Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Golden Age

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At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there is currently a wonderful exhibit called The Golden Age of Couture. If you are going to be anywhere NEAR London before January 8, don't miss it. It's fantastic.
Did you ever play that game where you pick which historical era you would like to have lived in? Well, for me, it would be post-World War II, the late 1940's through the 1950's. Oh, sure, I know it wasn't the most enlightened time socially speaking, and that our "Happy Days" perception of it in this country is rose-tinted and inaccurate. And perhaps there are more compelling periods to live in, intellectually or sociologically. But the truth of the matter is that I'm really not interested in living without either soap or mascara (not to mention a cocktail here & there), so I'm sorry, Versailles during Louis XIV is right out. But in 1947, there was soap, martinis, lipstick & eyeliner, good jazz, automobiles, and women got to look like this:

This is the Bar Suit from Christian Dior's 1947 New Look Collection. It's my ideal; my favorite silhouette of all time -- romantic and feminine and pretty darned swoony. Of course, I realize that the above is advertising photography and looking at it and saying that "women in 1947 looked like this" is roughly akin to saying "women of 2007 look like this" while perusing photos of Catherine Zeta-Jones at a red carpet event, but let's leave my fantasy alone, shall we? Had I been alive in 1947, I would ALWAYS have looked like this. End of discussion.

Hard as it is to believe, the New Look was rather shocking and revolutionary for its time. Remember, during WWII there was fabric rationing and all kinds of shortages -- this skirt, with its yards and yards and yards of fabric, was positively decadent. And many people now look on it as a step backwards for women -- during the War women had been brought into positions that were abandoned by men off fighting, working in factories and offices and making real strides forward in independence and power. After all the soldiers came home, the New Look signified women's return to a submissive role -- the soft shoulders, the wasp waist, the enormous, movement-inhibiting skirt.
Still, it's pretty hard to argue with this

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as a fabulous way to look.

The V&A exhibit focuses specifically on the world of post-War couture, so what they have on display is work from some of the most important designers of the 40's and 50's and it's truly wonderful to look at. The exhibit itself is... well, it's not the best-designed museum exhibit I've ever atttended, although it is chock-full of jaw-droppingly beautiful things. It's a crowded and not extremely well-organized -- don't take a large backpack or a child in a stroller, because there isn't a lot of space. There isn't a strictly organized traffic flow for any of it; so while I appreciate not being herded around like livestock, what I wound up feeling like was a rat in a maze, except not all the rats were going in the same direction so periodically there would be big clumps of rats that would reach a sort of impasse, or there would be one rat who wanted to spend longer in front of one dress or go back and compare it to another dress and that rat was prevented from doing so by the pack or just inconvenienced all the other rats by swimming upstream... okay, you get the picture. Enough with the rodent metaphor, and please don't think it in any way indicates that I don't think the exhibit is worthwhile, because it is not possible to feel rat-like while gazing on something like this:

This is the back of a gown by my beloved Cristobal Balenciaga, mid-50's. Breathtaking.

Balmain, 1957

Antonio Castillo for Lanvin-Castillo, 1957. The embroidery on this bodice is done by the firm of Lesage, still in existence today.

This tartan gown is by Jaques Fath from 1949. It was made for a member of British royalty, as I recall, for a state occasion. (Must remember to take notes!!)

Beaded and embroided pink satin shoes by Roger Vivier for Dior, late 50's. Swoon.

Gorgeous couture tailoring by Michael Donéllan in 1954. There is a large assortment of suiting by Donéllan, Balenciaga, Creed, Chanel, and others in the exhibit. A good suit is just as difficult (maybe more so) to make than a stunning evening gown, and the Fashionista in me was so frustrated that I couldn't climb up on the dais, take these things off the mannequins, and turn them inside-out to examine the cutting and seaming.

Balmain organza extravaganza, about 1950. Wheeeeee!!!

Silk brocade from Givenchy, mid-50's. This dress makes obvious why so many of Balenciaga's clients turned to Givenchy after Balenciaga closed his atelier.

Dior, 1957. I don't care who you are -- you put on this dress and you are instantly the most gorgeous thing in the room.

Worth, late 50's

Spectacularly beaded & embroidered velvet from Dior, 1956. This dress is cocktail length. You know, so it's more practical...

More Dior, black silk velvet and faille, 1949-50.

This is my favorite. Red silk chiffon from Jean Dessés, 1953. I'm pretty sure this dress dances all by itself. This is the dress of my dreams -- in this dress I would be perfectly perfect. I would drink nothing but champagne. I would have no split ends. My feet would never hurt. I would be as witty as a Phillip Barry play. I would dance divinely, my dear. Men in tuxedos would pursue me, planning to buy me jewels. Other women might hate me. I would not care.


The exhibit also has a really wonderful section of photography, with work by people like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, among others, including this one:

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Dovima with the Elephants, Richard Avedon, 1955 (The gown is Dior.)

The models in the photos from this period are so elegant, so beautiful, so witty, desirable, glamorous, so soignée... so everything we idealize in feminine beauty. They are positively inspirational. (And made me want even more to never, ever again see some grubby, hollow-eyed teenaged girl in need of a bath and about a dozen good meals modeling clothes.) I saw this exhibit with my wonderful friend Caroline, who is probably the best amateur photographer I know (and could give a lot of professionals a good run for their money) and she took this photo of me as an homage to them:

I've got nothing on Dovima or Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, but I do what I can.

(You can see more of Caro's beautiful photos
here. Check 'em out, you won't be sorry.)

I was not allowed to take photographs at the exhibit, but the nice people in the gift shop foolishly sold me a book of postcards, not guessing that I had a scanner and nefarious motives. But do take a gander at the truly great website that the V & A has put together for this exhibit. It has tons of information, a really interesting interactive timeline, and great photos. Look it over and plan your wardrobe for when we finally achieve time travel...

Photos: Victoria and Albert Museum, Caroline Charles

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Sian said...

And me! You saw it with me too! Can't believe they didn't have a postcard of that gorgeous Schiaparelli dress...

StyleSpy said...

Yes, my Rose, you were there and it wouldn't have been nearly so nice without you.

Anonymous said...

The pieces from that exhibit are GORGEOUS!!!! I know nothing about fashion, but those dresses make me feel elegant just looking at them. Shall we start a revolution to bring back the New Look?

K said...

Oh, my. Drool-worthy pictures. Thanks for scanning and posting them for the rest of us!! :) I'm so jealous that you got to go to this exhibit!

Karen said...

Oh, so very, very lovely. SO VERY VERY LOVELY.

When I went to the Shoe Museum in Toronto (another badly-displayed but worthwhile space), I picked up a book of Vivier shoes, which are truly peerless.

I've always loved that elephant photo. I think the fashion photography of that period is absolutely the pinnacle of the medium.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your comments best of all - I'm with you - I'd love to have been part of that world. Thanks for bringing this into my existence.

HEATHER said...

OH SO GORGEOUS! The wonder of these designs is that you could put on any single one of them and show up at an event tonight and be the most amazing creature there. Timeless-just timeless! Thanks so much for sharing!

Deja Pseu said...

njmuicsHmm, that Dior bar suit looks hauntingly familiar... ;-)

That must have been such a fabulous exhibition!