Thursday, 24 November 2011

the golden age of couture 2007 ... remembering a great exhibition in the V.A. London ...

Fashion Books.
Published: December 2, 2007 in The New York Times
Let’s start, fashion lovers, with a quiz. When you hear the word “bar,” your first thought is of: (a) Leonardo DiCaprio’s supermodel girlfriend, Bar Refaeli; (b) that place you stumble into when you’ve been wearing your teetering Yves Saint Laurent platforms for too long and only alcohol will dull the pain; or (c) the wasp-waisted skirt-suit that, in 1947, formed part of Christian Dior’s trailblazing “New Look” in women’s clothing. Obviously, there is a time and place for both (a) and (b). But those who answered (c) score bonus points for knowing that with confections like the “Bar” suit, Dior helped make high fashion what it is today: at once a bonanza of glossy worldwide press coverage and an artful, gloriously improbable celebration of the female form.
Edited by Claire Wilcox, the curator of the exhibit of the same name currently on view at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, THE GOLDEN AGE OF COUTURE: Paris and London 1947-57 (V & A Publications/Abrams, $45) offers an illuminating and sumptuously illustrated look at the renaissance in French fashion that occurred in the decade following World War II. As Wilcox and the book’s other contributors emphasize, the war years were a bleak time for couture, the prestigious Parisian industry that, since 1858, had turned out hand-crafted, custom-made garments for an elite clientele. From fabric rations and supply shortages to the evaporation of important export markets abroad, and from the rise of utilitarian, military-inspired styles to the closing of several revered fashion houses (e.g., Chanel, which closed its doors in 1939), the grim realities of the war had, by the time of Paris’s liberation, taken their toll on la mode française. This development caused great anxiety among the French, for whom haute couture had long been a matter of national pride and who recoiled to think that America, with its newfound prosperity and industrial power, might unseat their capital as the world’s arbiter of style.

Christian Dior (1905-57), a visionary couturier who opened his own fashion house in 1946 and breathed new life into the luxury trade. “In December 1946,” he remembered afterward, “as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. I designed clothes for flowerlike women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts.” The impact of his debut collection — which Dior named Corolle, to evoke a ring of flower petals, but which the fashion editor Carmel Snow promptly baptized the “New Look” — was immediate and far-reaching. Almost overnight, this look became the new standard, both in Paris and around the globe. (The book emphasizes in particular Dior’s influence in London, but this is driven principally by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Anglocentric collection, and thus loses some interest outside the context of the actual exhibition.) Women everywhere, it seemed, were ready to abandon the austerity of wartime for the French master’s voluptuous hourglass silhouette, even if that meant reclaiming the tight girdles, underwired bodices, padded bustles and voluminous petticoats from which designers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel had “liberated” them several decades before.

Indeed, as Wilcox rightly observes, “the attraction and paradox” of the New Look was that although it “established a modern identity for couture between 1947 and 1957, its practice and philosophy were rooted in the past.” Dior and his imitators “nurtured a predilection for 19th-century touches, using fabric knots, fringed bows and artificial flowers as finishing touches on garments of stiff taffeta, duchesse satin and wool, which were as firmly structured as those of Worth, the founder of haute couture.” Aesthetically and technically, these corseted, crinolined dresses harked back to an earlier era, when clothes, in Dior’s words, were “constructed like buildings” and encased their wearers in structured, hyper-feminine shapes that flappers and Fascists alike had threatened to destroy for good. The fact that the designer himself called his postwar heyday the “golden age” of couture attests to the nostalgia that informed his work.

But Dior was no retrograde — far from it. Wilcox notes that he was “as astute commercially as he was artistically,” and he formed innovative partnerships with suppliers, receiving the financing for his business from a textile manufacturer. He also revolutionized distribution channels, creating affordable copies of his designs for sale in American department stores and setting up his own ready-to-wear boutiques around the world. In these ways, he profitably brought “the skill and fantasy” of French couture to a mass market.

