Inside the world of couture
A leading house such as Dior employed hundreds of people. On the ground floor there was a boutique and upstairs a luxurious grand salon for showing the seasonal collections. A personal saleswoman (vendeuse) attended to each client, while fitters, tailors and seamstresses toiled away behind the scenes.
The London couture trade took Paris as its model. Many British designers trained in Paris, and although London could not compete in terms of output, its fashion and textile industry became increasingly profitable.
For France, the couture industry was vital to the economy. In 1949 Dior alone provided 5% of France's national export revenue.
Dress Making & Tailoring
The Paris dressmaking schools, Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, were established in 1929 to train a skilled workforce of petit-mains (seamstresses) for France's vast fashion industry.
In the early 1950s, a leading Paris house would typically employ between 500 and 850 staff in the different departments. In the flou workshops, dressmakers worked delicate fabrics entirely by hand to create blouses, skirts and dresses. Dior described them as having 'doigts de fées' - fairy fingers.
Before the Second World War bespoke fashion in London was mainly the work of tailors and court dressmakers. With the creation of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers in 1942 the small community of couture designers - 12 as opposed to 47 in Paris in 1943 - gained increasing recognition.
The Paris couture system of unifying design and production under one roof set a template for London couturiers, as did the French practice of showing biannual collections.
The London fashion houses, centered on Mayfair and Savile Row, became known for their practical, beautifully made tailoring. In 1946 the journalist Alison Settle described London couture as 'clothes which have social confidence'.
Cristóbal Balenciaga was regarded by many, including Christian Dior, as 'the master'. He moved to Paris from Spain in 1937 and by 1952 had 232 employees. The house produced 356 designs per year - less than half of Dior's production of 815
Balenciaga was the most exclusive fashion house in Paris, and clients were admitted only after a personal introduction. The Countess Bismarck dressed exclusively in his designs, down to gardening shorts, and locked herself in her room for three days when he retired.
Balenciaga was renowned for reworking the sleeves of his garments even when they were being worn by a client. Cecil Beaton wrote: 'Balenciaga uses fabrics like a sculptor working in marble.'
The spring/summer and autumn/winter collections were the culmination of the couture house's activities. The showing of the new designs followed fixed laws of precedence, beginning with suits and ending with evening wear. Day outfits included casual ensembles (ensembles simples), morning suits (tailleurs matin), casual afternoon suits (robes d'après-midi simples) and sophisticated dress suits (tailleurs habillés).
Couture clients invested time and effort into commissioning their wardrobes, and the relationship with the designer was an intimate one. Hardy Amies wrote, 'It is often forgotten that we execute orders: we do not sell clothes. If you went into the Boutique you would buy a suit, but if you walk upstairs you order a suit. At the fittings you will be able to express your desires as to the position and finish of many details. The whole process should be a harmonious co-operation between designer, tailor and customer, with the saleswoman as a sort of referee'.
Hardy Amies suit
Designed by Edwin Hardy Amies
Museum no. T.38&A-1966
Given by Mrs Benita Armstrong
This suit is a British interpretation of Christian Dior's 'New Look'. The suit's full skirt and softly padded hips contrast starkly with the war-time thriftiness of clothes designed just a year earlier. Here, Amies has tempered Dior's fulsome hip padding and economised on the quantity of fabric, resulting in a more moderate silhouette.
Hardy Amies skilfully overcame the continuing shortages and regulations governing the availability and use of materials in the early post-war period. This superbly tailored double-breasted jacket has a nipped-in waist and pockets with deep flaps which curve over and accentuate the hips. The positioning of the large pewter buttons further emphasise the tiny waist. The long bias-cut skirt has soft pleats at the front right and the back left, which creates a flattering garment that also economises on fabric.
Barrel suit by Balenciaga
Designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972)
Wool tweed lined with taffeta and silk
Museum no. T.128&A-1970
Given by Miss Catherine Hunt
This suit, comprising a loose-fitting jacket and a slim-line skirt, was shown in Balenciaga's Winter collection in 1950 as model No 24. It reveals Balenciaga’s debt to his training in tailoring in Spainand is an early example of the loose-fitting styles which he refined over the 20 years after the Second World War. The magyar sleeve (a sleeve cut in one with the body) reveals how adept Balenciaga was at less traditional forms of construction. He was renowned in the trade for inspecting and resetting sleeves that were not perfect. The slubbed nature of the tweed conceals the beauty of the cut whereas in the original mannequin parade, it was clearly visible because plain wool was used. Tweed was a sturdy woollen fabric that appealed to Balenciaga because of the optical illusions created by the two or more colours in the indistinct flecked pattern.
