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Paris and London 1947 –1957


Cocktail dress by Hardy Amies
Modelled by Barbara Goalen, London, 1952
Photograph by John French
Photo courtesy of V&A



By Shine Anthony-Dharan

LONDON, 6 JANUARY 2008 — The controversial pretext of the V&A’s  exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947 –1957, is to put London couture from the "Golden Era" on par with that of Paris. Although London’s Savile Row remains world renowned for its bespoke men’s tailoring, the couture houses of Mayfair have been long forgotten. When one thinks of couture, one inevitably thinks of Paris, Rue Cambon, and the grand houses of Dior, Givenchy, and Chanel. Curator Claire Wilcox advocates that although London couture operated on a much smaller scale, the quality of its tailoring rivals that of Paris. Such notions will surely horrify the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne that insists a couture house must have a Paris atelier in order to be legally sanctioned.

"A golden age seemed to have come again. War had passed out of sight and there were no other wars on the horizon. What did the weight of my sumptuous materials, my heavy velvets, and brocades matter? When hearts were light, mere fabrics could not weigh the body down." Christian Dior

Dorian Leigh in Piguet evening dress, Paris, August 1949
Photograph Richard Avedon. Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation
Copyright (c) 1956 The Richard Avdeon Foundation
Photo courtesy of V&A

On view through today,  the V&A’s exhibition opens with two ensembles that exemplify varying philosophies behind London and Paris couture. The first outfit, an immaculately tailored black wool jacket and pencil skirt by Michael Donellan (London, c1954), reflects the wearability and relative restraint of British couture. The masculine tailoring techniques seen in the sharp shoulder hark back to wartime dress and are countered by feminine dressmaking techniques such as the jackets blouse like collar. The second outfit, a Pink silk gros grain afternoon dress with a corseted waist and full skirt by Christian Dior ("Ecarlate," Paris, c1955-56), reflects the extravagance and frivolity of Parisian couture. The frayed hems of the front bow are inspired by Nineteenth century dress and demonstrate the femininity favored by Paris couturiers.

Pierre Balmain, early 1950's
White silk organza, feathers and  rhinestones.
(c) V&A Images
Photo courtesy of V&A

The choice of garments neatly summarizes the concepts behind the exhibition: London vs. Paris, wear ability vs. showmanship, and flou vs. tailleur . Paris had seventy registered couture houses when occupied by Germany. By the time the city was liberated in August 1944, many of the clients had disappeared along with their commissions. In an effort to drum up publicity, the French couture industry banded together to create the traveling Théâtre de la Mode . Nearly two hundred (quarter life size) dolls were exquisitely dressed by the couturiers and arranged in theatre sets designed by artists such as Christian Berard and Jean Cocteau. The vignettes of the theatre first enchanted Europe, then with updated Spring 1946 outfits, New York, and San Francisco.

A selection of these dolls attracts sizeable crowds within the V&A’s first gallery. The miniscule stitching, pleating, and embroidery of the outfits, and the tiny buttons, hats, and coiffed hairstyles of these dolls makes them the surprise stars of this exhibition. Intricately dressed dolls by Marcelle Chaumont, Lucille Manguin, and Jeanne Lafaurie serve as a reminder of the many forgotten Paris couturiers . Balenciaga’s doll, resplendent in a pink synthetic satin hat and evening gown encrusted with miniature pearls and rubies, is especially remarkable. A number of these dolls are part of the permanent collection of the Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale in Washington. They serve to introduce the visitors to the many ancillary artisans of Parisian couture — the hat makers, glove makers, furriers, and embroiderers.

The New Look
The V&A’s show introduces Christian Dior’s "New Look" with five ensembles from the same period. The most significant piece is the Bar Suit . Combining corsetry and tailoring to construct a silk shantung jacket with five hand stitched buttons, padded hips, and a pleated wool skirt that weighed over 8lbs, the suit was the incarnation of Dior’s new silhouette. It originally cost 59,000 Francs, which was equivalent to three times a factory workers yearly salary.

"I was conscious of an electric tension I had never before felt in couture… We were witness to a revolution in fashion." Bettina Ballard, Fashion Editor, American Vogue 1947

'Bar' Suit & Hat by Christian Dior
Christian Dior (1905-57)
Paris, 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
Photo courtesy of V&A


Although the Bar Suit is one of the most photographed images of Dior’s "New Look," in person its proportions are still shocking. It calms any argument that this exhibition does not offer anything that cannot be found in text or photograph. The jacket is constructed with a hand span under, to which a woman had to fit her blouse and undergarments.

