'She was the perfect couture client - beautiful, stylish and exceedingly rich.' Beaton had said that she was 'about the only person who could afford to order one of the incredibly beaded dresses that Dior had designed'. On her death in 1970, Stavros Niarchos honoured his wife's promise to Beaton and handed over 19 items including the beaded design.

Among the clothes donated by the Queen is a long-skirted regal confection by Norman Hartnell with his characteristic embroidery that she wore on a state visit to Paris in 1957 and in which she was widely photographed.

All the donors, the Queen excepted, are likely to have placed orders at the shows held for private clients. Admittance to a couture collection was (and still is) rigorously controlled; it is very strictly by invitation only. Bettina Ballard, a fashion editor of American Vogue (1946-54), remarked, 'It is a brave woman who walks in unknown and unheralded to spend. There is no place more flattering to be received as an habitué and friend, and no place that seems more impenetrable if one is not known.' A new client required a referral from the right source, customarily a friend or relative known to the respective house. Your contact would provide the name of a vendeuse, or the directrice of the salon would assign a vendeuse to you.

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telegraph.co.uk

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One month after the first showings and delivery of commercial orders, private customers were permitted to step into the Paris haute couture. 'Here indeed was woman's secret world,' quotes the catalogue, 'the battlefield where the struggle against the ravages of age was carried on with the dressmaker's art and where fortunes of money were spent in a single afternoon.'

Private clients made their appointments through their vendeuse to see the fashion shows at which daywear, afternoon clothes and evening dresses would be shown by the house models. They were held daily from 2.30pm to 5pm at the salon in an atmosphere that was famously airless, with closed windows, lots of flowers and the house perfume sprayed in the air. A client would be offered an elegant gilt chair and given a programme so she could make notes on the pieces that took her fancy. Insight into couture model prices during 1948 can be gleaned from an entry in Cynthia Gladwyn's published diaries. She was the wife of Gladwyn Jebb, later Lord Gladwyn, who was then in Paris with the United Nations. The diarist comments, 'The fashions were beautifully cut but fantastically expensive, even with the franc devalued to 1,100 to the pound: an evening dress could be 300,000 francs, a day dress 100,000, and a mere dressmaker would charge 30,000 to copy a design.' Prices were closely guarded, but a Dior New Look day outfit with a jacket and skirt was priced at 59,000 francs in 1947 (this was almost 10 times the cost of an off-the-peg day dress from the West End store Marshall and Snelgrove).

Once a garment was ordered it was the vendeuse who acted as liaison between the house, the workroom and her client. She arranged for three fittings for each order and delivery. Most original models were altered to some extent to suit the figure and requirements of the individual client.

There were routes other than paying the house price for acquiring a couture outfit. If a client's size happened to chime with one of the models who showed the clothes, they might be able to buy the original garment after it had been shown in the salon a few times. Sometimes customers changed their minds, or their bankrolling admirer did, and the reject ended up in the sale. Couture designs, always ahead of ready-to-wear collections in terms of style and line, were snapped up for copying by small dressmaking businesses. In The Letters of Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley, Nancy writes to her sister Diana in 1947, 'To cheer myself up I went and ordered a suit at Dior. The skirt has stays which one tugs at until giddiness intervenes - the basque of the coat stuck out with whalebone… terribly pretty. I shall have it copied in white linen so I can wear it the whole summer.'

The uninitiated may wonder what it was about an haute couture outfit that persuaded clients to part with improbably large sums. Frustratingly, one of the means by which one might form judgements, photography, doesn't tell the full story. A skilled shot of a smart high-street dress may well appear to be not dissimilar from a couture design and certainly no guide to the huge price differential.

Closer to the truth are remarks about the transformative effect of haute couture. Jean Dawney, a model for Christian Dior, catches the mood in her remark, 'A Paris dress makes one feel as if one could charm a pearl out of an oyster.'

A thank-you note from one of Pierre Balmain's private clients reads, 'It gave me a taste for life again. Never mind the dress: its sheer arrival was enough, carried by a man in uniform, in its enormous new box.'

Alexandra Dacre in her correspondence with Cecil Beaton comes close to a practical understanding. She writes, 'I adored all my clothes from him [Fath] and continued to wear them as they never seemed to go out of fashion. The dress made for my wedding was worn and worn.'

It is a fact that through cut and creativity a couture design can do wonders to improve the appearance of the proportions of the body of the wearer, restoring a person's physique closer to the ideal.

None the less, it is natural to speculate on the future of haute couture as it represents such an impenitent display of personal consumption; additionally the exhibition is likely to be viewed against a dicey stock market and a go-green attitude to our glad rags. The metier survives today in a handful of fashion houses, where once there were hundreds. When held, the collections are 'often extreme and extravagant', Wilcox writes. 'Their role is to garner publicity and provide inspiration.' She told me, 'I hope couture doesn't die. It's very important to retain the craft of couture. These skills once lost become extinct - the tailoring, the embroidery, the weaving, the quality.'