From 1947 onwards Balenciaga offered two styles: the first fitted and in line with the hour-glass shape of Dior's ‘New Look’, the second semi- fitted or loose. This easy alternative became increasingly fashionable towards the end of the decade. In the early 1950s, a made-to-measure woollen suit from Balenciaga cost about 110,000 francs (£112), a sum well beyond the reach of most consumers (equivalent to about £2,000 today).
Mandarin hat by Erik
Photograph of mandarin hat (felt and velvet) with veil
Designed by Erik and modelled by Anne Gunning
Photography by John French
V&A John French Archive
Dress and petticoat by Balmain
Dress and petticoat
Designed by Pierre Balmain (1914-82)
Silk grosgrain with embroidery (dress) with silk net and whalebone (petticoat)
Museum no. T.349&A-1975
Given by Mrs G Sachet
Pierre Balmain opened his couture house in 1945. He had previously trained alongside Christian Dior at the couture house of Lucien Lelong. Balmain became one of the most successful couturiers of his generation and by 1956 his house employed 600 workers, with 12 couture workrooms and in-house fur and millinery ateliers.
Piquet jacket by Dior
Photograph of cotton pique jacket with grosgrain collar and cuffs designed by Christian Dior
Pillbox hat designed by Simone Mirman
Modelled by Barbara Miura
Photography by John French for Harper's Bazaar
John French Archive, V&A
Bar suit by Dior
Bar suit & hat
Designed by Christian Dior (1905-1957)
Plain weave silk tussore and pleated wool crepe mounted on stiffened taffeta; straw hat
Museum no. T.376&A-1960
Given by Christian Dior Paris
This suit is possibly a 1950s remake of the famous 1947 Bar, possibly for Christian Dior's lecture at the Sorbonne. The 'Bar' suit was one of the most popular models in Dior's first collection which he called 'La Ligne Corolle'. The press dubbed it the 'New Look'; and the name endured. Dior took the softer feminine shape - round sloping shoulder-line, narrow waist and spreading skirts - to the extreme. Despite official complaints, it was a resounding success. 'Harper's Bazaar' published detailed line drawings of the New Look's construction and 'Bar' was also illustrated in 'Vogue' and 'L'Officiel'. To record the designs for his collections, Dior created first notebooks, then charts. At this stage they simply included a sketch and technical specifications for the type and quantity of fabric, though later they became more complex. This information helped Dior to price the designs. 'Bar' cost 59,000 francs. The jacket required 3.7 metres of silk shantung and was fastened with five hand-stitched buttons.
Dress by Hardy Amies
Photograph of dress designed by Hardy Amies and modelled by Barbara Goalen
Photography by John French
John French Archive, V&A
Fitted suit by Balenciaga
Designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga
Tweed lined with silk
Museum no. T.128&A-1982
Given by Mrs D M Haynes and Mrs M Clark
This suit comprises a fitted jacket and slim-fitting skirt with a kick pleat at the back. It was shown in Balenciaga's Winter collection in 1954 as model no. 55. It reveals Balenciaga’s debt to his training in tailoring in Spain and his capacity for choosing fabrics fit for purpose. His suits were highly regarded and commanded high prices. In the early 1950s, a made-to-measure woollen suit from Balenciaga cost about £112, a sum well beyond the reach of most consumers.
He was adept at manipulating firm fabrics. The style of jacket relies for effect on careful fitting to the body in front and gentle fullness at the back, and in the setting of the sleeves. Balenciaga was renowned in the trade for inspecting and resetting sleeves that were not perfect. Tweed was a sturdy woollen fabric that appealed to Balenciaga because of the optical illusions created by the two or more colours in the indistinct flecked pattern.
