Revising history: Haute couture

From the Guardian: Dress yarn sheds light on haute couture:

Few dresses have as intriguing a tale to tell as the 53-year-old Dior Zemire ensemble which stars in the Victoria and Albert’s imminent exhibition of 1940s and 1950s haute couture. Not only does this dress illustrate the story of how dressmaking was replaced by ready-to-wear fashion, but its history features flooded cellars next to the Seine, a spell in an amateur dramatic dressing-up box, a chance discovery at auction – and a mystery eventually solved thanks to a Guardian article.


More telling is a revisionist perspective I’ve always known to be true -simply because logic dictates it had to be- but proof was lost amid the drone of mythinformation.

The significance of Agota Sekers’s Zemire stems from the fact that it is made in bright pink cellulose acetate, while the catwalk version was in pale grey silk satin with mink trim at the cuffs. This radical departure from Dior’s vision contradicts the traditional view of haute couture as an ivory tower in which the designer’s creativity is paramount, and commercial concerns secondary. Cellulose acetate was one of the modern, technical fabrics in which Miki Sekers specialised, and Agota would order couture pieces made in eyecatching shades of these fabrics in order to use her wardrobe to advertise the Sekers business, a marketing device in which Christian Dior was happy to collude.

The Zemire is just one example by which the V&A exhibition shows that haute couture in the postwar period, far from being an archaic and closed world, “set the model for today’s fashion industry,” as Ms Wilcox puts it. She describes haute couture as “the business of selling ideas,” and the show highlights Christian Dior as not just a designer, but a visionary businessman adept at turning fantasy into products.

Curated by the esteemed Claire Wilcox, the exhibition The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 runs 22 September 2007 – 6 January 2008 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here’s to hoping one of our UK visitors will offer a trip report of the event.

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2 comments

  1. Anne Stoye says:

    I live in the UK (though not in London) and have been to the V&A “Golden Age of Couture” (sorry Kathleen!) exhibition twice so far. There were quite a lot of garments displayed and for some of them it was possible to see both front and back. As well as the garments, there were film clips such as Pathe News (wonderfully dated!) and a photographic collage shown on one of the gallery walls (plus clips from Funny Face). I came away from the first visit itching to sew more (I am a hobby sewer and normally only make for myself) and having bought the book relating to the exhibition. On my second visit, I took a sketchbook and was much more focussed about what I looked at, which I did with a dressmaker’s/patterncutter’s eye, looking for seams, darts, grain of fabric etc. This was not always easy with the subdued lighting needed for textiles and in many cases wonderful workmanship and patternmatching disguised construction details.

    Being picky, I would have liked a couple more exhibits to have had mirrors behind them and some of the skirt hems were very obvious and lumpy (had they been altered to a different length by an amateur hand I wonder?)

    If you are in London, I do recommend the exhibition – and the normal textile/fashion gallery at the V&A while you are there. BTW there is a charge for the special exhibition, though not for the normal gallery (though they hope you will make a donation). I am hoping to go again before the exhibition ends but currently have foot in plaster cast so not very mobile

    If anyone has any extra questions I will do my best to answer.

    And to think I normally envy you in the US for your wonderful museums and exhibitions – it is unusual for the roles to be reversed!

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