A 1951 article in French Elle by journalist (and first Minister of Women’s Affairs in 1974) Françoise Giroud on the state of French haute couture exposed wider narratives of the country’s postwar reconstruction, cultural heritage and notions of femininity. The subject of the article was the apparent collapse of the industry, illustrated by the closure of fourteen houses since 1947. After discussing the cause of this decline, due in part to price increases and competition from foreign industries, Giroud asked whether the country should even attempt to save haute couture production, which she claimed had become increasingly irrelevant “psychologically” in relation to women’s lives. She reasoned that postwar consumers spent less on clothing and more on home appliances, automobiles and travel. Such “distractions and comforts,” Giroud wrote, began to “outweigh pure vanity.” This shift also indicated a “general evolution of women,” defined by the “disappearance of the doll-woman [who is] uniquely preoccupied by her hats and dresses.” Giroud’s description of women’s growing diversity and agency, unsurprising in the years following their 1944 suffrage, echoed wider fashion industry discourses, as I’ve learned through my doctoral studies at the Courtauld on readymade clothing and women’s lives in France from the 1940s to the 1960s. Yet the evolution that Giroud noted was not simple and linear; rather, femininity during the country’s postwar reconstruction was characterised by contradiction, drawing on older ideals alongside aims of autonomy.
A different type of “evolution” was explored in an exhibition held at Paris’ Palais Galliera in late 2014, and in 2015 at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao exhibition, The 50s: Fashion in France 1947-1957. According to the museums’ websites, the exhibition sought to “retrace the evolution of the female form” throughout this period. It presented and grouped garments in sections on silhouettes and clothing categories (i.e. cocktail and evening dresses), displayed monotonously in rows of identical mannequins, and sub-grouped by couturier, such as Jacques Heim and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Predictably, the star of the show was Christian Dior, evidenced firstly in the exhibition dates, 1947-1957, which demarcated the launch of his house and his death. Despite the exhibition’s focus on silhouette and dress, its content, mode of display and text centred around producers and their fashioned bodies, eliminating all reference to wearers’ subjectivity and various narratives, and denying them agency.
The curators’ chosen narrative, namely the fall and rise of postwar Paris couture, held similarities to that of Giroud in 1951. Conversely, the terms of their conversation were reductive and positivist, and sought to demonstrate the dominance of French fashion in the 1950s, as well as forge a link to notions of French cultural authority today. The website outlined these terms, claiming, “In the 1950s, Paris was reborn as the international capital of fashion,” as well as attributed the cause of couture’s success to couturiers, who “contributed to the enduring legacy of French fashion, synonym of luxury, elegance and creativity, and to the success of ready-to-wear fashion.” Likewise, the simplistic exhibition abstained from contextualising the garments or health of the industry in political, economic or social frameworks. Further, despite the website’s mention of ready-to-wear, the exhibition did not present this production other than in a marginal section on anonymous beachwear.
As my research has shown, readymade (confection, robe de série, or prêt-à-porter) brands were an important feature of the 1950s French fashion industry, as well as a perceived threat to haute couture. Giroud alluded to this as she noted both couture’s irrelevance and its uniqueness, with its irreplaceable and time-honoured handwork and its originality, in “the century of the machine and industrial production.” She characterised couture as an art and a tradition worth saving especially as it underscored the health and dominance of the nation, being “one of the most vibrant, glorious expressions of our national genius, at the same level of painting or music.” However, in addition to her fear of change and loss, her text illustrated a willingness to move forward, an incongruity that can be applied to shifting national and feminine identities in the 1950s. She thus proposed that couture “transform [and] adapt to new times,” by refashioning itself after ready-made production, which “corresponds more and more to the lifestyle of women of our time.” Although her above phrase hides a wealth of complexity regarding the various experiences of women, it is a point of departure for understanding them via their experience of dress. The Palais Galliera, under the relatively new direction of Olivier Saillard, failed to draw out wider themes in its exploration of fashion and “female form”, which ended at the dressed mannequins on display, symbols of limitation, preventing potential narratives of wearers and avenues of research. Although the catalogue offered an assortment of analytical articles, the exhibition propagated accepted narratives and, dangerously, confused scholarship with connoisseurship.
Françoise Giroud, “Où en est la Haute-Couture française,” Elle, 23 November 1951, 22-23, 39.