Paris Haute Couture is an exceptional exhibition


The exhibition Paris Haute Couture presents 100 garments, mainly gowns, retracing 150 years of Haute Couture. It is an exceptional exhibition that you must visit if you are in Paris before July 6 2013.


Housed in Paris Hotel de Ville, organised in collaboration with the Musée Galliera and the support of Swarovski, Paris Haute Couture was curated by Olivier Saillard and Anne Zazzo – respectively Director and Head Curator at the Musée Galliera. Out of the 100 iconic Haute Couture garments shown, 80 come from the Musée Galliera collection, 20 from private collections.



Chapeau Bas – I take my hat off to Musée Galliera

I have taken the editorial risk of starting my review with credits as I feel the urge to thank all those involved with organising this formidable exhibition. It is relatively short, but the entry is free and I was compelled to visit it several times. In addition to the hours of pleasure Paris Haute Couture has given me, the exhibition has proved very informative.

Its subject matter, Haute Couture, is of course exciting but the success of the exhibition must be attributed to the decisive choices made by the curators. Their clear vision and obvious love of the subject matter have enabled them to summarize 150 years of creativity through the careful selection of 100 garments.  Remember, at the turn of the 20th century, Paris counted more than 100 Haute Couture houses.

Paris Haute Couture however is more than an excellent retrospective; it is a manifest illustrated by the choice of garments and expressed in symbolic signs left for the visitors to find. Quickly the visit turns into a treasure hunt.


What is Haute Couture?

Haute Couture, a certification given by La Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture ( a guild created in 1868 by Worth, today part of La Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode) is since 1945 a legally protected label. Grand Couturiers are opted in, they commit to use certain amount of fabric, fit their garments directly on their clients, to finish them by hand and twice a year design and show in Paris collections of a minimum of 30 pieces. The democratisation of fashion started in the 60s has transformed this industry. Today only a few names produce Haute Couture and while all the Grand Couturiers featured in this exhibition have made significant contributions to fashion, some have been totally forgotten.

 The first gallery: Ateliers memorabilia

Upon entry of the exhibition, a tantalizing glimpse of the garments on show is interrupted by a climb up a flight of stairs taking visitors along a gallery featuring photographs, notes, drawings and samples.

A series of touching black and white period photographs shows on top, the hands of famous couturiers such as Jacques Fath, Jeanne Lanvin and Elsa Schiaparelli and below, seamstresses at work in the ateliers.

The next section illustrates four stages of the creation of a Haute Couture garment. A recent creation by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel is shown in forms of sketch, embellishment samples, toile and as a finished garment.

Embroidery detail

The last part explains how the Ateliers are traditionally broken down into area of specialities: Feather, Pleating and Embroidery, giving a hint of the workforce and creativity that endures in the industry of Haute Couture. Although many of these skills are slowly disappearing, the city of Paris still counts 7,600 fashion companies producing fabrics, seams, lingerie, furs, leather, jewels, and embroidery, and employing 60,000 people. Paris Haute Couture owes a lot to this network of artisans capable of bringing to life, at short notice, the vision of the Grand Couturiers and of contributing creatively to it.

Salle Saint Jean, in the midst of 100 Haute Couture garments

At the end of the gallery, visitors step back down into the Salle Saint Jean, a softly lit magnificent hall, with vaulted ceiling, heavy stucco and magnificent columns. On both side of the room, vertical glass cases, each containing a garment, stagger to form two lines and allow a close view of the garment on all sides. Along its outside walls, the room is flanked by more garments displayed without glass protection.

As they face the end of both cases alignments, visitors are presented with by two dresses in soft pink, on the right a 1900 ball gown by Worth, on the left an AW 1967 evening dress by Balenciaga. Their colour resonating across 70 years, these two gowns punctuate the exhibition, marking the beginning and the end of an era. Autumn Winter 1967-68 saw the last collection designed by Balenciaga who, refusing to engage with the ready to wear revolution chose to close his studio in 1968.

Worth Gown and Balenciaga ensemble

Worth Gown and Balenciaga ensemble

During those 70 years, Paris Haute Couture was unrivalled. Its operating structure and economic success made it possible for Grand Couturiers to lavish their attention and creativity on a small set of clients, addressing in innovative ways their individual needs. Labels did not bear trademarks but the signatures of artists; designers did not manage brands but build houses and often they disappeared together.