To expand his business still further, Dior cultivated fashion journalists and photographers, “making it possible,” one American editor recalled, “for pictures of Dior clothes to be the best and most plentiful in the press.” Although some of his rivals (most notably Cristobal Balenciaga) shunned the news media, presumably on the grounds that the widespread diffusion of their designs would undermine their rarefied appeal, Dior sought press attention because, as he put it simply, “the picture of a dress in a magazine can inspire a woman to buy it.” Like Bernard Arnault, whose LVMH conglomerate now owns the House of Dior, the couturier understood that the fashion trade involves not just creating beauty, but also selling it. In his commercial practices if not in his designs, the man with a penchant for old-school craftsmanship and traditional, womanly forms looked to the future, not to the past. In so doing, Dior established Paris fashion as an indomitable force in the international luxury market and Paris chic as a commodity for which women the world over will still pay just about any price.

The Golden Age of Couture ed Claire Wilcox
There are beautiful women and clothes to admire in this survey of post-war couture. But only from a distance
Reviewed by Vera Rule Sunday 23 September 2007 in The Independent

Just for a moment, ignore the frocks – even the model Dovima in a ballgown for an infanta, grander than which garb cannot get, designed by Cristobal Balenciaga and photographed by Richard Avedon – and take a magnifying glass to the panorama of Christian Dior's Paris salon in 1951.
The Golden Age of Couture ed Claire Wilcox
There are beautiful women and clothes to admire in this survey of post-war couture. But only from a distance
Reviewed by Vera Rule Sunday 23 September 2007 in The Independent.

Two bustled models rustle across the carpet, encircled by a double rank of hard chairs. About 30 women and 15 men are seated. They're not a pretty sight. The men look like aged industrialists, and charmless with it. There's some serious jewellery on a couple of the women, and the hats like befeathered pancakes that have landed on the pates of the rest must then have been chic; but otherwise the dames resemble an assembly of headmistresses.

They're a lot harder than the chairs. They're all here to judge, with extreme severity. I'm guessing, given the specs and notebooks, that this was the first showing, for the press, or the second, for the American trade buyers, although they would all have had to wait thereafter: buyers three weeks for their purchases, which they would resell or copy legally; the press 30 days before they could publish photographs and sketches.

Welcome to the remote world of couture in Paris, and London, from its post-war rebirth with Dior's 1947 collection to his early death a decade later, as displayed in the autumn's V&A exhibition and this accompanying book. Although that 1947 collection was celebrated as the New Look, in fact it was an old look, a deliberate revival of the French craft skills of Dior's belle époque childhood as the best way to challenge the wartime ascendancy of the American glamour which had developed from the US's industralised sportswear industry.

Yet, at the same time that Dior proposed to his many private clients some 300 outfits a collection, many of them neo-crinolines 10 metres round the hem, supported by an undercarriage of linings and dependent from a waist waspie'd tight – everything women had fled from after the First World War, let alone the Second – he set up a prototype business in New York to sell luxurious almost-ready-to-wear. His real money came from licensing and franchising deals, and perfumes.

Dior, the sly owl who was master of spectacle, is the hero of this book, although his reticent rival Balenciaga is properly admired. They were both sculptors in cloth; they and their confrères, Jacques Fath, Jean Desses and Pierre Balmain, projected women as fabulous, unattainable objects within voluminous carapaces. Because of the photographic emphasis of the book, and the exhibition, on the most gorgeous of those shells – the full evening dresses – this world seems far further gone into the sartorial past than does the inter-war era when Elsa Schiaparelli knitted cracking jokes and wore them as sweaters.

It's all so cold, and not just because of the strapless bodices: the model Dorian Leigh, bone structure elevated to the point of parody, posed by Avedon in a Piguet gown, connects through her hauteur with those disapproving press beldames in that Dior salon. Rejection, disdain and exclusion were the norms: fun, eh?

The customers were usually rabid, avid socialites, described by Balmain's directrice, Ginette Spanier, as haggling over prices like fishwives while maintaining a public façade of utter glaciation. Presumably they included those duchesses, baronesses and Onassis wives from whom Cecil Beaton solicited rails of exhibits for the V&A's collection; the book's essay by Hugo Vickers on Beaton scrounging from the wardrobes of the well-born is chilled with such snobbery it gave me freezer burns. A glaze of frost on every page.

