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Dress Making & Tailoring

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Paris Dressmaking

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.

Exhibition Highlights

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Dress & Petticoat - Pierre Balmain

New Look Suit - Hardy Amies

London Tailoring

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.'

Exhibition Highlights

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New Look Suit - Hardy Amies

Miss Virginia Lachasse - A Couture Doll

Balenciaga

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.'

Exhibition Highlights

Select a link below to find out more about the exhibition highlights.

Tailored Suits - Cristóbal Balenciaga


Corsetted underdress by Pierre Balmain. Silk netting and tulle, Paris about 1950. Museum no. T.349-1975

Corsetted underdress by Pierre Balmain. Silk netting and tulle, Paris about 1950. Museum no. T.349-1975

Tailored New Look suit by Hardy Amies. Wool, London 1947. Museum no. T.38-1966

Tailored New Look suit by Hardy Amies. Wool, London 1947. Museum no. T.38-1966

Tailored suit by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Wool tweed, Paris 1951. Museum no. T.128-1982

Tailored suit by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Wool tweed, Paris 1951. Museum no. T.128-1982

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