The exhibition tag line is 150 years of Haute Couture; its focus however is on the first 70 years of the 20th century. Garments designed in that period are presented chronologically. Those designed thereafter are not; instead they are strategically placed within the earlier chronology to act as counter points, as echoes of a style, a technique or a cut.
Clearly this partial chronology is an invitation to go back and forth in time and around the exhibition. Initially however, your visit should take you down the central alley between the two walls of glass cabinets, paying attention to the gowns on your right hand side. At the end double back, turning left to come back on the other side of the glass cases looking both at them and the garments displayed between the colonnades on you right. Finish your visit by going down along the opposite wall looking at the day wear displayed below the gallery, make sure not to ignore the accessories housed in smaller glass cases sandwiched between the pillars.


 70 years of Haute Couture

The chronological presentation starts with two dresses designed by Charles Frederick Worth at the turn of the 20th century. The first, the pink gown fore mentioned, is a beautiful Robe de Bal inspired by those of the 18th century. Pink silk satin damask contrasts with a paler tulle netting overlaid with bows in trompe l’oeil created by intricately embroidered Swarovski crystals. Next to it stands a contrasting dark emerald silk Tea Dress with an elegant high neckline, puffed leg of mutton sleeves and semi trained full skirt. The cut of the dress is so clever that its examination turns into a puzzle. It is almost impossible to detect seams into the large floral pattern of the fabric.

These two garments illustrate the growing influence of Worth, the man generally acknowledged as the father of Haute Couture. When he opened his studio, Worth’s love for patterned fabrics was contrarian to that of the high society who favoured plain luxury silk. As Worth prestige and influence grew however, patterned gowns supersede plain ones.

Christinan Lacroix

Christian Lacroix Evening Dress

Next, as a counter point, the curators propose a gold and black  AW1991 Christian Lacroix evening ensemble consisting of a full skirt with an accordion pleated bustle train and a jewel encrusted ¾ sleeved top. The modern interpretation of a bygone era, the timeless beauty of this outfit is the achievement of its designer and of the ateliers workers who produced it.

Through successive series of points and counter-points, each garment making a statement, the exhibition takes us through seven decades. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paul Poiret freed the long-constricted female silhouette, His high waistlines created sleek and sober outlines accentuated by cleverly overlapping layers in bold and simple colours.
The Roaring Twenties saw simpler cut and shorter evening wear decorated with highly sophisticated embroideries mixing metal and glass beading, crystals, pearls and jet, designed to catch the new electrical light. Shades of pinks and greens became very popular.

The Madeleine Vionnet 1924 layered green silk muslin evening dress with hand-stitched copper thread, white beads, green tubing and facetted green crystals is an iconic dress: the dress featured on the Vionnet’s label. Close to it, a 1931 evening gown in soft gold silk satin, with a belt buckle incrusted with Swarovski crystals for only decoration, is a stunning example of Vionnet’s invaluable contribution to garment construction.

This gown is cut on the bias, a technique invented by Vionnet; wasteful of fabric this cut enhances the material, usually satin, elasticity and fluidity, moulding the dress onto the body. For decades, femmes fatales favoured this cut. Vionnet approached fashion intellectually, like an architect. The sophisticated construction of this dress has one single purpose, to allow for the most delicate low cut V back.

The financial crisis of the 1930s marks the end of a fashion era; heavily embroidered and beaded dresses were supplanted by a new aesthetic which favoured plainer, full length dresses, draped or split-hemmed cut, often in a single simple colour.

Haute Couture started to experiment with new artificial materials, plastics and man-made fibres; some unfortunately highly inflammable caused dramatic accidents.

Elsa Schiaparelli Evening gloves with Gold fingernails

Mixing art, surrealism and fashion Elsa Schiaparelli’s style made an indelible mark on the 1930s and introduce design practices common today. She used a colour, ‘Shocking pink’ as her signature colour. She collaborated with leading artists such as Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí and Cecil Beaton… Her black gloves with gold-plated metal nails are a reference to a series of hand paintings by Picasso, photographed by Man Ray.

The occupation of Paris during WWII proved a major threat to Paris Haute Couture. The German occupation decided that the industry should be relocated to Berlin and Vienna. At the last minute Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale, managed to prevent the deportation of 40,000 industry workers. All the same, supplies were rationed and clients stayed away from Paris. Many Houses simply closed; those who did not had to find ways to do more with less.