In a survey of French couture houses compiled at this time, Celia Bertin wrote of Balenciaga, ‘I noticed long ago that women who wear his tailored suits seem to have them moulded on to their bodies, so much do the jackets appear wedded to their figures, while leaving them complete freedom of movement’.
Cocktail and early evening wear
Daywear was followed by formal afternoon dresses (robes après-midi habillées), cocktail dresses (robes de cocktail), semi-evening (robes demi-soir) and short evening dresses (robes du soir courtes). These distinctions became simpler as the decade progressed and social codes began to break down.
Cocktail dresses first appeared in the 1920s and gained a new popularity after the war. They were worn at early evening or '6 to 8' gatherings, where guests usually stood and mingled. The gowns could include complex bustles and skirt details, which would be crushed if sat on.
In his book, 'The Little Dictionary of Fashion' (1954), Christian Dior described cocktail dresses as 'elaborate and dressy afternoon frocks', preferably in black taffeta, satin, chiffon and wool. These confections became the personification of the 'little black dress' and were often accessorised with gloves and small hats.
Zemire ensemble by Dior
Evening ensemble comprising an under-dress, skirt, top and jacket
Designed by Christian Dior (1905-57)
Cellulose acetate satin lined with silk, tulle, net and organza
Museum no. T.24:1-5-2007
By the mid 1950s Christian Dior was producing around 12,000 dresses a year. His fashion house was the most successful and widely known of the post-war era, and his international sales constituted over half the Paris couture exports.
The dress shown here is called ‘Zemire’ and was part of Dior’s H-line collection of Autumn/winter 1954-5. Dior often made cultural references when christening his designs. ‘Zemire’ was named after Zémire et Azor, an opera by Grétry first performed at the royal palace of Fontainebleau in 1771. Initially, it was called ‘Fontainebleau’, but this was crossed out on the chart and replaced by ‘Zemire’. It is one of his most historical designs, echoing the shape of riding-habits, and it was successful. The original model in grey silk satin was shown to Princess Margaret at Blenheim Palace in 1954, and it appears in several magazine features. A ready-to-wear version was licensed to Susan Small, a British company that made ‘line-for-line’ copies for Harrods. It sold for 22 guineas, a fraction of what a made-to-measure version would have cost.
This ensemble was commissioned by Lady Agota Sekers, wife of the British textile manufacturer, and made in an innovative man-made fabric produced by the Sekers company.
Evening dress by Sherard
Designed by Michael Sherard (1910-1998)
Silk re-embroidered ribbon lace (French) with taffeta
Museum no. T.403-1974
Given by Mr John Fraser and Mr Michael Sherard
This dress was designed by Michael Sherard (1910–98) for his acclaimed 1958 spring collection. The flamenco dress was a recurring theme in 1950s cocktail and evening wear. Sherard’s version has a bell-like skirt and train made entirely of lace, his trademark fabric.
Evening dress by Dior
Designed for Dior of London by Marc Bohan (born 1926)
Satin organza, net and horsehair stuffing
Museum no. T.235-1985
Given by Mrs William Mann
This cocktail dress, made of raspberry coloured satin organza has two bows that appear to hold the soft gathers of the material together as it flows from the deep, falling collar into the closely fitting bodice.
Christian Dior (1905-57) wrote that ‘many a dress of mine is born of the fabric alone’ and in this dress he manipulates the luxurious, crisp satin organza to great effect. The bodice is complemented by a simple skirt. Full and short, its bouffant shape is pleated into a tight waist and supported by four layers of net petticoat beneath, the innermost reinforced by horsehair stiffening.
Dior always included a red dress in his collections. He wrote that red 'is the colour of life. I love red and I think it suits almost every complexion. Bright reds - scarlet, pillar-box red, crimson, cherry are very gay and youthful.' He also described bows as the 'natural ornament' of a dress.
Cocktail dress by Balmain
Designed by Pierre Balmain (1914-82)
Silk taffeta and tulle
Museum no. T.51-1974
Given by Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal
Pierre Balmain opened his salon in 1945. Having studied architecture, he worked on the structure of garments, defining the body with simple, modern lines. This cocktail dress, designed for the increasing elegant youth of the late 1950s is inspired by ballet and Spanish flamenco dress. It epitomises Balmain's harmonious balance between extravagance and elegance.
