Julia Bagguley leads us through the history of haute couture in anticipation of the V&A’s upcoming exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.
Paris after the occupation
Much has been written about the privations endured during the occupation of Paris in the period leading up to and after the liberation in 1944. To summarise the historian Alistair Horne:
Those who had escaped the hardship began to return like the first swallows of spring. A small harbinger of recovery came in September 1945 with the arrival in Paris of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – and their 134 pieces of luggage …. Returning from their wartime sojourn in the Bahamas and totally out of touch with the city they had fled in 1940, the Duchess observed that “Paris offered the most expensive discomfort she had ever known…The winter of 1946-7 was horribly cold, Parisians shivered in unheated apartments, food rationing continued until 1947 and post war politics were acrimonious and fractious.Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Portrait of a City, (2002), pp.430-6.
In the midst of this gloom, on 16 February 1947, a new designer, Christian Dior, showed his first haute couture collection at 30 avenue Montaigne. On 5 February 1954 after years of obscurity and self-imposed exile in Switzerland, Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel presented her first post-war haute couture collection at 31 rue Cambon.
This decade saw the two designers at the height of their creative powers. Proof – if proof were needed – that creativity in a period of austerity can thrive. At the same time, they laid the foundations, stretching beyond their own lifetimes, for the future success of their businesses. Their businesses continue to operate from the same addresses and their surnames continue to symbolise luxury and opulence. Their Houses have prospered into the millennium and continue to do so.
That, though, is where the comparisons end. They represented, and continue to do so, opposite and contrasting poles. Chanel designed clothes that worked with the body of the modern woman. Dior, on the other hand, created a sculpted silhouette to achieve feminine perfection. If Chanel liberated women, Dior enclosed them in beaded armour and artifice.
This fundamental difference in design was why Chanel despised the new “upstart”. She accused Dior of restoring a chauvinistic romanticism, one which reduced the modern woman to an overdressed masculine trophy – an attitude she had worked hard to eradicate. A woman sitting down in a ‘New Look’ suit looked like ‘an old armchair’, according to Chanel. Christian Dior seems to have remained silent on the subject, cruelly characterised by ‘an almost desperate shyness augmented by a receding chin.’
Haute Couture – what is it?
Much has been written about fashion and ‘Haute Couture’ in particular, but what is it? Literally translated as ‘high dressmaking’, over time the term acquired a loose meaning which describes high-fashion custom-fitted clothing.
Now the name is protected and only used by fashion houses meeting the standards set by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris. To be able to use the term Haute Couture is to be allowed to participate in an unashamedly elitist and protected industry located exclusively in Paris.
That said, it protects skills of the highest standards; teams of crafts men and, mostly, women (petite mains) work in the House ateliers on one piece, cutting, sewing and hand-stitching using superior fabrics, dyes and trimmings. The same high standards apply to the suppliers of artisanal crafts – milliners, embroiderers, boot and shoe makers, furriers, glove makers, jewellers, weavers, feathered, floral and ribbon accessories are worked by hand in small workshops, much as they have been since the C18th.
‘Pieces’ are not ‘sold’, ‘orders’ are ‘executed’
The ateliers are divided into different trades: jackets, trousers, skirts in the ‘atelier tailleur’, dressmaking in the ‘atelier flou’. The petit mains are always hard at work interpreting the designs before the show and, afterwards, fulfilling orders. Patterns are hand cut and there are no sewing machines – everything is hand-sewn. Christian Dior was known to demand his pieces be as perfect on the inside as they were on the outside.
During the Golden Age the bi-annual shows followed a strict order of precedence, demonstrating the wide range of styles the ateliers were under pressure to produce. The spring/summer showing in January (S/S) and autumn/winter showing in July (A/W) collections were, and continue to be, the culmination of any haute couture house’s activities. The number of pieces created bi-annually is extraordinary. Then, to quote Christian Dior, ‘after weeks of work [the] mannequins sail forth like a brilliant armada, all sails flying, going forth to conquer the world in the cause of the new fashion.’
Who ‘orders’ it?
High standards for a demanding clientele have been the rationale for couture throughout history. In an article the essayist Nancy Mitford, newly resident in Paris in 1951, explained how aristocratic French women set and expected high standards for those who supply their every need:
Dressing in Paris is an art not come by easily and cheaply. Designers are under the disciplinary control of les femmes du monde – that is to say, of a very few rich, ruthless and savagely energetic women who know what they want and never spare anyone’s feelings in their determination to get it. The result must be perfect; then, and only then, is bestowed a grudging ‘pas mal’.
Nancy Mitford, ‘Chic: English, French and Americans’, Atlantic Monthly, (1951).
In the present milieu of social networking the clients have changed from Miss Mitford’s aristocratic acquaintances, but the reasons for ordering have not. The acquisition of haute couture by the super-rich remains an investment, akin to buying great art. Simply put, wearing haute couture is an aspirational symbol of power and prestige reserved for those who don’t need to ask the price.
There are believed to be only 200 clients for haute couture in the world. There is a veil of mystery surrounding the women who order regularly; they do not appear in the gossip columns and the Houses do not reveal their client lists. They are rarely seen on the FROWs; instead they attend private showings to make their choices and designers are known to ‘fly their collections to the client’ rather than receive them at the House. A good guess is they are mainly the WAGS of Russian, Middle Eastern and Chinese oligarchs who value privacy above publicity.
