Sunday, September 30, 2007


How I'd have loved to live in a time of daysuits, afternoon dresses, cocktail dresses and evening suits. Really, I would. Minus the oppression obviously. I just mean the dresses. Freedom AND couture.

The quote that kept popping into my head going round, or rather queuing to get round (more on that later) The Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V&A was one by Diana Vreeland who, in her memoir D.V. informs us that in those days people would have had "Three fittings for a nightgown!"

Can you imagine? Swoon.

The exhibition is subtitled Paris and London 1947- 1957; 1947 being when Christian Dior presented his New Look collection which, as we all know, radically changed the way women dressed.

One of the first things you see on entering is a row of glass cases with quarter scale mannequins wearing couture outfits from the forties. This turns out to be what they did just after the (second world) war when no one had the money or the fabric to present their collections. They enlisted people like set designer Christian Berard and Jean Cocteau to make it into a travelling fashion theatre which toured Europe raising money.

My advice to anyone would be DO NOT GO TO THIS EXHIBITION AT THE WEEKEND if at all possible. Skive off and go on a Tuesday morning. We went on Saturday and although entrance times were staggered, you literally (being English and all) had to queue to get from exhibit to exhibit. There are lots of films, one great one of two models in the fifties dressing. They're helping each other into industrial looking foundation garments: corsets, pointy bras, shoulder pads tucked under the shoulder straps and attached to the hips, then fully dressed you'd never know the amount of rigging and padding underneath. Unfortunately it was hard to see the films properly because of the crowds, and to get past you always had to walk in front of people watching. I couldn't quite understand why they'd laid it out the way they did.

It was very dark (to protect the clothes, to stop people taking pictures? They REALLY didn't want anyone taking photos - of course I sneaked a couple for you). There were tall boxes dotted around which made narrow maze like corridors. These were covered with black and white prints of Paris buildings, then on one side of a box you'd have a display of tweed suits or an evening gown. Every garment was behind glass. Built into another side was a small screen showing old couture footage or a display of Roger Vivier shoes. This was in the first room and although I was interested in the content, the layout drove me - and everyone else mad.

The second room was much calmer. To the strains of Moon River, the first section is of iconic photographs of the age. You know the ones: Dovima and the elephants, and illustrations by Rene Gruau. But by far my very favourite image was this one:

Richard Avedon
Homage to Munkacsi
For Harper's Bazaar 1957

From here on there were so many outfits that I don't quite know where to begin. After the photography section there were day suits, not encased in glass so easier to see the detail - quite sober and dark. Then we moved into the cocktail section, my spiritual home. I was transfixed by this funny looking short lace babydoll dress by Balenciaga from 1958, pre-dating the '60s babydoll look by a few years. (At this point I'd been told off for taking pics twice so didn't dare.) Obviously there was much Dior, much Balenciaga, Balmain, not much Givenchy, a bit of Chanel. Now long closed houses were represented as well, but I suppose they had to curate the exhibition in the context of what people will recognise now.

Then the evening gowns. I kept seeing gowns donated by Princess Margaret and felt for her seeing what amazing (tiny) creations she wore in her heyday, the most shining It girl of the time perhaps, then how she ended up. Sad. Another grumble is that many of the dresses were black, against a black background, in a darkened room. I know it's very difficult to light black, but even I can work that one out!

They had a Balenciaga cape that Audrey Hepburn wore one of in Funny Face (1958), which they of course showed an excerpt of: Audrey doing her shoot in Paris with Fred, this bit.

The final room of the exhibition has a "couture timeline" and three (in my opinion) hideous, completely over the top "modern" couture outfits by John Galliano for Dior. I don't mean hideous really, just that they're costumes that no one could ever wear, not clothes. There's a place for that kind of showmanship and fantasy but for me it really jarred with what I'd just seen which were actually wearable clothes. I wished they'd chosen Chanel or even Anne Valerie Hash, because it seemed they'd chosen the most outlandish Galliano pieces on purpose. To reinforce the idea that couture is now only for the spectacle of it.

I've barely glossed over the content of the exhibition here; I only went yesterday so it hasn't really sunk in. The only thing I would say is that if you know your fashion, you'll enjoy it, but will be unlikely to learn anything new.

Oh, and these are the photos I nearly got kicked out for taking! Was it worth almost being banned from the V&A?

The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947- 1957
Victoria & Albert Museum
22 September 2007 – 6 January 2008

{Avedon image}


Kris said...

I went on friday night and it was eeeeeempty! Which was nice, because I'd been to V&A exhibitions on the weekend before and it made me want to shoot myself.
I know exactly which babydoll coctail dress you mean because I fell in love with it too! I'm actually trying to draw it right now because I was too scared to take a photo and it's not in the exhibition book either :(

Anonymous said...

Yes, I read about the exhibition in Vogue Italia, and wondered if I might manage to go to London before it closes... who knows?
In the meantime, your post made me dream!

eurobrat said...


Bombay Beauty said...

It sounds gorgeous, but personally I would like to go back another 30 years and live in the roaring 20s, when I would have been a moody, melancholic poet by day and party like there's no tomorrow by night. Cheers, BB

Julia said...

Oh goodness, oh sigh...

Catherine Slye said...

coctail dresses...oh swoon is right...