Problems Regarding Evolution & French Fashion Exhibitions

A 1951 article in French Elle by journalist (and first Minister of Women’s Affairs in 1974) Françoise Giroud on the state of French haute couture exposed wider narratives of the country’s postwar reconstruction, cultural heritage and notions of femininity. The subject of the article was the apparent collapse of the industry, illustrated by the closure of fourteen houses since 1947. After discussing the cause of this decline, due in part to price increases and competition from foreign industries, Giroud asked whether the country should even attempt to save haute couture production, which she claimed had become increasingly irrelevant “psychologically” in relation to women’s lives. She reasoned that postwar consumers spent less on clothing and more on home appliances, automobiles and travel. Such “distractions and comforts,” Giroud wrote, began to “outweigh pure vanity.” This shift also indicated a “general evolution of women,” defined by the “disappearance of the doll-woman [who is] uniquely preoccupied by her hats and dresses.” Giroud’s description of women’s growing diversity and agency, unsurprising in the years following their 1944 suffrage, echoed wider fashion industry discourses, as I’ve learned through my doctoral studies at the Courtauld on readymade clothing and women’s lives in France from the 1940s to the 1960s. Yet the evolution that Giroud noted was not simple and linear; rather, femininity during the country’s postwar reconstruction was characterised by contradiction, drawing on older ideals alongside aims of autonomy.

Fig 1

A different type of “evolution” was explored in an exhibition held at Paris’ Palais Galliera in late 2014, and in 2015 at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao exhibition, The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957. According to the museums’ websites, the exhibition sought to “retrace the evolution of the female form” throughout this period. It presented and grouped garments in sections on silhouettes and clothing categories (i.e. cocktail and evening dresses), displayed monotonously in rows of identical mannequins, and sub-grouped by couturier, such as Jacques Heim and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Predictably, the star of the show was Christian Dior, evidenced firstly in the exhibition dates, 1947-1957, which demarcated the launch of his house and his death. Despite the exhibition’s focus on silhouette and dress, its content, mode of display and text centred around producers and their fashioned bodies, eliminating all reference to wearers’ subjectivity and various narratives, and denying them agency.

Fig 2

The curators’ chosen narrative, namely the fall and rise of postwar Paris couture, held similarities to that of Giroud in 1951. Conversely, the terms of their conversation were reductive and positivist, and sought to demonstrate the dominance of French fashion in the 1950s, as well as forge a link to notions of French cultural authority today. The website outlined these terms, claiming, “In the 1950s, Paris was reborn as the international capital of fashion,” as well as attributed the cause of couture’s success to couturiers, who “contributed to the enduring legacy of French fashion, synonym of luxury, elegance and creativity, and to the success of ready-to-wear fashion.” Likewise, the simplistic exhibition abstained from contextualising the garments or health of the industry in political, economic or social frameworks. Further, despite the website’s mention of ready-to-wear, the exhibition did not present this production other than in a marginal section on anonymous beachwear.

Fig 3

As my research has shown, readymade (confectionrobe de série, or prêt-à-porter) brands were an important feature of the 1950s French fashion industry, as well as a perceived threat to haute couture. Giroud alluded to this as she noted both couture’s irrelevance and its uniqueness, with its irreplaceable and time-honoured handwork and its originality, in “the century of the machine and industrial production.” She characterised couture as an art and a tradition worth saving especially as it underscored the health and dominance of the nation, being “one of the most vibrant, glorious expressions of our national genius, at the same level of painting or music.” However, in addition to her fear of change and loss, her text illustrated a willingness to move forward, an incongruity that can be applied to shifting national and feminine identities in the 1950s. She thus proposed that couture “transform [and] adapt to new times,” by refashioning itself after ready-made production, which “corresponds more and more to the lifestyle of women of our time.” Although her above phrase hides a wealth of complexity regarding the various experiences of women, it is a point of departure for understanding them via their experience of dress. The Palais Galliera, under the relatively new direction of Olivier Saillard, failed to draw out wider themes in its exploration of fashion and “female form”, which ended at the dressed mannequins on display, symbols of limitation, preventing potential narratives of wearers and avenues of research. Although the catalogue offered an assortment of analytical articles, the exhibition propagated accepted narratives and, dangerously, confused scholarship with connoisseurship.

 

Sources:

Françoise Giroud, “Où en est la Haute-Couture française,” Elle, 23 November 1951, 22-23, 39.

http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/50s

https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/the-50s-fashion-in-france-1947-1957-231

Shaping Prêt-à-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on “Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher  in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.

The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.

The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.

In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.

Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.

Sources:

“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 [1982], 288-9.