Exhibition: The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957 - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


2015-03-10 • 2015-08-31

The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957

Rooms 1 - 12

The 1950s were a decisive period for French haute couture. The industry had suffered badly in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and even more so, in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the 1950s, Paris was reborn as the international capital of fashion, led by such prominent names as Jacques Heim, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga – to which the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum dedicated the exhibition Balenciaga. Designing the limits (2010) – and Jacques Fath, followed by newcomers Balmain, Christian Dior, Jacques Griffe, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin. They all contributed to the enduring legacy of French fashion, synonym of luxury, elegance and creativity, and to the success of ready-to-wear fashion.

This exhibition retraces the evolution of the female form over the ten-year period from 1947–1957, from the birth of the New Look to the death of Christian Dior and the advent of Yves Saint Laurent. The exhibition was on view from July to November at the Palais Galliera Museum of Fashion in Paris. Olivier Saillard, the museum's director, selected one hundred remarkable models and accessories from the Palais Galliera collection. Miren Arzalluz, expert in fashion and costume history, will be associate curator for the Bilbao exhibition.


1. Introduction. Christian Dior

On February 12, 1947, recently installed in his Avenue Montaigne salon, Christian Dior launched his first collection, changing the fashion landscape with a new silhouette. Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, dubbed it the New Look. The models making their way through the showrooms of the maison wore outfits whose length and shape that were nothing short of revolutionary.

Long, full skirts with more petticoats than ever came as quite a shock after the years of restriction imposed by World War II. Excessively cinched waists marked a revival of corsetry. Exaggerated basques gave the restructured silhouette great allure. Narrow shoulders and full breasts represented a new femininity which would serve as a blueprint for an entire decade. Dior's collection caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fifties fashion was dominated by male designers, who worshipped femininity but constricted the female form. Jacques Fath was one of its craftsmen. Cristóbal Balenciaga, master amongst masters, shaped the second half of the twentieth century with his scissors and architectural designs. Others, including Jacques Heim, Jacques Griffe, Jean Dessès and Antonio del Castillo, were soon joined by Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy, all of whom worked toward an ideal of elegance that some still consider unrivalled. Rebelling against this stylistically archaic dominance, Mademoiselle Chanel orchestrated her comeback. In 1954, at the age of 71, her collection, initially disdained but later applauded, consecrated her famous suit as an indisputably contemporary alternative. An androgynous silhouette took shape, foreshadowing the upheaval to come in the following decade.

Monsieur Dior's untimely death in 1957 marked the end of the extravagant 50s repertoire. A Paris Match headline read: "A face in the shadows. Yves, the 21-year-old heir." Yves Mathieu-Saint Laurent, whom Dior considered his spiritual heir, was promoted to creative director of the couture house. The figures told an interesting story: out of 106 couture houses, only 60 remained in 1952 and 36 in 1958. The advent of prêt-à-porter was just around the corner, leading to the development of ready-to-wear and the democratisation of fashion – a threat to which haute couture would struggle to find an appropriate response. All of this probably explains why the decade of the 50s with its radical chic was a landmark in the history of fashion.


2. Daytime wardrobe

Day suits, travel suits, classic suits, two-piece day suits, travel coats, everyday coats, lunch dresses, day dresses, formal day dresses, simple daytime ensembles, late afternoon dresses, end of the day dresses, outfits for entertaining, travel outfits, weekend outfits, cabaret outfits, indoor dresses, city dresses, evening dresses… In the 50s, a woman's wardrobe was something of dictionary with no contemporary translatable equivalence. The "8", "H", "A" and "Y" lines, in fact, dictated the movements and lengths favoured by the couturier for a particular jacket or dress. In the ateliers and showrooms, suits and other models were given such names as "Bonbon", "Bernique", "Esperanto"…

This "seamstress" poetry, as disparagingly called by Chanel – who preferred the use of numbers – was publicised through fashion magazines and the media. In the early 1950s, many clients were not privileged enough to frequent the showrooms of the nearly 60 haute couture houses in operation at the time. Thus, a more democratic licensing system was set up, offering more accessible collections (Jacques Fath Université, Heim Jeunes Filles, Lanvin Boutique). For other women, there were dressmakers and the patterns available in fashion magazines. Until the 1960s, most women were seamstresses with the skills to reproduce the models they liked. Accessories such as gloves, hats and handbags were vital to complete an outfit.

