c.2014 New York Times News Service
c.2014 New York Times News Service
PARIS — Thus far it seems doubtful that 21st century fashion is going to be organized neatly into filing cabinet drawer-like decades, as the 20th century was. Say “the ‘70s” and your interlocutor is likely to flash on bell-bottoms or bralessness; the ‘60s may produce associations of pillbox hats and miniskirts. And the ‘50s?
It was an era when haute couture, that rarefied sphere of fashion that comes closest to art, enjoyed a vitality and relevance that can only be dreamed of today. And thus it is fitting, no pun intended, that the series of couture presentations that began over the weekend will conclude with an exhibition, “Les Années 50, La Mode en France 1947-1957,” on view at the Palais Galliera from Saturday to Nov. 2.
Note that the ‘50s, as an optimistic concept, began two years after World War II ended, when Christian Dior introduced what Carmel Snow, then the influential editor of Harper’s Bazaar, famously declared was the New Look. It was actually an old look, steeped in nostalgia for the period before rations, before even flappers. There was a general excess of petticoats under longer, fuller skirts; cinched waists and structured Basque-style bodices such as that on the “Bernique,” a worsted-wool daytime ensemble by Dior that the Galliera’s curator, Olivier Saillard, said was most emblematic of the era from the 100-odd pieces that will be displayed.
At the museum, which reopened last year after a lengthy renovation, Saillard previously arranged a tribute to the modern designer Azzedine Alaïa, aka the King of Cling. “I wanted to switch contemporary projects with exhibits that offer a rereading of the history of fashion,” Saillard wrote in an email amid frenzied preparations for the new show. “And among the decades that best embody elegance and chic, the ‘50s are particularly representative.”
Visitors will be hard-pressed, in other words, to find the spandex invented in 1959 and so favored by Alaïa; in its place will be yards of chiffon and taffeta with embroidery, lace, beading and other handmade embellishments. Besides Dior, the exhibition will include pieces, many painstakingly restored, from designers whose names have lived on as powerful branding monoliths, like Givenchy and Chanel — whose founder, Coco, came out of retirement in 1954 partly in retort to the constrictions of Dior’s hyper-feminized silhouette.
And there are others more obscure, like Jean Dessès, who got a rare airing when Renée Zellweger wore a lemon-yellow gown of his to the 2001 Oscars, and Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, who took over at the house of Lanvin after the death of its namesake.
Speaking of Lanvin, Saillard cited Alber Elbaz, the brand’s current designer, as a creator who has “occasionally visited the ‘50s vocabulary,” along with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton and John Galliano for Dior. But later decades have been more-common focal points on recent runways; surely at least in part because the fripperies of the ‘50s seem cumbersome to a generation of women seizing economic and political equality.
It is hard to imagine the Parisian mayor, Anne Hidalgo, for example, embodying Dior’s passive “woman-flower,” or using time that could be spent on policy matters changing from an elaborate morning ensemble to an afternoon one to an evening ballgown with rustling Cinderella skirts.
One can, however, easily envision her in a 1952 black Balenciaga suit with lines Saillard called “purified and simplified.” And the exhibition does not neglect the period’s easy cotton summer dresses, Capri pants and ballerina flats, whose descendants live on in over-chilled shopping malls the world over.