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The Golden Age of Couture: In the US Exclusively at the Frist Center

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While a quick-change silhouette may not seem like a big deal now, in 1947, when Christian Dior introduced the New Look in Paris, he changed the world.

"The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957" was an attendance-record-breaking exhibit staged at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2007. Curated by Claire Wilcox, the show features luxury custom-made garments from the post-war era from designers including Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Cristobal Balenciaga—these are the clothes that built the global luxury brands we know today.

From June 18 through September 12, the exhibit will appear in the United States exclusively at the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville.

It's said that, at the February 12, 1947 fashion show where the new cinched-waist, full-skirted dress was introduced, when the models twirled, the skirts knocked ashtrays off the table and accessories out of the audience's laps. Women in attendance immediately shimmied their skirts lower on their hips—long was, instantly, in style and short was yesterday's story.

When Wilcox worked with Vivienne Westwood on an exhibition a few years back, she says Westwood recounted a vivid childhood memory of growing up in a small English town and being dragged outside to ogle someone walking down the street wearing the New Look.

From the show notes:

The amount of fabric required to create a New Look garment caused outrage in Britain, for rationing was still in place. The collection was shown in secret to Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family at the French Embassy in London. Although initially condemned by the British Board of Trade, the New Look gained widespread popularity, particularly after Princess Margaret, attracted by its femininity and youth, adopted it.
Concepted as a side-by-side comparison of the Parisian and London couture and bespoke industries of the decade, the exhibit features 221 installations, photographs, and garments including gowns, hats, corsetry, original sketches, media, and dolls.


Christian Dior Zemire ensemble.

One of the most remarkable pieces in the collection is a Christian Dior Zemire three-piece evening ensemble from autumn-winter 1954-1955 that Wilcox found at auction, after it had been placed in storage, by the Seine, for years. She paid less than €2,000 for the garment and it took more than eight months to restore. Originally shown in gray silk, the look had been ordered by Lady Sekers, "the wife of a British textile manufacturer, and made in an innovative synthetic fabric," which, at the time, was as expensive as silk.

The legendary photographer (and stylist) Cecil Beaton culled more than 500 pieces for the V&A museum—and, for us, one of the best parts of the exhibition is how the correlation between Beaton (and Richard Avedon's) photographs with the actual garments on display bring the clothes to life.

In the October 1956 issue of Harper's Bazaar, Avedon photographed model Suzy Parker in this (above) Christian Dior "Musique de Nuit" evening dress from the designer's autumn-winter 1956-1957 collection. The gown is made from silk faille by French company Lajoinie and lined with black silk and stiff net.

[Avedon] was regularly sent to Paris to document new collections and had the use of a photography studio on the rue Jean-Goujon, which was directly behind the House of Dior. Avedon would later recall that during photoshoots he was able, from the balcony, to wave to the Dior seamstresses. The previous tenants of the studo—photography luminaries such as Baron de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe—had left the skylight covered with tar paper and plaster. One day, Avedon decided to rip away these layers of masking material, allowing daylight to pour into the studio space for the first time in years....

Parker stands under the flood of daylight above her and, for one moment, the luxury of the woven silk fuses with the cheap felt background cloth, the folds of which echo those created within the stole as she gently pulls it around her body. The similarity in shade between gown and backdrop allows Parker to dissolve into the wall of cloth behind her, with only her face, neckline, white gloves and a glimpse of shoe floating to the surface in sharp relief.

Sometimes, and we all know this, when we're blogging about fashion, it's about news, business, money, labels, commercial stuff, celebrities, and things that no one remembers 48 hours later. We're so excited about the Frist Center exhibit that we travelled all the way to Nashville from New York to see it—seeing these clothes, these photographs, and reading these stories changes everything and reminds us why we fell in love with fashion in the first place.

Okay, gooey-eyed mushball post ends here.
· The Golden Age of Couture [Frist Center]
· The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 [Amazon]
· The real reason we're in Nashville: Photography and Couture by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Christian Dior, and Balenciaga [Racked]

Frist Center for the Visual Arts

919 Broadway, Nashville, TN