How remarkable that just sixty years ago women were still drawing themselves into corsets and padding their hips. Note the similar proportions of the Goeman (Autumn / Winter 1947/48), a lovely Black wool and silk coat once owned by the late Dame Margot Fonteyn. To look at this monument to the hourglass silhouette is to understand that couture can literally shape its patron’s body. Dame Fonteyn’s svelte dancer’s frame would have certainly required much padding and cajoling to compliment Dior’s ultra-feminine ideal. She was, nonetheless, a long-standing and favorite client of the house.

"The model he imagines is, first and foremost, a beautiful object, excellently made, and finely sewn: so that if, years afterwards, it were discovered at the back of some cupboard, although the fashion which inspired it has long gone out of date, it would still inspire astonishment." Cecil Beaton

Dior’s "New Look" did not always involve complex underpinnings and huge amounts of fabric. A green two-piece afternoon ensemble from Spring / Summer 1947 achieves the illusion of volume via draping across the back, whilst Magyor sleeves, cut as one with the bodice, add an essential ease of movement. As the house of Dior came to represent a Kantian aesthetic of Paris fashion, Dior had to cater to the tastes of many different women in order to maximize sales.

Christian Dior, 1957
© Loomis Dean/Getty Images
Photo courtesy of V&A

Three Amies ensembles contrast this series of "New Looks." Although the post-war British government was actively promoting its cotton industry, couture fabrics such as silk and satin were still hard to come by in London. Added to the fact that corsets were only permitted in England under medical prescription, London couturiers could not easily replicate Dior’s famous "New Look." An unusual printed 1947 Amies dress, of domestic cotton destined for the West African market, achieves fullness in the skirt via a bustle bow at the back rather than excess fabric. An Amies suit, probably a commission from a woman not quite ready to embrace the new fashion from Paris, nods towards Dior’s aesthetic but retains a strong warlike shoulder. Rather than unify London and Paris couture, this visual comparison highlights the superiority of later in terms of workmanship, originality, and fabrication.

Suit by Hardy Amies (1909 - 2003)
London, 1947
Worsted wool
Given by Mrs Benita Armstrong
(c) V&A Images
Photo courtesy of V&A

The World of Couture
A major Paris house such as Fath employed up to 600 people. There was a boutique on the ground floor and a grand salon upstairs for showing the collections. A personal vendeuse attended to each client while fitters, tailors, and seamstresses toiled away behind the scenes. The atelier was divided into two workshops: the largely female flou, which produced all the blouses and dresses, and the male dominated tailleur that did all the tailoring. On the other hand, one of the biggest London houses, Norman Hartnell, employed just 300 and produced around 2000 garments a year.

Christian Dior
Fashion designer Christian Dior (sitting in white coat) commenting
on red gown for his new collection prior to showing
(Photo by Loomis Dean / Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Photo courtesy of V&A

The second gallery of the V&A’s exhibition explores the production of couture via a series of twelve booths that present undergarments, accessories, and house archives from the period. The booths are peppered with videos playing classic Pathe fashion reels. Look out for the reel of a young Queen Elizabeth II shopping for couture. Contrary to Helen Mirren’s Oscar winning portrayal of the monarch as utterly without vanity, the young Queen was strikingly attractive and fashionably dressed. The late Princess Margaret was a great customer of both Paris and London couture. A number of the stellar gowns at the end of the exhibition were commissioned for the two sisters.

Embroiders such as François Lesage (b.1929 ) presented upwards of 300 samples a year to the various couture houses. Some of the examples seen at the V&A incorporate fur, net, chiffon, and machine embroidered lace. A sequined velvet hat by Rebe (c1950) illustrates how couture workmanship lent itself to accessories. The plumassiers of Paris, such as Lemarie, presented silk flowers and plumes to the couture.

'Les Muguets' (Lily of the Valley)
Evening dress by Hubert de Givenchy
Paris, 1955
Silk organdie with embroidered sequins
© V&A Images
Photo courtesy of V&

Please click here for page 2 of The Golden Age of Couture:
Photography and Illustration, The Collections and The Legacy

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