The fashion show
Known as the founder of haute couture, the English dressmaker, Charles Frederick Worth (1826–95) instigated many innovations, but his most influential development was to present his clientele with collections of his own designs, four times a year, by means of a fashion show. This revolutionised the dressmaking process, as previously customers had ordered their own individual designs.
Fashion shows displaying the Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections became the culmination of a 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).
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.
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 (robe de mariée). Although these days a designer does not have to show his collection in a particular order, the wedding dress is still almost always the final, dramatic climax of a catwalk show.
Admittance to view an haute couture collection was strictly controlled. At houses such as Dior and Balenciaga, the collections were presented first to the fashion press, then to commercial buyers from North America, then buyers from Europe, and then, a month later, to private clients. Finally, they were shown to the interested public on a daily basis for many months. Each garment was made specifically for the house model who wore it, so that it fitted perfectly and looked its best.
Every design was photographed and registered by name or number. However, despite a law passed in 1952 that a couture collection was copyrighted for one season, couturiers filed dozens of lawsuits a year in an attempt to prevent illegal copying. Anyone caught sketching during a collection was asked to leave but some professional copyists were able to memorise the garments by eye.
Dior’s collections took place in the perfumed, crowded grand salon, and were often attended by celebrities and film stars. Balenciaga’s sometimes lasted two hours and were conducted in complete silence, apart from the number of each design being called out.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957', on display at the V&A South Kensington 22 September 2007–6 January 2008.