They say skirt lengths are an indicator of the economic situation, and no truer was this than during the Second World War, when rations led to fabric-conserving shapes for ladies’ fashion.
Rationing didn’t end in 1945, but then as now, haute couture had a shocking and ahead-of-the-game edge – enter French designer Christian Dior and his 1947 ‘New Look’, with huge ankle-length skirts splaying from corset-cinched waists, heralding a prosperity yet to come to the masses.
On one early fashion shoot at a Paris market, female vendors attacked models wearing the luxurious garments for such a display of extravagance while rationing was still in force, and the British Board of Trade condemned the excessive use of material.
Kate Moss carried on fashion’s characteristic frivolity at the star-studded evening launch of the V&A’s new exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture in Paris and London, when she managed to shred her own vintage Dior gown.
Fortunately, the museum looks after its collection of head-turning frocks rather better, and so the very good-looking exhibition opens to the public on September 22 2007 and runs until January 6 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the New Look.
Dior's Zemire dress after conservation. Richard Davis © V&A Images
There are elegant frocks aplenty in the show, which focuses on the decade from 1947-1957, and many have been especially conserved and purchased for the exhibition.
This is the chance to see rarities like a Givenchy blue cape from 1957, identical to that worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, and a red version of Dior’s glamorous Zemire design (1954), a full length skirt, bodice and jacket discovered in a cellar near the Seine in Paris (it needed a little ironing out).
Other beauties included are a taffeta Balenciaga evening dress, c1955, featuring an almost Victorian bustle, and an early 50s white silk organza number by Pierre Balmain, embellished with fluffy feathers and spangly rhinestones.
Pierre Balmain, early 1950s. White silk organza, feathers and rhinestones. © V&A Images
The selection of dresses takes us along the specific types of garment a lady was expected to wear for different occasions – from formal afternoon dresses to cocktail dresses and several kinds of grand evening dress.
The distinctions became simpler as social codes broke down. Taffeta, satin, chiffon and wool were the order of the day, and many of the gowns on show were ordered for glittering receptions, the opera or theatre, perhaps to be worn only once.
All these ballerina skirts and strapless, bust-enhancing bodices have more than a whiff of the fairytale about them, and ooze glamour like a Monte Carlo casino. Fashionistas will drool, old-fashioned girls will dream of being the belle of the ball, lotharios will fantasise about undoing the zips.
The latter might be surprised at what they would find underneath – the exhibition also has a handful of undergarments showing just how that wasp waist and pert bosom was achieved.
Handcrafts and techniques are exposed, too, with the insides of dresses shown, textiles and archival material giving an insight into the business of producing ‘la mode’.
Fashion houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Balmain in Paris, and Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies in London, created some of the most successful business models of the 20th century through advertising, licensing, perfume and publicity. Designs were jealously guarded and copying became a good business in its own right – at one point, anyone caught sketching during a fashion show was thrown out.
While styles have changed, similar practices continue in the worldwide industry, with the same trickle-down effect bringing the haute to the hoi polloi.
In Paris, the industry brought a sense of post-war pride, and hundreds of jobs in the workshops. Dior described his mannequins as sailing forth like a “brilliant armada, all sails flying, going forth to conquer the world in the cause of the new fashion.” In Britain, the Board of trade soon stopped complaining, especially when royalty took to the new ultra-feminine shapes.
The distinct characteristics of the London couture house are given some attention – their strengths in tailoring and the formality of court and debutante gowns. Dresses made for the Queen and Princess Margaret and other aristocratic clients are on show, as well as smart skirt suits and coats by British designers.
Other designer houses represented include Fath, Griffe, Stiebel and Michael of London, and the show ends with contemporary haute couture by John Galliano for Dior from 2005-06, a collection which was an homage to the architect of the New Look, Christian Dior.