There are informative entries if you don't mind the overall tone of devout froideur. The section on Mayfair designers, who dwindled almost to extinction by 1957, pays overdue respect to the tailored suits of Digby Morton and Charles Creed; these, like Balenciaga's seamed tweeds, were bespoke real clothes – they would certainly give that feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow. I want to wear them, likewise the garments in a 1949 sketch of holiday ensembles from minor names, prescient as well as delicious – capri pants, Pucci pyjamas and near-beatwear, some in a short-lived synthetic called cracknyl.

There's a too-brief tribute to photographer Erwin Blumenfeld's Vogue covers of lipsticked mouths, the crop of the pics calibrated to a micrometre; an original chapter on the symbiosis between couturiers and their textile suppliers; and patient research into the traditional Parisian labour hierarchy (although the V&A's reprint of Dior's autobiography offers a far better understanding of the technicalities of couture).

There are omissions: the return of Gabrielle Chanel to couture in 1954, as the anti-Dior – "elegance in clothes means freedom to move freely", she snarled about Christian's immobilised, constricted feminine divinities – gets a one-line mention and no images, as if the compilers of the book and exhibition were scared of her. As they should be. I like to imagine her slouching through the show, ciggie in the corner of her mouth, mocking the marquee dimensions of the opera coats. She was a generation, nearly two, older than Dior and Balenciaga, and yet the immediately post-1957 future belonged to her and her easy Linton Tweeds.

And after that? The most beautiful female in these pages isn't Barbara Goalen, or Eugenia Niarchos, or even Audrey Hepburn, gussied up and with poodles, but a girl snapped at work on transparent stuff in Dior's atelier flou [light dressmaking] – a deuxième main debutante, or second hand, one needle up from gofer. She's wearing a cheap printed dress, cotton or rayon, as are her lovely mates in a nearby group shot. Her face is alive with enthusiasm. She'd look a laugh if she were stuck inside the archaic ensembles on the pages round her.

Up in the salons, they were were conjuring up yesterday with six daily changes of outfit, cocktail dresses, mink stoles, and always, always, those elbow-length gloves. Down in the workrooms the fashion for being young was waiting to happen.

02 May 2007

PARTY plans for the next London Fashion Week are already in motion, four months in advance. The V&A has announced an enormous fundraising event to celebrate the launch of its Golden Age of Couture exhibition. Charting the gods of design who dressed the world's most elegant women between 1947 and 1957, the space will showcase works by Hubert de Givenchy, Cristobal Balenciaga and Pierre Balmain. The show will also focus intently on the post-Second World War impact of Christian Dior's New Look designs, a collection which sparked the most popular period in history for haute couture. The night itself, which takes place on September 18, will see a Champagne reception hosted by Gala Committee chair Alexandra Shulman, followed by an auction to raise money for future fashion exhibitions at the gallery. Co-chairs for The Golden Age of Couture include John Galliano and renowned couture collector Daphne Guinness, while the committee is made up of fashion's true elite, including Vivienne Westwood, Anna Wintour, Suzy Menkes, Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Erin O'Connor, Claudia Schiffer, Riccardo Tisci, Amanda Harlech, Manolo Blahnik and Stephen Jones. "The V&A has been an invaluable and inspirational resource for fashion designers across the world. This Gala will not only enable them to expand and improve the collection but will also celebrate the unique treasures already in the Museum," says Shulman. (May 2 2007, AM)

Slaves to fashion
Annalisa Barbieri
Published 27 September 2007 in New Statesman.

For all its glamour and mystery, haute couture relies on something quite simple - a highly skilled woman with a needle

Of all the eras in fashion, none better captures the imagination than the "golden age of couture". Yet when exactly this golden age occurred is open to debate. I think of it as the 1930s, when fashion and film merged to become one glorious marriage of slinky evening dresses, raised eyebrows, cocktails and impossibly large apartments with a housekeeper and butler, kept behind a swinging kitchen door. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, however, has decided that the golden age was the 11 years betwixt 1947 and 1957. "It was one of the most extreme times we've ever seen in fashion," explains the curator Claire Wilcox, who came up with the idea for the exhibition. "At one end you have the end of the war, and at the other, the 1960s."