Bruyere  Wedding Dress

Bruyere Wedding Dress

The beautiful 1944 white quilted satin wedding dress by Bruyere is an example of their ingenuity. Quilting traditionally used as foundation was hidden under additional layers of fabric; to save on material, Bruyere chose instead to make a feature of it.


The years that followed the war proved full of surprises. Christian Dior, then groomed to take over Lelong, was made an offer he could not refuse: textile industrialist Marcel Boussac offered to finance the launch of the house of Dior.

Christian Dior New look dress

Dior New Look

Only one string was attached, Dior was to design a fashion that used fabric, a lot of it! On the 12th of February 1947, Christian Dior showed his first collection. Inspired by silhouettes from the previous century, it featured rounded shoulders, exaggerated hips and pinched waists. The skirts were considerably longer and fuller than the previous seasons as well as anything else presented in 1947! Harper’s Bazaar called this look the New Look; its popularity was immediate as women around the world were eager to forget years of hardship and celebrate their femininity. Once again Paris Haute Couture was feted around the world.



Christian Dior Palmyre evening dress for AW 1952, in grey satin, embroidered with beads, sequins, lamé and crystals proved a popular design and could be found in several famous wardrobes. The model shown in the slideshow however is unique, it belonged to Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. It was significantly modified on her specifications, underlying the close relationship between Grand Couturiers and their clients. In fact no two Haute Couture dresses are the same.

Taglioni Silk evening Dress by Pierre Balmain

Taglioni Dress by Pierre Balmain

After the war, Pierre Balmain – who had also worked for Lelong – founded his fashion house too. Attentive to the aspirations of his clients he launched the Jolie Madame look, elegant and without unnecessary extravagance.

During the last decade of this chronological presentation, Paris Haute Couture was in perfect sync with the fashion revolution taking place in the street. Yet the work of André Courrèges, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne to name a few were not only aesthetically transformative but also technically perfect. The Target Dress from Pierre Cardin Spring-Summer 1966 collection, assembled from concentric circles of fabric, was made possible by the precise, technical sewing techniques developed by haute couture.

Robe de Jour, Day wear

The last section of the exhibition features mainly day wear, a fashion altogether more restrained and sombre than that for the evening. It provides a unique insight: those ladies wore Haute Couture all day long; it was a way of life. As they could not use bright material and surface decoration; designers competed instead through ingenious cuts created to achieve elegance and comfort.

A stunning, Victorian style 1900 mourning dress by Doucet reminds us of the importance of mourning fashion. A few meters away I discover Jacque Heim and his surprisingly modern asymmetric cocktail dress designed only 49 years after the Doucet mourning dress. At this point of the visit I know that nothing is left to chance and that the curators have planned my surprise and delight.

Carven 1951 Esperanto jacket is beautifully decorated with an applique of braided horse hair accentuating the waist. A Thierry Muggler slimming design is dynamic, elegant, and extremely current. The traditional men tuxedo is brilliantly reinvented and adapted for women by Yves Saint Laurent and later as a dress by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The last ensemble shown is often described as the ultimate garment: it is a Chanel suit! Chanel is associated with two defining outfits: the little black dress created in 1926, and the Chanel Suit first presented in 1954. Designed for the working women, the Chanel suit was perfectly adapted to the social changes of the 60s. Suddenly the New Look looked tired.

Chanel Coat-dress design by Karl largerfeld

Chanel Coat-dress

Designed to maximize ease of wear and minimize creasing and folding, the Chanel suit is deceptively simple. Balenciaga is said to have deconstructed ten in order to understand their design. Their sophisticated construction prevents mass production. As clever as the original Chanel suit next to it stands a look-a-like coat dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld for AW 1995.

Before leaving the exhibition you will cross the traditional book shop which offers three versions of the exhibition catalogue, with each time the same content. The French version is offered as luxury or soft back, the English one as hard back. Like the exhibition, this catalogue is excellent. It is both a scholarly book and a beautiful coffee table book. I like it so much that I will review it very soon.

Paris Haute Couture
Hôtel de Ville, Salle Saint Jean
5 rue de Lobau, 75004 Paris
Until July 6 2013
Open: 10am to 7pm, last admission 6.15pm
Closed Sundays & Bank Holidays

All images Copyright of Musée Galliera © Galliera and the Ville du Paris


Written by Pierre Delarue