"Balenciaga's fashion, combining French sophistication and Spanish passion, is pure and balanced. Neither improvisation nor concession. His suits, with their revolutionary seams, are impossible to replicate and his sumptuous evening gowns are seemingly miraculously simple." This was the description of the mysterious Balenciaga in a 1951 Paris Match article. "The invisible man of fashion" was described as an "enigma, which paradoxically helped his publicity more than the most scandalous of rumours." The Spanish couturier moved to Paris in 1937. His majestic collections were admired in the intimacy of his showroom on Avenue George V.

Jacques Fath
Jacques Fath's couture house opened in 1937 but only really took off in the 40s. It offered a light, cheerful fashion full of imagination, which the fashion designer saw as an extension of himself. He understood the relevance of media exposure for his brand: in the press, he did not shy away from putting on a performance, be it at a masked ball or stepping out of the bath. In the wake of the New Look pioneered by Dior, Fath lengthened the silhouette and played with asymmetry and volumes, remodelling an idealised female figure.

Jacques Heim
After inheriting the family fur business, Jacques Heim branched out in 1925 and founded an haute couture department. In 1936, he opened Heim Jeunes Filles on the ground floor. The designer's style borrowed from French heritage with restraint and finesse, and was served by the expertise of renowned ateliers. Heim introduced previously eschewed fabrics such as cotton into the realm of haute couture. He was also sparing with embroidery and adornments, thereby appealing to a younger clientele and helping promote the budding ready-to-wear industry.

In 1987, the Heim family made an important donation to the Palais Galliera Museum of Fashion, consisting of archives, numerous pieces of clothing, drawings and photographs. All of these materials bear witness to the creative energy of this couture house, which closed its doors in the 60s.

Christian Dior
Exhibitions can be an excellent way to discover hidden gems of designer clothing. Such was the case with this suit, which arrived at Palais Galliera without a label, but which thanks to research conducted in collaboration with the Christian Dior couture house, was properly identified. Consisting of a dress and jacket, the original drawings for this suit were found in the 1950 autumn-winter collection archives of the couture house on Avenue Montaigne. “Bernique” owes its name to its shell or conical Asian hat shape, which boldly extends from the jacket into a flared basque. Fitted and clean-cut, it is the perfect embodiment of the spirit of both the couturier himself and the 50s. Four years after the advent of the New Look, Christian Dior alone represented 49% of the total French couture export revenue. The 1950-1951 autumn-winter collection comprised 191 models, 64 coats and 23 furs. There was no alteration to length, but there was a shift towards bias cuts. As described in the 12th August 1950 edition of Paris Match, natural curves were re-established: sloping shoulders, separated bust, narrow waist and accentuated hips.

The Carven couture house saw the light of day in a Champs Elysées apartment in 1944. Bearing in mind that couturiers of the time only dressed tall slender women, Madame Carven decided to address an equally elegant clientele, although more petite, like herself. Consequently, Carven soon became a hit with young girls. Her fashion reflects this. She introduced more modest and lighter fabrics such as cotton and linen into the haute couture industry. In 1950, Carven joined Dessès, Fath, Paquin and Piguet to create the Couturiers Associés. Working together with seven manufacturers, each of the five couturiers produced two city dresses, three coats, including one rain coat, and two suits for every season.

The distribution of these models at affordable prices in regional boutiques heralded the advent of ready-to-wear. The "Esperanto" suit bears the Carven label. Made from white Buche alpaca wool, the bust is covered in Rébé black horsehair braiding which criss-crosses over a constricted body. This was the 1951 ultrafeminine silhouette created by the New Look revolution. The structure highlights the bust and waist by flaring the jacket's basques with padding, a trick taken from the "Bar" suit from the first Dior collection.

Madame Grès
Madame Grès was renowned in the 30s and 40s for her clever draping, finely deployed on both evening and day dresses. The pleats she created and arranged in her ateliers became so renowned that some described them as true masterpieces. The 50s and 60s unjustly obscured the influence of Madame Grès's work. Less prominent in the press of the time, the fact remains that her dresses were entirely unique.

