Golden age of couture

It is not often that fashion results in Government edicts, but when Christian Dior launched his New Look in Paris in 1947, the British Government tried hard to prevent it ‘infecting’ British fashion. According to fashion journalist Alison Settle, Sir Stafford Cripps, then President of the Board of Trade, proclaimed that, as far as London was concerned, there was no New Look. ‘We were forbidden by the Board of Trade to mention his styles in case they engendered a desire for more fabrics, pretty styles, some trace of elegance.’ Nevertheless, British women, fed up with the masculine and almost military styles imposed by rationing, soon fell for the New Look. When Harold Wilson took over the Board of Trade in October 1947, he said despairingly: ‘If women want longer skirts, they will just have to have fewer of them.’ The look was to influence fashion for most of the 1950s.

The New Look as designed by Dior actually harked back to a pre-war world when women were more ‘feminine’. The shape was doll-like, and created an unmistakeable silhouette with a nipped-in waist, whirling ballerina skirt and moulded fitted bodice. To Claire Wilcox, curator of a new exhibition at the V&A, the New Look was not just a clutch of pretty frocks, but a social, cultural, political and economic indicator. Pre-war Paris had sustained a thriving couture industry composed not only of 70 couturiers and their highly stratified ateliers, but a whole panoply of supporting workshops, from the more obvious shoemakers and milliners to providers of ancillary skills and materials, including feather dyers, embroiderers and bead makers. Following the Nazis’ attempt to relocate couture to Berlin and the Americans’ attempt post-war to seize Paris’ crown, couturiers fought back to reassert the pre-eminence of Paris. Although pre-war London boasted no couture designers, but rather Court dressmakers such as Hartnell, post-war,

it attempted to organise itself along the French model. Indeed, Hardy Amies experimented with a very similar shape to Dior’s in 1945. But what London excelled at was tailoring, and Lanvin sent his tailors to Savile Row for training. The international clientele of the period bought in both Paris and London, often buying their suits in London and their evening and wedding gowns in Paris. The 100 outfits in this exhibition, by designers such as Balenciaga, de Givenchy, Fath, Lanvin and Schiaparelli, demonstrate not only the skill involved in their manufacture, but also the whole nature of the couture industry. Some 95% of the clothes on display comes from the V&A’s own collection, most of it amassed by Cecil Beaton when, in 1971, he ‘persuaded’ members of high society, including The Queen, Princess Margaret, Margot Fonteyn and Lady Dacre, to part with 600 garments and accessories to show at the museum. The objects came with full provenance, illustrating the relationship between couturier and client, and often with Beaton’s photographs of the original owner wearing the clothes.

One recent acquisition on show is the ‘Zemire’ evening dress and jacket from Dior’s 1954 Autumn Collection, which emerged from a damp Paris cellar in need of restoration. It was made of the then new cellulose acetate, a fabric manufactured by Seckers, and commissioned by Agota Seckers to show off the family company’s textiles. Dior’s original ‘Zemire’ didn’t sell very well, but the design was bought by Susan Small to sell as ready to wear in Harrods.

This exhibition is full of such nuggets of social and economic history, which are revealed by many truly gorgeous clothes, including a sensational display of Parisian ballgowns. One of the most sumptuous, if not the most stylish, is a dress designed for The Queen by Hartnell for a state visit to Paris. The curator unpicks the iconography thus: ‘The British fabric, embroidered with the bee and the lily, both symbols of the French State, was intended as a compliment to the host nation, but also as a demonstration of British design and regal status’. This analytical approach continues throughout the exhibitoin, showing the context in which couture was created, sold and worn through clothes to die for.

‘The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947?1957’ is at the V&A, South Kensington, SW7 from September 22 to January 6 (020?7942 2000;