A playful shot of a model from the house of Fath,1954, with a bodice brassiere, a lace overskirt and black lace-topped stockings

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Coats by Molyneux and Hardy Amies, worn by Barbara Goalen and Wenda Parkinson (nee Rogerson). 1948. © Norman Parkinson Archive London.


Balenciaga dress, c1955. Scarlet silk and silk taffeta. © V&A Images


Christian Dior, 1957. © Loomis Dean/Getty Images


Dorian Leigh in Piguet evening dress, Paris, August 1949. Photograph Richard Avedon. Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation. Copyright © 1956 The Richard Avedon Foundation.


Givenchy ‘Les Muguets’, 1955. Silk organdie with embroidered sequins. © V&A Images.


The V&A has also tracked down and purchased several couture gowns for the exhibition including a red version of Dior's glamorous Zemire (1954), a full length skirt, bodice and long jacket (left).
Autumn/Winter 1945/5 from the Ligne-H collection. Dior ‘Zemire’ dress.


Pierre Balmain, early 1950’s. White silk organza, feathers and rhinestones. © V&A Images.

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Oooh, lovely. I so want to see this exhibition.

Has anyone seen any piccies of the opening night gala yet? I just read a bit on it and the guest list is strange - Kate, Anna, Sophie, Vivienne Westwood, of course and then people like Nick Cave, Courtney Love, Shaun Ryder and Prince. OK, I'm jealous, I wish I were there.

(Aha! It just occurs to me that there may be a thread in Star Style...scurries off...:p)

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God, all of these organzas are amazing.

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Well, I can certainly see where modern couture collections get their inspiration from.

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Post-War & the Théâtre de la Mode

In 1939, there were seventy registered couture houses in Paris, including the grand establishments of Chanel, Schiaparelli and Balenciaga. This flourishing industry was disrupted by the wartime occupation of Paris. Private clients dispersed, international sales almost ceased and many couturiers closed. The Germans planned to move couture to Berlin but Lucien Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, objected, saying, 'It is in Paris or it is nowhere'.
In 1945-6, the Paris couturiers created the Théâtre de la Mode, a touring exhibition of nearly two hundred dolls in sets, created by artists such as Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau. The Théâtre brought together a community that even as late as 1946 was still suffering hardship: 'Beautiful models huddled around little stoves. Skilful midinettes bulged with sweaters...there was still not enough electric current to run all the machines or to burn the lights long.' The Théâtre toured to Britain, Scandinavia and the USA, raising funds for war victims and promoting French fashion.


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The New Look

Dior launched his couture house on 12 February 1947 and became an overnight sensation. His voluptuous collection was the antithesis of masculine wartime fashions. Instead, the designs featured sloping shoulders, a full bust and a cinched-in waist above full, long skirts. It was christened on the spot by Carmel Snow, editor of American Harper's Bazaar, as the 'New Look'. London couturier John Cavanagh described the style as 'a total glorification of the female form'.
The amount of fabric required to create a New Look garment caused outrage in London, for rationing was still in place. The collection was shown in secret to Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family at the French Embassy in London. Although initially condemned by the British Board of Trade, the New Look gained widespread popularity, particularly after Princess Margaret adopted it, attracted by its femininity and youth.


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'Bar' is one of the most important designs from Dior’s first collection. The tight-fitting jacket has padded hips which emphasise the tiny waist. The long pleated wool skirt, backed with cambric, is exceptionally heavy.
The notebook contains a sketch and specifications for the type and quantity of fabric for Dior’s 'Bar' suit. The jacket required 3.7 metres of silk shantung and fastened with five hand-stitched buttons. This information helped Dior to price the design. 'Bar' cost 59,000 francs.

1947 spring/summer, Ligne Corolle et en Huit (remade by Dior about 1955). Suit: jacket, silk shantung by Bianchini Férier. Skirt, wool crêpe. Hat: straw. Given by Christian Dior.




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Technical Specifications for 'Bar'



Mid-50s photograph of 'Bar'



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Couturiers worked from sketches and textile samples to create new designs. This Cavanagh sketch shows his initial concept for an evening dress. As the working chart shows, it became no. 47 in his spring collection in 1953. The silk was made in England by the innovative textile firm West Cumberland Mills. Its Hungarian-born owner, Miki Sekers, commissioned the design from the stage designer Oliver Messel.

1953 spring/summer, Coronation collection. Evening dress. Silk brocade designed by Oliver Messel for West Cumberland Mills (Sekers). Given by Lady Cornwallis, and worn by her to the Coronation celebrations.



Sketch, John Cavanagh.



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Paper charts with textile samples.



Photograph of a Coronation collection evening dress by John Cavanagh, with the silk designed by Oliver Messel for Sekers. London, 1953 spring/summer.


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