A precarious balance: Reflections on ‘The 50s: Fashion in France, 1947- 1957’ at the Palais Galliera, Paris

Dior Woolmark
Christian Dior, 1947. (Courtesy of the London College of Fashion archives and The Woolmark Company).

1950s couture is characterised by its dramatic silhouettes which ranged from the rounded hourglass, to the stark, boxy H shape.  While the exhibition provided a comprehensive showcase of garments of extraordinary proportions alongside vignettes of fifties style icons, the women who wore the clothes remained a mystery. As I studied the well-displayed outfits, I tried to imagine how the wearer would move and feel in them.

The first exhibit, Christian Dior’s 1947 bar suit with its silk tussore jacket and wide pleated wool crepe skirt, stiffened with taffeta, was striking for its embalmed, papier mache texture. The wide brimmed straw hat and spindly Perugina escarpins that accompanied the suit indicated that a degree of lightness was intended to animate this heavy, structured garment.  Dior claimed that with his 1947 collection, he had ‘brought back the neglected art of pleasing’, in other words, a prettiness that made women attractive to men, as opposed to the eccentricity and utilitarianism that had characterised war-time fashion. However, a woman’s ability to please in this challenging ensemble would depend on her ability to pose and walk in a manner that was as balanced and delicate as a trained mannequin.  The contemporary American model agent, Helen Fraser explained how from the late 1940s onwards, models were increasingly required to ‘double as dancers…’.She explained that ‘high fashion… employs as its basic pose a semi-ballet stance. The weight is on the hind foot, hips turned away, and the shoulders to the camera, the face half-profile, half straight…’

Film footage of mannequins in the exhibition showed how they would begin their procession from a variation of ballet’s fourth position, and advance in tiny mincing steps, their pivots almost as exact and mechanical as a ballerina’s. The filmed couture displays begin with coats and outerwear, and end with the decade’s jewel: eveningwear. There are at least two rooms devoted to small-waisted, full-skirted dresses in the exhibition, which one young visitor called ‘princess dresses’.  She had a point:  with their naive star and flower embellishment and spouts of tulle, some of these dresses do appear to have been designed for grown-up children, who have only recently graduated from reading fairytales to attending balls in outfits that materialise these fictions.

However, in other garments, a more adult combination of daring and anxiety prevails with regard to revealing the body. In their desire to appease contemporary ideals of feminine sex appeal and modesty simultaneously, these cocktail dresses strive for a precarious balance between titillation and demureness; in an almost formulaic manner, an inch of flesh revealed in one area, is compensated for in another.  For example, sweetheart necklines either dive deep and narrow, or remain high and wide; a plunging décolletage is counterbalanced by a high back and vice versa.  Still, by the late 1950s, the ingenuity displayed in the dresses’ methods of exposure, implies that wearers increasingly revealed their sexuality on their own terms. One 1957 fuchsia moiré dress by Hubert de Givenchy, which was cut to show the knees and lower limbs from the front and permitted longer strides, indicated that the age of docile pleasing had passed its high noon.