In just over 15 minutes, the fashion show is able to give life to a stylist’s vision of the future, leaving an indelible mark in culture. Far from being static, the concept of fashion show it evolves just like fashion does. From the beginnings (with presentations on mannequins for customer use) to the introduction of the so-called fashion parade with models in flesh and blood: the parade, as we know it today, was born in the golden ballrooms of Paris in the 10s and, forged by the creative freedom of its first pioneers, such as Charles Worth, Paul Poiret and Yves Saint-Laurent, it is possible to trace its evolution up to the most prestigious contemporary names. After all, without the precursors of that time, there would be no Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo and not even John Galliano.
Below, we review the great forerunners of fashion who laid the foundations of modern runway show and the whole fashion system as we know it today.
The parade on the bridge of the Franconia, 1925.
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Mannequins, models and movement
In the late 19th century, Anglo-French couturier Charles Frederick Worth became known for making Haute Couture more portable. Leaving the wide crinoline in favor of a straight silhouette, also known as Princess, and worn by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, Worth had simplified the life of women, allowing them to pass through the doors, sit and move more freely.
As a rule, couturiers used to visit their customers at home to take measurements and try on clothes but Worth hosted them at his atelier, thus giving way to the tradition of the living room – the salon – together with its social context which became part of the success of its brand. The mastery of the couturier manifested itself in a more tangible way in the bodice made up of 17 elements in order to guarantee the fit perfect. Commonly referred to as the father of Haute Couture, Worth was also the first designer to say goodbye to mannequins, choosing instead flesh and blood wearers, including his wife Marie Augustine Vernet, to present his collections.
The model Ms Faber posing in a Charles Worth dress, circa 1900 to 1910.
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In 1900, one of the founding father of Haute Couture, Paul Poiret, changed the course of fashion history with his revolutionary corsetless silhouettes and his first experiments with fashion show. Like contemporary designers such as Alessandro Michele and Marc Jacobs, who used horse rides, treadmills and experimental choreographies as sets for their fashion shows, Poiret also loved the idea of showing his creations on the move.
The most avant-garde concept of Poiret? Organize dances for Parisian high society, including the sumptuous one La mille et deuxième nuit, in which Madame Poiret wore a golden cage. The circle of glitterati frequented by Poiret has also given birth to another milestone of fashion. In 1911, photographer Edward Steichen immortalized the Poiret garments for the April issue of Art & Décoration in what is considered to be one of the first fashion reports.
Paul Poiret dresses a model during a tour in the USA, around 1930
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The haute couture salon
The story is reminiscent of the revolutionary Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel as the one who freed women from restrictive corsets starting in the 1920s, replacing them with sporty-inspired silhouettes in light jersey, a material associated, at that time, with men’s underwear. The Chanel wardrobe was centered around one style nonchalant and functional and garments such as the typical Breton striped top and yacht trousers were the forerunners of unprecedented versatility in women’s fashion, which made the salon show of 31 Rue Cambon in Paris a real revelation. Unbeknownst to the audience in the dining room, Chanel used to secretly watch the reactions of guests reflected in the curved mirror of the famous staircase leading to her apartment.
Coco Chanel admires a model with a brown chiffon flounced evening dress from her collection, 1957
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Elsa Schiaparelli’s love for surrealism, who counted among her closest friends artists such as Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, saw her widen the boundaries of what a dress can say.
A central figure on the Parisian fashion scene between the first and second world wars, Schiaparelli combined the irreverence and intellectualism of the surrealist movement with fashion, giving his clothes an extremely original ironic streak. He was also ahead of his time when it came to collaborations. Between 1937 and 1940, the Roman-born stylist joined Salvador Dalí to create a telephone wheel-shaped powder case and a ‘hat-shoe’ that would delight his cultured FROW, which included, among others, the French poet Jean Cocteau.
Schiaparelli also secured one of the very first versions dell’endorsement Hollywood dressing stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, who wore her clothes in the 1937 musical comedy, entitled Every Day’s a Holiday. However, his universe was not made up of only adoration and fans. The close ties to the world of art guaranteed her a cultural influence that went beyond fashion, which earned her the well-known comment from rival Coco Chanel, who referred to Schiaparelli as “that Italian artist who makes clothes”.
Elsa Schiaparelli arranges a hat for the model, 1951.
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Known as the master of bias cutting (a technique that consisted in cutting a fabric diagonally with respect to the direction of the weft thread), the French couturier Madeleine Vionnet approached the 1920s with a new vision of movement (inspired by especially, to the barefoot dance ritual of the dancer Isadora Duncan) and the sculptures of Ancient Greece.
Instead of corsets and pads, Vionnet brought sinuous lines that caressed the body onto the scene, captivating a whole series of prominent customers such as Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. The admiration of the Hollywood elite determined its success overseas. His first fashion presentation was held in the American Charles & Ray Ladies’ Tailors department store in New York City, influencing show which he would later organize at his salon Parisian at 50 Avenue Montaigne.
