The war was over. The denizens of Paris and London were ready to dress up again. And an aspiring French designer named Christian Dior knew exactly what they should wear. On February 12, 1947, Dior opened his new couture house in Paris with a fashion show of chic, elegant suits and dresses with cinched waists, padded hips and full skirts made of what seemed like acres of fabric—a radical idea after six years of shortages and rationing. Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow declared Dior's daring silhouette a "New Look." And it kicked off a renaissance in fashion that Dior himself would later dub "a golden age."
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London clearly believes he was onto something. Its grand new exhibit, "The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957" (thru Jan. 20), is as rich and graceful as the women who originally purchased and wore the clothes. "Dior worked only 10 years but he and his contemporaries had an enormous impact on fashion," says the show's curator, Claire Wilcox. "They set a template for how fashion operates today." Indeed, the show is heavy on Dior, which accounts for about one third of the more than 100 dresses on display. It opens with a handful of classic Dior New Look outfits, including the now-iconic "Bar" suit: a white, fitted five-button jacket with padded hips over an ample black pleated skirt.
Wilcox uses modern media to illustrate how the clothes lived, with film footage of fashion shows and magazine photographs by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn. The wittiest installation is the recreation of an Avedon shoot of 1950s top model Suzy Parker, the look-alike mannequin dressed in the original Dior dress copying the pose in the photo hanging on the wall. Small galleries explore different areas of couture craftsmanship: lingerie, with corsets and waist-cinchers creating the New Look's hour-glass figure; embroidery, with swathes of jeweled cloth; the atelier, with sketches, patterns, swatches and mock-ups of dresses; and the "boutique" where clients could pick up a hat, fan, brooch or pair of gloves to go with the ensemble.
But nothing speaks more eloquently about the period than the clothes themselves: tailored day suits in thick British woolens; full-skirted silk "afternoon dresses" that are far more dressy than anything women wear today; evening gowns fit for princesses—and at least one queen. Among the ensembles on exhibit is a black silk cocktail dress by British royal couturier Norman Hartnell that belonged to Princess Margaret and a sumptuous embroidered ivory silk ball gown by Hartnell worn by Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to France in 1957.
There are suits and dresses by Dior's confrères including Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel, and Cristóbal Balenciaga—whose contemporary, architectural approach to couture was the antithesis of Dior's romantic corseted creations. The British concoctions are far more conservative, reflecting Britain's post-war rationing, which dragged on until 1949. What is clear is that while couture was meant for a broad swath of society, the clothes on exhibit were made to order for high society clients who lived lavishly. Among the donors: the Duchess of Windsor, Lady Diana Cooper, Baroness Alain de Rothschild and the ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
The highlight of the show is a striking red evening suit called Zémire, first made in 1954 and previously thought to have survived only in photographs. Then last year, a red version was discovered rotting in a damp basement in Paris. The museum purchased it at auction and conservationists spent eight months restoring it.
The V&A show closes with three overly complicated, Victorian-like couture gowns by Dior's current designer, the British-born John Galliano. The point, Wilcox says, is to show the melding of the London and Paris couture worlds. Instead, they make plain that beyond the label, Galliano's work has little in common with the house's founder. Not surprisingly, his gowns come from Dior's archives rather than clients' closets, like the rest of the clothes in the show. But they succeed in reinforcing the exhibit's main idea: the golden rule of the golden age was to make clothes that women wanted to wear, not simply admire as museum pieces.