Tone on tone, an image of two fashion models placed against the faded backdrop of Paris reveals multiple layers of reality, space and modernity. I discovered it as I studied materials in the archives of the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette (GL) for my doctoral research. Included in a Spring/Summer 1956 GL catalogue, the spread followed the example of many fashion magazines that used the city of Paris in their symbolic construction of fashion. In her study of Paris fashion, Valerie Steele argues that the city had historically been the symbolic centre in the ‘geography of fashion,’ based on its ‘knowledgeable fashion performers and spectators’ and ability to stage fashion. Magazines visualised Paris’ fashion hegemony and situated their readers in the capital, in terms of current events and happenings, the actual retail locations of the pictured clothing, and, through imagery, as a fantasised or imagined place for their use. Readers of the GL catalogue, through the purchase of a relatively inexpensive ready-made dress, such as those pictured here, could themselves access the privileged spaces of the capital. Yet the soft rendering of Paris, in the style of aquarelle paintings sold to tourists, transformed the city into a mirage. Removed by a colour tone, the dresses – in their all-over printed, floral-patterned fabric made of synthetic “Poplin nylon” – expressed a similar falseness. Plus, the artificial quality of the models – pert yet frozen in space – was reinforced by clothing that hindered movement, and contained the body through buttons, belts, and underskirts.
The models are posed as friends, shoppers and tourists, and, sandwiched between the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Cœur, connected different ends of Paris. The shop was in fact located between these two Parisian sites, and was itself a veritable stop in tourism itineraries as fashion was ingrained in Paris’ cultural heritage. Another guide published several years earlier by the department store Printemps titled Notre beau Paris…et ses Environs listed Paris’ sites and monuments amid advertisements of the city’s shops and artisans. Like the GL catalogue, the cover, which de-contextualised these places and pictured them atop clouds, mythologized the city and the act of shopping, and made Paris readable. This visualisation of the city was especially comforting in view of the changes taking place in the city. From the 1950s Paris was characterised by the growth of mass motorised transport, large-scale urbanisation, the demolition of old working-class quarters, and a large push to the city’s periphery and new suburbs. And filtered through traditional views of Paris, fashion, with its ever-changing nature and increasing industrialisation in the 1950s, allowed women to safely experience modernity.
These ‘contained’ images depicted Paris as a boutique whose objects for sale – women, clothing and city – were neatly encapsulated in a picture. Other catalogue images of models posed next to shop mannequins bridged the gap between outdoor city and indoor shopping space. The stylised gestures of the living models aligned them to their plastic counterparts and both became commoditised and imbued with Paris’ magic, as Agnès Rocamora has described the trope of La Parisienne in fashion magazines. The lines between shopping, looking and being seen were thus blurred in the catalogue’s amalgamation of street and vitrine.
Thanks to Florence Brachet Champsaur for allowing me to visit the archive and show the images here.
Rocamora, A. (2009) Fashioning the City: Paris, Fashion and the Media. London; I B Tauris, p. 99.
Steele, V. (1988) Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford, pp. 7, 137, 135.