A celebration of the golden decade of Parisian couture
Following the restraints of the war, Paris couture experienced in the early 1950s a period of prolific creativity which established Paris as the fashion capital of modern times.
Palais Galliera’s exhibition ‘The 1950s: Fashion in France, 1947-1957’ features around one hundred pieces of clothing – not only gowns and dresses but also underwear, bathing suits and accessories – hailing from the collection of Musee de la Mode as well as donations and loans from fashion houses. Together they tell the story of the rebirth of Parisian couture.
Curated by Olivier Saillard, assisted by Alexandra Bosc as scientific curator, the exhibition retraces the rise of the New Look and the wasp silhouette, the impact of Balenciaga’s barrel line and the first hints of the ready-to-wear revolution. This was the golden age of Parisian couture.
During World War Two, the German occupier was bent on moving the city’s couture know-how, its designers and workers to Berlin. The relentless efforts of Lucien Lelong, then president of the union of Parisian couture, ensured these plans came to nothing. Lelong actively promoted Parisian couture in women’s magazines going as far calling, in the May 1940 issue of the periodical ‘L’Art et la Mode,’ support for the industry the ‘duty of all French men and women.’
Post-war, Christian Dior, a pupil of Lelong, was the first to grasp the public desire for the kind of luxuries unavailable during the war years. In 1947 Dior launched his own house with the ‘New Look.’ The style had in fact long been refined by couturier Jacques Fath but thanks to Dior, quickly gained prominence worldwide. The ‘New Look’ was to influence fashion for years to come.
Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ stood openly against the masculine image of the woman established during the war, and contributed to re-assert a conservative idea of the female ideal. In fact fashion in the 1950s went counter many of the aesthetical and sociological changes that had started in the 1930s. Despite the anachronistic nature of its fashion the 1950s opened ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’ – the thirty glorious years of the French economy.
Fath, Dior and Balmain are the three couturiers traditionally associated with Parisian fashion of the 1950s. The names of Fath and Dior are especially tied to the image of 1950s’ couture. In a sad twist of fate, their practice ended within the decade; Jacques Fath died of leukemia in 1954, aged 42, and Christian Dior of a heart attack in 1957. With them the cocktail dress, the true archetype of fashion in the 50s also faded away. Shown in the runways, publicised by magazines and relayed by the movie industry, the cocktail dress was the natural evolution of the formal evening dress, and disappeared from the closets during the 60s, replaced by the futuristic looks of the first ready-to-wear collections.
The period investigated by Olivier Saillard, the decade between 1947 and 1957, articulates two key fashion moments: the ‘revolutionary bomb of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ and the first steps of a young Yves Saint Laurent, who was appointed Artistic Director of the house of Dior in 1957. Considered his spiritual heir by Dior himself, Yves Saint Laurent left the house of Dior to launch his own label in 1961. He was to subsequently subvert many of the rules of the fashion industry.
Digging deep into the collection of the Palais Galliera ‘The 1950s’ exhibition also revisits a history now strangely forgotten. Besides iconic couturiers such as Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Cristobal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel, the exhibition put in the limelight designers almost forgotten: Jean Dessès, Madeleine Vramant, Lola Prusac and Jacques Heim to name a few. Aiming for an accurate representation of what was couture in that decade, the team of the Musees de la Mode has filled the gaps left by the flow of time, opening up new research possibilities.
This was also the occasion for the Palais Galliera to reflect upon its collection, and complete some of the information missing in its documentation. The museum explains how the origin of the ‘Bernique ensemble’, for example, was unknown until research in archive of the Dior house identified it as a Christian Dior creation for A/W 1950-51.
An analysis of the ideal 1950s’ wardrobe, the exhibition not only informs us of what was fashionable during the decade, but also makes us aware of the social swifts of the period. Strangely women in the 1950s renounced the freedom they had gained during the war, such as shorter skirts and no girdles, not to mention their growing political place. For a while, women seemed happy to bend up again in their corolla ensembles until they realised the necessity to fight for their rights.
From almost immobile ‘pretty things’, whose main task was to change up to six times a day, they embraced the cause of their own emancipation, epitomised by the Chanel suit. Coco Chanel reopened her fashion house in 1954, mainly because she was disappointed with the anachronistic allure of the New Look. Her iconic suit marks her return on the scene: an ensemble wearable from morning on whose androgynous silhouette and ever-contemporary flair opened the doors to the style of the 1960s.
An overwhelming feeling stays with us as we leave the exhibition: the realisation that some garments have the power to become icons. They are material memories, objects capable of telling stories: they have something to say. They represent fashion as a cultural reference, with deep links to political, economical and social issues. Good fashion design articulates a clear philosophy and expresses an awareness of the world in all its complexities. The clothes it produces deserve a perpetual place in history.
THE 50s: FASHION IN FRANCE, 1947-1957
PALAIS GALLIERA – CITY OF PARIS FASHION MUSEUM
12th July 2014 – 2nd November 2014
Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6pm
Closed on Mondays and public holidays
Late openings on Thursdays until 9 pm