The Golden Age of European Couture is Headed for Nashville this June
When Christian Dior launched his famous New Look in 1947, he both delighted and scandalized the public (all that fabric!), and sparked a golden age of creativity in the Couture, which lasted until his death a decade later. Along with fellow fashion luminaries of the day - including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain and celebrated London designers such as Hardy Amies, Charles Creed and Norman Hartnell - a new standard in impeccable workmanship and design was set, one that has rarely been surpassed since.
The next best thing to being able to travel back in time to the glamorous Maisons of Mode in Paris and London is probably The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957, a new exhibition organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London which enjoyed record-breaking attendance at its London launch, and its subsequent presentations in Australia, Hong Kong and Canada.
The international tour lands at the only US venue on June 18, 2010, the Ingram Gallery of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, where it will remain on view through Sept. 12, 2010.
The V&A possesses one of the finest costume collections in the world, and especially for this exhibition, they tracked down and purchased several couture garments, including a Givenchy blue cape (1957) that identical to the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face." Another exciting find is a red version of Dior’s glamorous Zemire (1954); a long, nipped-waist jacket with full length skirt, previously known only through archive photographs, which was recently discovered in a cellar near the River Seine in Paris. In addition to fabulous examples of daywear, cocktail dresses and evening gowns designed for royalty and aristocracy, photographs by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn show how images in fashion magazines enhanced the prestige of couture, while making its innovative ideas widely known and accessible in America as well as Europe.
“The Golden Age of Couture offers a rare opportunity to learn about the creative, social and economic forces that shaped fashion in the dramatic postwar years through the clothing itself," says Trinita Kennedy, Frist Center associate curator. "The meticulous care that went into creating every single couture dress, suit, hat and shoe is clearly and engagingly conveyed. The ripple effect of high fashion on the clothing worn by women of all social classes is also made evident. The garments on view truly defined an era. The Frist Center is proud to be the only place in the United States where this unique exhibition can be seen.”
Interestingly, it was a British dressmaker who was originally responsible for creating Paris' reputation for high fashion. When Charles Frederick Worth opened his prestigious fashion house in Paris in 1858, his goal was to unify design and fabrication under one roof. The production of couture was based on the division of labor and almost entirely a handcraft industry, and separate in-house workshops for tailoring and dressmaking were supported by the luxury trade of handmade accessories and trimmings such as feathers, embroidery, beading and ribbon work that was supplied by specialists throughout France.
At the turn of the century, the Parisian couture trade quickly began to flourish, and the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne formed to regulate the increasing number of houses, of which there were 70 registered by 1938. The wartime occupation of the city disrupted the French fashion industry, so enterprising couturiers created Théâtre de la Mode—small dolls dressed in the latest styles and set in arranged scenes, or tableaux, designed by artists such as Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau. The first part of the Frist Center exhibition will display a small sampling of the Théâtre, which originally toured to Scandinavia, Britain and the USA between 1945 and 1946 to raise funds for war victims and to promote French fashion.
After the war, on February, 12, 1947, Dior launched his couture house and became an overnight sensation thanks to a voluptuous collection that was the antithesis of masculine wartime fashion. His designs featured sloping shoulders, a full bust and waist cinched in above long, full skirts. Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of American Harper’s Bazaar, was quick to call it the “New Look” because it was so different from all that came before it. The designer once likened couture to marriage in the way design and material with its instances of perfect harmony mixed with a few disasters; the exhibition will trace how Dior created the most successful fashion business model of the 20th century through advertising, licensing, perfume and publicity. During the postwar period, Paris’ dominance was challenged as increases in material and labor costs and higher taxes put pressure on couturiers.However, for France the couture industry remained vital to the economy with Dior alone providing five percent of the country’s national export revenue in 1949.
The Paris couture system also set a template for London couturiers. With the creation of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers in 1942, the small community of fashion houses started gaining recognition, including Paris-trained John Cavanagh who had worked with both Edward Molyneux and Pierre Balmain before returning to establish his own London business. Although London could not compete in terms of output, its fashion and textile industry became increasingly profitable.
Dior’s death in 1957 brought an end to the golden age of couture as fashion moved from the fitting rooms and ateliers into boutiques. Even so, the legacy of artistry and craftsmanship still thrives in the remaining grand houses of Paris. A section of the exhibition will focus on handcraft and techniques, with undergarments and the insides of dresses on display. To enrich the content of the exhibition, photographs, documentary film, textiles and archival material will also be on view. It will close with a look at the state of haute couture today.
Tickets for The Golden Age of Couture are available at FristCenter.org.
- Lesley Scott
(images via V&A Museum)
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