Evening wear and ballgowns
The fashion show culminated with evening dresses (robes du soir), dance dresses (robes à danser), long evening dresses (robes du soir longues), grand evening dresses (robes grand soir) and spectacular gala dresses (robe de gala). Traditionally, the end of the collection was marked by the wedding gown (the robe de mariée).
Sumptuously embroidered and accessorised with jewels, these gowns provided a glittering show at receptions and balls, the opera or the theatre. Some were specially commissioned for a specific occasion, and worn only once. Many couturiers were also willing to lend expensive gowns for important diplomatic and state occasions.
The creation of couture was a matter of national pride, particularly in France. Christian Dior said, 'My mannequins sail forth like a brilliant armada, all sails flying, going forth to conquer the world in the cause of the new fashion.'
Chiffon evening dress - Jean Desses
Desses's fascination with draping and classical form resulted in gowns of great technical complexity. Although the bodice appears to be soft and unstructured, it is supported by the sewn-in boning common at the time.
Evening dress (robe du soir longue)
Jean Desses (1904-70)
Worn by Mrs Opal Holt and given by Mrs Haynes and Mrs Clark
Museum no. T.105-1982
Evening dress by Fath
Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston (later Lady Dacre) was the wife of the Naval Attache to Paris, 1948-50. She required an extensive wardrobe for the many formal dinners and state functions that she had to attend.
Lady Alexandra wore this dress at the official visit of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip to Paris in May 1948. She recalled that when she arrived at the Theatre de L'Opera with her husband, the Garde Nationale suddenly sprang to attention. 'I realised they had mistaken us for the Princess and Duke. That was the effect made by my splendid Fath'.
In 1971 Lady Alexandra gave some of her couture clothes to the photogapher Cecil Beaton. He was assembling a large collection of fashionable garments to be given to the V&A and displayed in his exhibition 'Fashion: An Anthology'. The V&A has kept Beatons' correspondence with designers, royalty and leading socialites of the day.
Jacques Fath (1912-54)
Silk satin, embroidered by Rebe with sequins and beads
Given by Lady Alexandra Dacre
Museum no. T.184&A-1974
Evening dress by Ferier
This gown features in French Vogue in October 1948. The magazine promoted both courturier and fabric supplier by name. Bianchini Férier had provided Parisian couturiers with luxurious silks since the late 19th century. The weight and textural qualities of this velvet lend themselves well to the contruction and shape of Dessès' draped, bouffant style.
Jean Dessès (1904-70)
Voided silk velvet by Bianchini Férier
Given by the Hon Mrs J J Astor
Museum no T.113-1974
Evening gown by Balmain
'Technical perfection', said Pierre Balmain, 'is not enough. To be a couturier means offering women a certain standard of excellents. The most difficult thing is not to be extravagant, but to know when to stop.' Balmain maintained that 'the basic job of a couturier ... is to dress women for everyday living' ('My Years and Seasons', 1964). For his clientele, normal life often involved numerous grand evening occasions and Balmain is perhaps best known for the lavish ballgowns he created for these events. The vertically looped ribbon decoration and the full, long skirt of this dress were inspired by 18th and 19th century garments.
The dress was worn by Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal and forms part of the Cecil Beaton Collection. This collection was brought together by the society photographer Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980). With great energy and determination, Beaton contacted the well-dressed elite of Europe and North America to help create this lasting monument to the art of dress. The collection was exhibited in 1971, accompanied by a catalogue that detailed its enormous range.
Satin Duchesse decorated with ribbon
Museum no. T.49-1974
Given by Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal
Detail of evening dress by Balmain
Detail of bodice of evening dress
Pierre Balmain (1914-1982)
Made for Spring/Summer 1957
Printed silk, pleated and boned with appliqué decoration
Museum no. T.50-1974
Lady Gladwyn was the wife of the British Ambassador to Parisfrom 1954 to 1960. She hosted the state visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in April 1957, and invited her great friend Lady Diana Cooper to attend the dinner held at the British Embassy on Tuesday 9 April. This dress was worn by Lady Diana, the wife of the former British ambassador in Paris. Lady Diana was a leading socialite of the time and a great friend of the society photographer, Cecil Beaton, who described her as a ‘tour de force of aristocratic beauty’. He persuaded her to donate the dress to the V&A. Beaton collected several of the dresses worn during this particular state visit to donate to the V&A. These included the Queen's embroidered ivory gown by Norman Hartnell, Lady Gladwyn's lilac lace gown by Jacques Fath and Baroness Alain de Rothschild's spotted tulle gown by Christian Dior.
