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Exhibition Review


Paris and London 1947 -1957

By Shine Anthony-Dharan in London
Page 2

Coats by Molyneux and Hardy Amies, worn by Barbara Goalen and Wenda Parkinson (nee Rogerson). 1948
© Norman Parkinson Archive London
Photo courtesy of V&A

Photography and Illustration
"The role of a fashion editor," said Carmen Snow of American Harpers Bazaar , "is to recognize 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."

Access to the London and Paris couture was severely restricted. The styles reached the masses through the fashion media. The "Golden age" of couture breathed new life into the sister fields of photography and illustration. Young photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn began experimenting with minimal design, natural light, and informal poses. They captured the aesthetic mood of the moment. As fashion photography gained favor over illustration, these images came to define the "Golden age."

"The whole world holds its breath, and scraps of information appear each day, with little sketches supplying details or atmosphere…" Cecil Beaton

Fashion Shot by Cecil Beaton
© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of V&A

The V&A's exhibition has Avedon's Dovima with Elephants, Cecil Beaton's society shots, and Irving Penn's timeless still photography on display. Look out for the work of relatively unknown German photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. His closely cropped images of models posed blankly like mannequins are beyond their time in terms of styling and composition. His images would not look out of place in an avant-garde contemporary fashion magazine such as Pop or I-D. In 1996, London's Barbican Art Gallery's Blumenfeld, a Fetish for Beauty explored Blumenfeld's experiments with Dadaism. The V&A's The Golden Age of Couture illustrates his Surrealist inspired fashion work.

Dovima with elephants Evening dress by Dior
Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955
Photograph by Richard Avedon
Copyright (c) 1955 The Richard Avedon Foundation
Courtsey The Richard Avedon Foundation
Photo courtesy of

The Collections
By the 1970's, the number of women still commissioning haute couture was estimated to have been less than a hundred. Society photographer Cecil Beaton persuaded clients, such as Margot Fonteyn and the Duchess of Windsor, to donate pieces for the V&A's first fashion exhibition in 1971, Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton . His hoard of some 600 pieces makes up the bulk of the 137 ensembles displayed in the V&A's current exhibition. Beaton's collection is valuable as he asked his friends to donate their best pieces-not that which they were tired of. That a number of these pieces show significant wear and tear (carefully disguised for purposes of this exhibition) indicates that their original purchase may not have been as frivolous as one may assume.

The V&A's enormous fourth gallery is divided into three sections. The first is titled Tailoring and illustrates the level of control a client had over her couture commissions. During her fittings, a client could alter many facets of her ensemble-the fabrics, trims, and finishes. Hardy Amies described the process as, "a harmonious co-operation between designer, tailor, and customer, with the saleswoman as a sort of referee." In fact, most couture commissions were for daywear and suits. Of the eighteen ensembles presented, the black Chanel three-piece suit from the mid-1950's is particularly important. It reminds us that not all women were fans of Dior's impractical creations. Couturiers such as Coco Chanel challenged the excesses of couture and offered instead a much simpler, more relaxed aesthetic for women who wanted to move and breath in their clothing.

Model photographed by John French
(c) V&A Images
Photo courtesy of V&A

The second section is titled Cocktail and Early Evening . It explores the short dresses worn for "Six to Eight" gatherings when guests stood and mingled rather than sat. Indeed, many of these elaborate dresses look as if they would be crushed and ruined by any form of pressure. The simple black silk dress designed for Princess Margaret in 1951 has a bodice created by the dexterous pleating of fabric cut on the bias. Such creations stand out for their timeless modernity and could easily walk the red carpet today.

Evening and Ball Gowns make up the third and final gallery with a dazzling array of showstoppers from the likes of Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Yves Saint Laurent. Designed for elaborate occasions, such as balls and evenings at the opera, these gowns were an opportunity for the couturiers to personify their most extravagant visions. Dior's Perou (1954-55), a gold silk satin dress with gilt and silver thread embroidery by de Mere, required over six hundred hours to craft. Norman Hartnell's ivory silk Flowers of the Fields of France (1957), worn by Queen Elizabeth II at a state reception in Paris is encrusted with beads, stones, and gold and took over a month for a team of seamstresses to embroider.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, dress, c 1955
Scarlet silk and silk taffeta
© V&A Images
Photo courtesy of V&A

There are so many wonderful gowns in this final gallery that one must step back and view them as a collective. The scene looks like the powder room of some grand 1950's party where all the women have gathered to arrange themselves and compare gowns.

The Legacy
Christian Dior's untimely death in 1957 drew an end to couture's heyday. The rigid social codes and class distinctions that had long regulated the lives of the typical couture client were beginning to unravel. The world was ready for something new just as it had been in 1947. For the first time, high fashion began to seek inspiration from the streets. By 1960, London's Carnaby Street had become home to the "mod" look. Youth and informality were the new ideals and the couture houses had to adapt in order to survive. In 1966, Dior opened a "Miss Dior" boutique selling inexpensive designs for younger clients, and Yves Saint Laurent launched "Rive Gauche," a boutique in Paris's controversial Left Bank. Yves Saint Laurent summed it up when he stated, "In fashion we've reached complete freedom of expression. There is a spirit of total liberation and freedom."

As the V&A's exhibition ends, there is a growing sense that this old world was crumbling; the social codes that justified couture were breaking down. The final gallery proposes that haute couture still has a role in society today. The only garments on display are three recent couture gowns by Christian Dior, Paris. Designed by London-trained John Galliano, artistic Director for Dior since 1997, they reveal much about the role of haute couture in contemporary fashion.

Evening Gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior
(c) V&A Images
Photo courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Visually stunning but unwearable, it seems that contemporary couture is largely a publicity machine geared to drive sales of cosmetics and fragrances. A video installation plays the Christian Dior Autumn/Winter 2004-05 couture collection with a parade of postmodern designs that reference the archives of the Dior house without concerning itself with the needs of clients.

The exhibition's accompanying book is edited by curator Claire Wilcox. Rather than serving as a mere catalogue of the show, the book brings together various fashion historians to discuss the role of couture in the postwar period. With biographies of various couturiers, the tome is an excellent resource for those who wish to study the world of couture. However, it is not to be restricted to those "in-the-know." It is a beautiful and insightful compendium for anyone who is drawn to fashion and a bygone era when "…women's hearts were light and mere fabrics could not weigh their bodies down."

The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947 -1957
Until 6 January 2008
Victoria and Albert Museum
South Kensington
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL
Tel: (44) (0)20 79 42 20 00

The Golden Age of Couture 1947-57
Edited by Claire Wilcox
Hardcover: 224 pages
V&A Museum (September 1,2007)
ISBN-10: 185177520X
ISBN-13: 978-1851775200

Please click here to return to page 1 of The Golden Age of Couture.

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on French fashion designers Paul Poiret and Jeanne Lanvin .

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