When Christian Dior introduced his debut haute couture collection in February 1947, the meters of fabric spilling over the models’ hips in swirls of fine wool, silk and tulle were nothing short of a fashion revolution.
His emblematic creations ushered in “the most luxurious and radiant” decade in women’s fashion, according to Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera fashion museum, which presents “The 50s – Fashion in France, 1947-1957” beginning on Saturday in Paris.
Drawing on the museum’s extensive archive of garments and accessories, the exposition stars not only Dior but also such greats as Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Hubert de Givenchy. Along with them are less familiar though no less important names like Jacques Fath and Jacques Heim.
“This was haute couture’s golden age, when Paris regained its title of world fashion capital,” said Saillard, who on Wednesday night – during haute couture fashion week in Paris – gathered the couturiers of today for a gala dinner and advance peek at the show.
Dresses for cocktail hours, balls, lazy summer afternoons – even gloves, hats, brassieres and swimsuits – all make an elegant appearance under the ornate ceiling of the Palais Galliera, a 19th century mansion originally built to house the art collection of a duchess but which since 1977 has been the city’s fashion museum.
Reams of fabric and expert structure are visible in Dior’s white and black day suit that opens the show, in which interior boning and padding create the corseted and shapely silhouette.
An exquisite Carven day suit in beige wool features a bodice of horsehair braiding that emphasizes the cinched look.
Delightful are the full embroidered wool felt skirts in electric fuchsia, blue and purple by the Boutique of Jeanne Lanvin-Castillo – a chic precursor to the poodle skirt of 1950s Americana.
The enigmatic Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga, who set up shop in Paris in 1937, features prominently, his sober designs from the early part of the decade morphing into a fuchsia taffeta “Baby Doll” dress from 1958, a radical look that foreshadows the simpler looks of the following ten years.
One of the most breath-taking looks is by a designer more renowned for her elegant draping designs in the 1930s and ’40s.
Madame Gres found herself overshadowed in the era of Dior’s “New Look” with its focus on volume, but a silk velvet evening gown in hues of beige and wild rose draping down the hip through a series of delicate pleats is equal to any of its fuller-skirted rivals.
One of those is a Pierre Balmain stunner worthy of the most sumptuous of balls, its bustier and full skirt embroidered with gold metal thread and red silk roses in an ultra-feminine nod to the 18th century.
The Palais Galliera has also liberated from its closet one of its most precious items – a 1952 silk gown worn and donated by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
The pale blue grey silk of the “Palmyre” cocktail dress is decorated with sequins, crystals and embroidered with twisting vines and flowers.
Saillard said he hopes young creators will see the show and take inspiration from the 1950s, as designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Dior’s former creative director John Galliano did after the era was all but forgotten in the ’60s and ’70.
“You usually need 20 years to appreciate an earlier era,” Saillard said. “It’s never the women who wore ’50s fashion who wants to wear it again – it’s their grand-daughters.”