Lady Gladwyn wrote in her diary: ‘The supper was, I think, just right for the occasion: cold salmon, chaudfroid of chicken, a salad, oranges and lemons filled with sorbet, and a wonderful Bollinger ... The difficulty was to get rid of all the guests. They lingered on, and at half past one in the morning Cecil Beaton was still sketching Diana Cooper in the Ionian Room’.
Three evening dresses
On the occasion of the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Paris in April 1957, many grand events were held such as dinners at the Louvre, Versailles and the Elysée Palace together with visits to the opera and the races. It was the highlight of the year's social calendar and couturiers were inundated with requests for evening gowns and gala dresses from society ladies. Lady Gladwyn, the wife of the British Ambassador, commented in her diaries that even the Queen’s dresses did not compare to the French clothes for grandeur.
The photographer Cecil Beaton collected several of the dresses worn during this state visit to donate to the V&A including these three:
(Left): Evening dress ‘La Ligne Libre’ from Belgique worn by Baroness Alain de Rothschild
Christian Dior (1905-57)
Made for Spring/Summer 1957
White spotted tulle made by Dognin and ribbon by Guillemin
Museum no. T.121-1974
Given by Baroness Alain de Rothschild
(Centre): Evening dress worn by Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to France (1944-48)
Pierre Balmain (1914-82)
Made for Spring/Summer 1957
Printed silk, pleated and boned, with appliqué decoration
Museum no. T.50-1974
Given by Lady Diana Cooper
Lady Diana was a leading socialite of the time and a great friend of Cecil Beaton, who described her as a ‘tour de force of aristocratic beauty’. He persuaded her to donate this dress to the V&A.
(Right): Evening dress worn by Lady Gladwyn, wife of Jebb Gladwyn, British ambassador to Paris (1954-60)
Designed by Jacques Fath (1912-1954)
Lace dress, silk petticoat and velvet sash
Museum no. T.173-1974
Given by Lady Gladwyn
Jacques Fath opened his Parisian couture house in 1937. He quickly became known both for his softly sculpted garments and a talent for self promotion. This dress is likely to have been designed by Fath’s wife and muse, Geneviève, who upon Fath’s death in 1954, oversaw the house until it closed in 1957.
Evening dress by Cavanagh
Evening dress made for Lady Cornwallis for the Coronation celebrations
Designed by John Cavanagh (1914-2003)
Museum no. T.294-1984
Given by Lady Cornwallis
This evening gown formed part of the John Cavanagh ‘Coronation’ collection. Although Cavanagh had been in business for just one year, he had already secured a reputation as a talented designer who catered for a discerning clientele, producing refined couture in luxurious fabrics.
The fabric was designed by Oliver Messel (1904-78), at the time Britain’s foremost designer of costumes and sets for stage and film, who was commissioned by Nicholas (‘Miki’) Sekers, who owned West Cumberland Silk Mills, an innovative textile company. The fabric was made using a weave particular to the Sekers company at this time. It is made of two separate layers of silk joined to form the design of scattered orchids woven in oyster, pale pink and green silk enriched with gold threads.
Evening dress by Givenchy
Evening dress 'Les Muguets' (Lilies of the Valley)
Designed by Hubert de Givenchy (born 1927)
Silk organdie embroidered with white silk and sequins
Museum no. T.223-1974
Given by the Viscountesss de Bonchamps
Formal evening gowns were an essential part of a society lady's wardrobe in the 1950s. Sumptuously embroidered and accessorised with jewels, these gowns provided a glittering show at receptions and balls, the opera or the theatre. Some were specially commissioned for a specific occasion and worn only once, whereas others bear evidence of alterations.
This dress is embroidered with silk thread and sequins from top to bottom, which would have been very expensive as it was done entirely by hand. It would have been sent out to one of the many specialist workshops in Paris, and each tiny sequin and stitch placed individually by a team of highly-skilled embroiderers.