Pierre Cardin
Pierre Cardin was best known for the futuristic designs with which he invented 60s and 70s fashion. Yet the visionary couturier founded his company in 1953, after having been a part of the Dior adventure in 1947. An excellent designer and tailor, he is said to have cut and assembled the famous "Bar" suit under Christian Dior's supervision. He eventually left Dior after three years of collaboration and concentrated on creating theatre costumes and ball gowns. He also devoted himself to suits and coats, yet another art he excelled at. Cardin is one of a breed of designers able to draw, cut and sew. In 1958, he personified this new generation of fashion designers. His technical knowledge, along with his research into new materials, made him the heir of the 50s, yet he would be instrumental in the stylistic shift to come.

The use of tweed, together with the length of the skirt and sleeves, date this suit to the late 50s. The generous design of the cape collar, combined with the absence of frills, except a single rolled-fabric rose, already foreshadow the simplification of form prevalent in the 1960s.


3- Casual dresses: beach and sunwear

Beach dresses, holiday dresses, sun dresses, resort dresses, pinafores, striped jerseys, blouses, Capri pants, shawls, beach outfits, bathrobes, dungarees, canvas trousers, shorts, sarongs, swimsuits, straw hats… Early in the 50s, the younger generation no longer identified with haute couture, at least not entirely. To the amusement of Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Sagan, who shared magazine covers and front pages, a cheerful clientele proclaimed an emancipated summer wardrobe which favoured the more natural look and feel of fresh tailored cotton. Colourful striped afternoon dresses, umbrella skirts in lively prints, and exotic beach outfits appealed because of their comfort. Flat ballet pumps that allowed the wearer to walk or dance were also key in this search for spontaneity. Manufacturers took on the production and the couture houses developed their own lines. Worn both in town and by the seaside, this summer fashion was also an experimental platform and stepping stone for the budding ready-to-wear, a concept that truly came of age in the 60s.

The May 1952 edition of French Vogue features a photograph of the "Hermeselle" dress, captioned as follows: "Whereas we usually use a print as the inspiration for creating a dress, Hermès does the exact opposite. In collaboration with Léonard fabrics, he offers a unique dress, the cut of which determines the design process. The print on a light background is akin to a stroke of charcoal; on a dark background, to gouache. This trick of the eye is what makes this dress so exclusive. It is available in cotton gabardine, wild silk and poplin, and in myriad colours. It comes with a leather belt and a cotton band of the same colour. This dress, the fastening of which is as much an illusion as the rest, can be purchased at Hermès and its branches in Cannes, Biarritz and Deauville…"

Jeanne Lanvin died in 1946, aged 79, at which time 1,500 women were working hard on the collections in her boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. In 1950, Spanish couturier Antonio Canovas de Castillo joined the Lanvin couture house and became its creative director. Exiled after the 1936 Franco uprising, Castillo moved to Paris, where he worked as a designer for Paquin and then for Piguet before World War II. Elizabeth Arden then persuaded him to join her salon in New York. He was also Mademoiselle Chanel's right arm. When asked about him, Chanel had this to say: "He is a sort of hidden genius. You have to be a ferret to get him out of his hole. And then, it's just wonderful…" Antonio Castillo designed Lanvin's collections until 1963. Throughout the 50s he endeavoured to bring back the colours and embroideries that Lanvin's founder had been so fond of. He gave a contemporary take on the models of one of the oldest couture houses. He sought to declutter, his style embodied by cuts that were sober, at times even austere. Yet his love of bold colours and patterns always hinted at his Iberian roots.