Dior: aesthetics and legacies
Dior’s iconic February 1947 collection introduced the sensational ‘New Look’; daywear with narrow-waists, sloping shoulders following the curves of the bust, down to wide-hips. The silhouette had an elegant swing never seen before. Dior constantly redefined this shape, widening and broadening it at will. The ‘Bar’ jacket became his most recognisable signature; a jacket with a simple collar and rounded peplums matched with a large pleated flared skirt. This celebration of ultra-femininity and opulence in daywear was a sensational contrast to the restrictive, utilitarian aesthetic of wartime rationed fashions in the occupied city.
Dior’s evening wear was as extravagant as his daywear was deceptively simple. His signature look consisted of a crinoline of cascading and draped layers of tulle, organza and taffeta. A ball-gown, designed in 1948, was said to be the most expensive dress then available in Paris: briefly, there were 49½ft of crinoline, 36ft of tulle, 13ft of taffeta, 689 people worked on it, 200 on the thread, zips and buttons alone.
Dior has been succeeded by six artistic and eclectic directors: the young and daring Yves Saint Laurent, conservative Marc Bohan, flamboyant Gianfranco Ferré, exuberant John Galliano, minimalist Raf Simons and, presently, Maria Grazia Chiuri, a strong feminist. They continued his legacy by adapting his signature styles incorporating flowers, fine fabrics and fine art to their own creative sensibilities and they continue to influence the way we dress now, 70+ years on.
Chanel: aesthetics and legacies
When she returned to rue Cambon in 1954 Chanel had already had an established career, starting as early as 1913. By updating the formula that had brought her pre-war success, she slowly succeeded in re-establishing herself as an haute couture designer of international reputation.
Whilst her models were deceptively casual, attention to detail was not. Day-wear suits were in jersey, nubbly wools and tweeds with softly-fitted jackets complete with trimmed pockets and cuffs of contrasting fabric. Innovatively, buttons were covered in matching fabrics or gilded featuring a lion’s head – her Leo birth sign. Other signatures were gilt chains and long strands of faux pearls teamed with distinctive handbags and sling-back shoes with those distinctive contrasting toe caps. She succeeded in being cross generational. Admit, dear readers, all of us hanker after one of those jackets!
For the evening, Chanel created variations of her daywear suits and dresses – using her typical long slim silhouette – in lavish fabrics such as gold-trimmed brocades, black and white laces, tulle, lace and decorative accessories softening and romanticising the overall look.
Chanel has been fortunate in her successor. Karl Lagerfeld has looked to her past designs for the secret to his own personal success. He incorporates her signature details: tweed fabrics, gold chains, quilt-stitched leather and the linked ‘CC’ logo. In recent collections, however, Lagerfeld has become more irreverent, deconstructing but maintaining her polished aesthetic. His ability to mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance of her major contribution to women’s fashion in the C20th and into the new millennium.
How to see the real thing
In such a secretive world it’s little wonder that anyone can ever see the real thing. The private clients do not walk the streets in their unique creations and the S/S and A/W shows are limited in their access. Recent sightings include the present FLOTUS wearing a variation of the New Look, still relevant in the new millennium, and a royal bride shines a spotlight on a Paris House.
The FROWs are generally populated by the fashion press, who can make or break a reputation by even bothering to turn up, and A and B-listers who add lustre to the occasion or wear the designers’ creations well. In our world of YouTube the shows are becoming more accessible and extravagant; witness on your laptop Chanel’s legendary Grand Palais shows.
Aside from the glossy magazines published by Condé Nast and Hearst, and those Met Gala and Red Carpet parades (Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron are faithful to Dior, Keira Knightly with Cara Delevingne to Chanel), the best displays are to be found at fashion auctions and museum collections where displays are carefully and historically curated. What is remarkable, in relation to the milieu of museum collections, is that in a male dominated profession most of the fashion collections are run by female directors, curators and conservators. In February 2019 the V&A will host an exhibition devoted to the House of Dior curated by Oriole Cullen, the museum’s Fashion and Textiles Curator – note female.
The Business Case
Haute couture has never made a profit but by expanding Dior’s business its survival is assured. In his 10 brief years as a designer he set up a template from which all his business successors have benefitted. As early as 1950, after recognising a need for accessible accessories, he entered into licensing agreements for the production of items to which he would attach his name. This merchandise is still available around the globe on a wide range of luxury ‘must haves’ from scent, shoes, handbags, stockings and ties, many of which use his enduring ‘hounds tooth’ pattern, still as popular as ever.
Since the deaths of both Chanel and Dior the Houses have become owned by global corporations, all of which have developed sophisticated marketing strategies. Chanel has exploited this more successfully than most. The runway shows are the tip of an iceberg generating, as they do, tremendous publicity for the House. This segues to sales from the ready-to-wear collections selling simplified, more affordable versions of couture pieces. The kudos continues to filter down to the cosmetic ranges, scent, jewellery, scarves and key rings.
Even more subtle is how fashion disseminates in a descending chain. This is best left to Miranda Priestly, the fictitious editor of the magazine ‘Runway’ in the film The Devil Wears Prada. In the magazine’s Wardrobe Room, the hapless, sartorially challenged temp, Andrea, laughs at the editor’s difficulty when deciding between two similar-looking samples. The editor unleashes her peroration:
Andrea, you go to your closet and you select that lumpy blue sweater you are wearing because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is your sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise and it’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta presented a collection of cerulean gowns … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs … You think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of “stuff”
Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep) to Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger.
It’s a very cruel truth, universally acknowledged, that ‘couture creates beautiful things which become ugly and art creates ugly things which become beautiful.’ Enough said.
In memory of designer and artistic director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, 1933-2019.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be shown at the V&A from 2nd February. Click here for more information.