In between, there were some very nice pieces of couture from Paris and London, representing designers such as Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies. Perhaps it also helped that this period of time is very well represented in the V&A's cedar-lined wardrobes, deep in the belly of the museum: 95 per cent of the show's contents come from the museum's own collection, thanks in no small part to Cecil Beaton's prodigious collecting in the early 1970s for his own "Fashion: An Anthology". "The Golden Age of Couture" has also been timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Christian Dior's Corolle collection - later renamed the New Look by the American press - which heralded a welcome return to excess after the frugal war years. Look out among the exhibits for the famous Bar suit, which in 1947 cost 59,000 francs, the equivalent of three times a factory worker's annual wage.

Haute couture is, quite rightly, regarded as other-worldly; it maintains a glamour and mystery no celebrity has yet managed to ruin. This is largely because only lack of interest can ever kill couture: no technological advance can dilute it, as it can with ready-to-wear fashion. Couture is actually something quite simple: a unique outfit, expensively hand-made. The moment a set of clothes becomes anything else, it is no longer couture. Paradoxically, when you get down to it, all that money buys is a highly skilled woman (it usually is a woman) and her needle. So it is nice that the show recognises this by devoting much of its first room to how a couture dress is made.

The exhibition spreads across three rooms. In the first, you walk through pretend ateliers showing fabric swatches scrawled over in pencil. You get to see the inside of dresses, handwritten bills and notes, and undergarments, which remind you that even back then women needed a bit of help in that department. There are evocative old perfume bottles and there are shoes perched on magazines of the day, but what really gets the hairs standing up on the back of the neck is the old newsreels showing seamstresses seated, heads bent, sewing.

If ever you need to see, in the space of a few short steps, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, you should visit a couture house. You can still do this if you hurry: there are barely a dozen left, and only one - Hardy Amies - in London. The first room in a couture house is the salon. Here the clients are seen to and shown designs. Then they are measured, pandered to, brought tea in china cups from which they take tiny sips, before allowing the salon's "madame" to slip a yard of silk chiffon over their heads so that no make-up transfers from perfect face to the perfect dress they are trying on for fitting.

Once you leave the salon, with its mirrors and thick carpets (no stripped wood floors for couture house salons, as secrets are absorbed by carpets and thick drapes), you walk up steps leading to the workroom. This is where the seamstresses sit and sew magic. When I worked at Norman Hartnell in the 1980s, the carpet would get thinner the higher up you climbed in the house, until it became almost threadbare as you entered the workroom. Inside, the floorboards - permissible up there - were so gappy and aged that 50 years of history had slipped between them. I once found a sliver of fabric which someone said matched that of a dress made in 1953.

Every dress had a name and an inventory. You had to go and ask for the thread with which to sew it together, and the hooks, eyes and buttons that would fasten it. Everything was marked on the card as it was handed over; thieving was almost impossible. Behind me stood the headless mannequins, each an exact replica of a particular customer's torso. Every client had her own mannequin and each would be padded out to match the owner's expanding waistline. Some would show as many as 60 years of expansion - a depressing sight, but of course the women themselves never got to see them. If ever you get the chance to see a couture dress, turn it inside out and look at the exquisite hand stitching. Only the seams will have been sewn by machine; everything else is done by hand. A couture hem is never pressed.

In the second room of the exhibition is a catwalk of models (not live ones) showing a timeline of 18 skirt suits (very in this season) from the decade that the exhibition covers. These neatly show how fashions changed from boxy to more feminine, looser shapes in just 11 years. Next to this is a display of cocktail dresses - note the elaborate, quasi-bustly bottoms, because you were meant to mingle rather than sit down during cocktail parties. These party dresses are interesting because, being relatively cheap, they could be much edgier and more fashionable. The ballgowns shown behind them - in the largest glass case ever built for a V&A exhibition - are beautiful, but less "risky". The evening dresses are shown against a moving projection of the ballroom at Osterley Park, to try to convey a little of the sort of grand setting they would have been worn in.

The third room shows three outfits by John Galliano for Christian Dior Couture from 2004, illustrating the legacy of couture. On the wall, strangely technicoloured by comparison, is a timeline showing which designer worked where and for whom. This last provides interesting context, but it jars slightly. Perhaps it serves as a useful decompression zone between the exhibition, with its elegant, gentle, fantastical history, and the real world outside.

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.
V.A. The Golden age of Couture.

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