4. Shaping the silhouette: underwear and lingerie

Bodices, girdles, corsets, balconnette bras, balconnette sets, slips, bras, control pants, panties, stockings, tights… In the 50s, daytime and evening outfits were the spitting image of the couturiers' stylised drawings. Rounded shoulders on a narrow bust. Hips blooming under strangled waists. Narrow, slim legs, like strokes of a pencil. Since 1947, women became aware of the array of underwear required, a trend currently undergoing a revival. This underwear shaped and structured the silhouette according to the couturier's designs. Slimming bodices tightened the waist, girdles narrowed the hips and constricted the back, and demi-bras neatly defined the breasts, allowing for plunging cleavages. Lingerie introduced elusive and curved lines. A 1954 edition of Vogue proffered this description: "Petticoats are particularly popular. They are the must-have accessory of any wardrobe. Made out of cambric, plumetis, cotton or lace, they are enhanced with ribbons and worn in conjunction with matching tops, which may or may not be underwired. Their volume is what gives skirts that particularly full aspect." The days of standard stockings were over: embroidered, printed or encrusted to match the outfit, nylon stockings now adorned the legs of elegant women.

This new designer corsetry was reminiscent of the past. Girdles were evocative of corsets. Three colours, black, pink and white, were used for this lingerie, but the 60s would see an end to that. It would not be until the 80s, under the influence of Chantal Thomass, that the girdle would be revived.


5. Cocktail dresses

Early evening dresses, eating out dresses, dinner dresses, dancing dresses, cabaret dresses, evening dresses… Nowadays absent from catwalks, magazine pages and everyday wear, cocktail dresses sum up 50s women's fashion. They are the natural evolution of early evening dresses from previous decades. They appeared in the aftermath of the war and disappeared the following decade with the advent of ready-to-wear. Of varying lengths, they were somewhat less formal evening dresses. With more or less volume, they were evocative of afternoon dresses, though glorified by precious fabrics. They are automatically associated with a fitted bodice cut, with or without straps, but can also have three-quarter sleeves or be worn with a matching jacket. Pale pinks, bright reds, powder or deep blues combined with black dyes and prints to highlight full skirts. According to Vogue in 1950, cocktail dresses were worn "as early as 8pm for dinner, going out to a restaurant or the theatre; their shape coupling elegance with practicality… Spencers, boleros, scarves and coats can be used to cover bare shoulders until it becomes acceptable to reveal them."

A true archetype of a fashion photographed and publicised by the film industry, cocktail dresses disappeared in 1964 with André Courrèges's new wardrobe, at odds with the past. The youth of the time saw this type of dress as enslaving women, reduced to caring only about their appearance. It was not until the 80s that cocktail dresses would once more become an inspiration for designer collections.

In 1958, ten years before Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his couture house, the Spanish couturier introduced the world of Parisian fashion to the "Baby Doll". The shape was extremely simple. However, the proportions were somewhat surprising; the dress would likely be described today as oversized. Its disproportionate volume and 1920s doll-dress pleats were the main features of this new silhouette. The Baby Doll's originality and radical cut foreshadowed the innovative and simplified fashion trends of the 1960s. In his 1958 collections, Balenciaga used historical references from the Directoire and Empire styles. He followed no rules other than mastery and technique.

Pierre Balmain
Pierre Balmain's dresses were cut according to the curvy silhouettes of Praline and Stella, house mannequins and muses who served as inspiration for a brand born in 1945. They were the image of femininity conveyed to magazine readers. Balmain's success lay in his restrained approach to fashion. He appealed to clients who chose not to hide behind an excessively oppressive style. Starting in autumn-winter 1952-1953, his collections were called "Jolie Madame", after the eponymous perfume. Pretty Woman was indeed more than a slogan. Pierre Balmain's fashion dressed all kinds of women, whether models, celebrities, actresses or regular clients. It was meant to accentuate the woman, not overwhelm her, discretion being key to the couturier's ever graceful creations.

Christian Dior por Yves Saint Laurent
For his first collection Yves Saint Laurent, aged 22, introduced the "trapeze" line. The young couturier succeeded Dior, who died tragically in 1957 after ten years of creating fashion. Faithful to the Dior spirit, Yves Saint Laurent relied on the language of lines and seams that his predecessor took pleasure in revitalising. The "trapeze" line was fitted at the bust and then flared outward. Models wore "Printemps", "Porcelaine", "Séduction, "Refrain, "Café de Flore" and "Zouzou" outfits. These were the names the young designer chose in the early years of his career for his organdie dresses, tulle skirts, and wool or flannel suits. The "Aurore", of which there exists a Delft blue version in the Dior archives, belongs to the stylistic repertoire of the 50s. Yves Saint Laurent departed from this style when he left Dior in 1960.