Joan Crawford wears a bold Vionnet chief on Tips Clear, 1938
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Make way for photographers
By today’s standards, the most iconic post-war stylist would be defined as ‘a late bud’. In fact, Dior launched the eponymous brand in 1947, at the age of 42. But his timing was spot on. Just two years after the end of the Second World War, his trademark, the ‘New Look’, consisting of voluminous wheel skirts and the Bar jacket with structured lines, marked the end of the austere wartime wardrobe.
Corolle, the designer’s debut collection, took its name from the skirts with corolla silhouettes, which emphasized – precisely – the rebirth of luxury. Monsieur Dior’s further inventiveness lay in his showmanship: in fact, at his 1947 fashion show, he invited a group of photographers, who in the past were prohibited from participating in private presentations in the living room. Thanks to his talent for attracting fans outside the closest circles of his Parisian clientele, Dior brought his collections on tour, presenting them to an international audience from Cape Town to Caracas, personalizing the runway notes and expanding his market in an ambitious way, with the opening of a boutique in New York in the 1940s.
Two Dior evening dresses presented during a Parisian fashion show, 1948
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Like Dior, Pierre Balmain launched the eponymous brand in post-war Paris in 1945, offering tailored suits, a triumph of prints animal and sumptuous evening gowns that he presented to the customers of Parisian high society in his salon show private. In 1949, Balmain’s shows reached ever more distant horizons, going even in New York in 1952. Her friendships with American writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are documented in a tribute to the couturier written by Stein on Tips Clear, on December 1, 1954 entitled ‘New grand succès of the Paris couture remembered from darker days …’, In which he mentioned their friendship and the talent of the stylist in procuring darning cotton to mend socks and socks as the most joyful moments during the years of deprivation of the war. He also dressed Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn and Her Majesty, Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
Pierre Balmain during the preparations for the spring collection parade, with his leg in plaster following a ski injury, 1955
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A self-taught stylist known for self-advertising in a voracious manner, Jacques Fath presented his first collections in a two-room salon on Rue de la Boétie in Paris, before moving, in 1944, to a location more imposing. From asymmetries to volumes, through the use of rough fabrics (including canvas and sequins made with walnut and almond shells), Jacques Fath was a master in the art of experimentation.
He was also much loved by Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth but also Eva Perón, who wore one of her clothes for a portrait painted during the last months of her life as Argentina’s First Lady. When the designer died of leukemia in 1954, his wife Geneviève Boucher, who had also been his model and muse, assumed the reins of the maison by presenting his collection in 1955 before finally closing the doors two years later.
Jacques Fath and his models at the presentation of his new collection, 1949
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Count Hubert de Givenchy founded the namesake house in 1952, after learning the trade by working for Jacques Fath and Elsa Schiaparelli. Givenchy’s original creations espoused a completely different approach from that of her mentors, rebelling against the emphasis placed on the woman’s waistline, preferring instead abstract and balloon silhouettes.
Givenchy had well understood the importance of celebrity as a means of pushing his brand beyond the doors of his Parisian salon, launching a prêt-à-porter line, Givenchy Université, in 1954 and a men’s collection in 1969. In addition to Paris, her loyal clientele included names such as Lauren Bacall, Maria Callas, Grace Kelly and Diane Vreeland but she was the lifelong friend, Audrey Hepburn, who helped make Givenchy the revered maison we still know today. It is known that the legendary black dress worn by the actress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s it was the brainchild of the great designer.
A model in Hubert de Givenchy, 1952.
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Considered by many to be the father of the modern women’s wardrobe, Yves Saint-Laurent launched the eponymous brand in 1961 together with partner Pierre Bergé, after spending several seasons in the role of creative director of Dior (a position he had assumed in 1957 at just 21 years of age ). Saint-Laurent’s avant-garde ideas – an androgynous mix made of trench coats, trouser suits and tuxedos that he borrowed from men’s clothing with full hands – chose his salon at 30 Rue Spontini one of the key places on the Parisian fashion scene. It is here that on January 29, 1962, he presented his first collection to a high-ranking audience that included the Countess of Paris, Princess Anna, Baroness de Rothschild, Zizi Jeanmaire and Françoise Sagan.
Yves Saint-Laurent with a model, 1965.
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Fashion as a theater
The Battle of Versailles
Fruit of the genius of the fashion publicist par excellence, Eleanor Lambert (who founded New York Fashion Week in 1943) and the curator of Versailles, Gérald Van der Kemp, the Battle of Versailles in 1973 became part of the annals of fashion history becoming Fashion Week Paris official dedicated to ready-to-wear. Advertised as a competition between five French designers (Yves Saint-Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior’s creative director, Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy) and five American designers visiting France (Bill Blass, Oscar del la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston and Stephen Burrows), Lambert’s project produced somewhat glamorous results, with creatives intent on outdoing each other – Yves Saint-Laurent’s show staged a Bugatti limousine while Dior opted for a full-size pumpkin-shaped carriage . The day of the parade, the line-up American turned out to be an advantage thanks to a series of live performances with Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker.
Performance at a gala organized by Baroness de Rothschild in favor of the restoration works of Versailles, 1973
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