The V&A celebrates Dior and the other innovative designers who brightened up austerity Britain, writes SYLVIA VETTA.
To appreciate The Golden Age of Couture of the post-war period contrast it with the preceding decade. The Great Depression of the 1930s was followed by war. Women working in the factories wore overalls, as did those on the land, while of course women in the armed forces and the Women’s Voluntary Service wore the appropriate uniform. All very practical but masculine.
With the country bankrupt at the end of the war, rationing, including of fabric, continued. Women tried their best to add a little colour to their lives. Some made felt flowers as a corsage to enliven a jacket and others re-styled old dresses. Then a genius appeared called Christian Dior. He launched his couture house on February 12, 1947, and was an overnight sensation.
The editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow, christened his style The New Look and it was a new look: the antithesis of wartime fashion. There were sloping shoulders, a voluptuous bust and a waspish waist above full skirts. The couturier, John Cavanagh, described it as “a total glorification of the female form”.
Dior himself said: “I wanted to employ quite a different technique in fashioning my clothes. I wanted them to be constructed like buildings.”
The exhibition at the V&A reveals how this was done. Foundation garments are displayed separately from the dresses. The museum shows contemporary film, including one by Pathe, of a model being dressed with shoulder pads, hip pads and the corsets that created the pinched waist. Dior’s gorgeous dresses had plenty of underpinning!
He opened his London couture house in 1954. Dior was a shrewd publicist. That year, he mounted a show at Blenheim Palace in aid of the Red Cross in front of a huge audience headed by Princess Margaret. He brought with him 13 mannequins and launched the Zemine Ligne H’. It was described as both H for Heavenly and H for Horrid. Not everyone liked luxurious fabrics. They preferred the equality in poverty of the war years. For most women, however, the new fashions added a touch of romance and femininity to their lives.
The glittering ball gowns are the stars of this show as they were the finale when Dior let his “mannequins sail forth like a brilliant armada”. His parade began with tailored day wear, followed by cocktail and evening dresses. The designs were divided into Fords’ and Trafalgars’. The latter were the show-stoppers drawing attention to a new line and the former would appear in dozens of versions. Ready-to-wear examples were licensed to Susan Small and the copies were sold at 22 guineas in Harrods.
“The little black suit cannot be beaten for elegance and usefulness,” said Dior. The post-war revolution in fashion was not the useful black suit but the startling red dress with the voluminous petticoat and wide belt. It was the colour of optimism.
On the big screen, the star that symbolised the era was Audrey Hepburn. Ethereal extracts from the film Funny Face are shown in Room 2 of the exhibition as is some stunning fashion photography. When Dior died in 1957, Margot Fonteyn described him as “a shy genius who crammed what seemed like a lifetime of creativity into ten short years of his reign over the kingdom of fashion”.
The V&A is the place to visit if you are interested in that kingdom. Of course, there are not just Dior designs on view, there are Balenciaga, Dessès, Balmain and Hartnell, too. The show was curated by the talented Claire Wilcox, who oversaw the Vivienne Westwood Retrospective.
I enjoyed both shows through the eyes of a social historian. Picture the Queen in uniform during the Blitz and in a Hartnell gown in the fifties. The difference would be just as evident in photographs taken in 1941 and 1955 of almost any woman.
Societies reveal a lot about themselves through fashion. In India, Hindus celebrate beauty with sumptuous silk saris, golden jewellery and colourful make-up, while in Saudi Arabia the female form is hidden from view. In China, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, everyone dressed in the same uniform and now the latest western fads are on parade in the streets of Shanghai.
The Golden Age of Couture catches the joy and liberation women felt in the UK after a period of austerity.
The V&A has plenty of other delights to offer friends and family. Go to www.vam.ac.uk to find information on the permanent exhibits and an attractive new café has opened in the Morris Rooms.
The Golden Age of Couture (Paris and London 1947-1957) is at the V&A until January 6.