6. Evening wardrobe

Cortege dresses, garden-party dresses, bridesmaid dresses, cocktail dresses, early evening dresses, eating out dresses, dinner dresses, dancing dresses, gala dresses, grand gala dresses, summer dresses, evening dresses, evening attire, evening sheath dresses, evening gowns, formal evening gowns, formal robes…

According to a 1950 issue of Paris Match, "Evening gowns are a luxury for couturiers. They are an outlet for their imaginations. They usually represent around one tenth of a collection." Whether it was Balmain, Dior, Fath, Schiaparelli or Balenciaga, they all surpassed themselves when it came to long gowns. Mermaid dresses, sheath dresses or, at the other extreme, very loose dresses, they all embody the mastery and the vivid imagination of each couturier.

Heavy noble fabrics such as taffeta, satin and velvet, light diaphanous layers of tulle and chiffon, feathery laces... Evening gowns in subtle or theatrical hues allowed some couturiers to become inspired painters, and others to become sculptors of ephemeral pieces. Idolised models such as Anne Saint-Marie, Bettina, Dorian Leigh, Dovima and Suzy Parker showcased the splendour of historically reminiscent pieces. Soon after, these pieces would voluptuously envelop actresses of both film and stage.

Jacques Fath
The secret of Jacques Fath's success was his ability to instil his youth and extraordinary gaiety into his dresses. From the time he founded his couture house in 1937, the couturier exaggerated the curves of the hips and bust, thus preparing for the 50s New Look. He dared to use colour. The strict pre-war elegance was replaced by a style brimming over with joie de vivre. He surrounded himself with fresh talent and new faces, like Bettina who would be his muse for several years. If not asymmetric, designed free-hand and cut by a sharp and quick pair of scissors, his dresses ventured toward other colours and materials. Such is the case with this ball gown. The white tulle is but a means of showcasing a rather whimsical bustier embroidered with maize kernels.

Pierre Balmain
The typical 50s evening gown with its bustier and long full skirt was a wardrobe staple. No matter what fabrics were used, it was reminiscent of the 18th-century hoop skirt. Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior and Jacques Fath were greatly inspired by the Age of Enlightenment. They rediscovered the splendour of satin, taffeta and velvet which fashion retailers liked to decorate with ribbons, beads and other ornaments.

Balmain, who opened his couture house in 1945 after having worked with Piguet and Lelong among others, remained faithful to this influence in both his cocktail dresses and evening gowns. "Antonia", an exact replica of which was worn by stage actress Edwige Feuillère, is the perfect illustration of history-inspired embellishment and shape. The metal thread embroidery at the heart of the dress and the chiffon roses celebrate this revival of history in 50s fashion.

Christian Dior
The press release for Dior's 1955-1956 autumn-winter collection began as follows: "It is yet another letter, Y this time, which expresses the essence of the new collection…. A high bust blossoms between the two branches of the Y which, in turn, end with natural and petite shoulders." Opposed to a desire of slenderness are "numerous faille skirts which froth, roll, take shape and balloon in true turquerie style". Colours to watch for the evening include pinks, pale blues and whites, "from Isabelle to Ivory".

Jean Dessès
Jean Dessès was a Greek couturier born in Alexandria. After studying Law, he soon shifted his focus to fashion and opened his couture house in 1937. After the war, he sculpted draped evening gowns with large pleats in solid colours and subtle contrasting shades. Other than his skilful draping, there are no other references to Antiquity in his creations.

Jacques Heim
Much of couturier Jacques Heim's work has been archived at Palais Galliera and is ripe for rediscovery. Heim supported the work of both Sonia Delaunay and Dora Maar, who designed the couture house's logo and advertisements. An art aficionado and collector, the couturier started a rare periodical in which he was able to express his love of art. Heim's couture house stood out for its impeccable work, which meant high-quality ateliers. His style was sober, with no unnecessary frills. Jacques Heim's dresses were not imposing, but rather discreetly elegant.

In the image:
Collection design sketch for "Espéranto" suit
Spring-summer 1951
India ink, graphite pencil and water-colour on paper
Palais Galliera, Paris