The evolution of the fashion show
Chapter One sets the fashion show within its historical contexts. It explores how the fashion show has evolved from its earliest days on the streets of Paris to the phenomenon it has become today. It offers an insight into how the fashion show was influential in the creation of the fashion system and how runway became an internationally recognized method of presenting and promoting fashion. The chapter considers how it has influenced, and been influenced by, contemporary culture, commerce, attitudes to clothing and its presentation in the fashion show.
Figure 1.1 Fashionably dressed people at the Longchamp Racecourse in Paris, France before the Grand Prix De Paris, France in 1866. (Universal History Archive via Getty Images)
Public display and private salons in the 1800s
Street style and style-spotting in the 19th century
Today we talk about street style as if it is a modern phenomenon, but displaying new designs on the street and style-spotting started a long time ago, and it could be argued that the first fashion shows happened on the street. Long before shows were invented, people liked to walk in fashionable places because this was an occasion to show off clothing and to observe what others were wearing. Everyone watched the arbiters of fashion, who were usually the wealthy, royal or famous. Tailors and dressmakers watched the latest trends and advised their clients accordingly. Social gatherings such as the theatre were popular, and likewise the races where, as Valerie Steele writes, ‘People were as interested in the contest of fashions as in the contest of horses on the turf’ (Steele, 1998). It is not, therefore, surprising that Parisian tailors saw an opportunity in early 19th-century Paris to employ young men wearing the latest tailored fashions to parade in the fashionable areas of the city and at popular events. In the early 1800s these first models were men because it would have been unseemly for female models to parade in this manner.
Figure 1.2 A French tailor measures a lady’s bodice, circa 1700. (Roger Voillet via Getty Images)
Figure 1.3 An early model in a couture house. (W. G. Phillips/Stringer via Getty Images)
The height of modernity
Wealthy people had clothing and accessories made for them by dressmakers, tailors, milliners and cordwainers (shoemakers). Such tradespeople usually visited the wealthy in their homes to show the most luxurious of materials and trimmings, and to discuss the style and detailing of garments to be made. Clothing was sometimes made in miniature on dolls to show how designs would look on the body, and these dolls were also sent out to wealthy customers around the world. The less wealthy bought cloth from drapers and clothing was made in the home or pre-worn clothing was acquired.
With the beginnings of the emancipation of women later in the 1800s, there were two separate but related consequences for what was to become the fashion show. Women were starting to become more independent and it became acceptable for wealthy female customers to start to visit their dressmakers at their premises. This had a radical impact on the display and selection of clothing, moving that process from the domestic scene to the more public couturier’s salon. Secondly, female models began to be employed, albeit working in the more private world of drapers’ businesses, in dressmakers’ premises and in the newly emerging fashion houses. There they wore the latest designs to show clients how clothing might look on the body. In the 1800s, showing garments on a live model was considered the height of modernity. By the end of the 1800s, the use of live models to display new designs would be widely used in Paris and would have spread to other parts of the world. An article in an Australian newspaper about a visit to the Paris House of Worth in 1892 reported: “A grand commissionaire stands inside the door, and you are ushered up the richly carpeted stairs to the salons, or what we would call showrooms. In these are to be seen very magnificently attired young ladies walking about in their own or sample costumes.”
Figure 1.4 Hedi Slimane’s last collection for Yves St Laurent. (Martin Bureau/Staff via Getty Images)
The salon show
Models would walk through the couturier’s salon, and this is still known today as a salon show. The salon was one large room or a series of smaller connecting rooms. The fashion show, or the Opening as it was called then, was a formal and genteel affair. As the fashion show evolved, it began to borrow ideas from the theatre and later from other forms of popular culture including dance, film and the circus. Photographs of the 1800s show that some dressmakers built small stages in their showrooms, and models would emerge from behind curtains to pose under bright lights. Couturiers began to decorate their salons with large mirrors that enhanced the light and the sense of space and occasion. The salon would often be in the couturier’s premises, and would resemble a drawing room in a client’s house. Salon shows are still produced today, as can be seen in Hedi Slimane’s last collection for Yves St Laurent. Held in an 18th-century house and produced in the style of a couture show, model numbers were called out as models emerged and walked through salons while the audience sat on chairs in the tradition of early couturiers’ salons.
Figure 1.5 A tableau vivant at an American costume ball, 1872. (Heritage Images/Contributor via Getty Images)
Drawings and photographs show models walking around in front of groups of wealthy society women; walking, pausing and posing for the audience so that clients had the best possible opportunity to view the new garments on the body and in movement. The idea of posing had already entered popular culture, as tableaux vivant was a well-liked entertainment. Tableaux vivant means living picture and people in costume, theatrically lit, would take up static poses, silently holding those poses while an audience looked on. Tableaux vivant could, therefore, be considered the forerunner of the model’s pose, the model silently holding a static position while the audience observed the clothing.
Models in the early shows were chosen for their gracefulness and beauty. They were selected for their likeness to the wealthy clients. The houses thought that customers who could identify with the models would be able to imagine wearing the clothes. The couturier Charles Frederick Worth married Marie Vernet in 1851, having met her while working for the Paris drapers Gagelin et Opigez. Marie Vernet was a model and their son’s words about his mother illustrate the desired characteristics of models at that time: ‘She was exceedingly successful in this, not only because she had grace and beauty, knew how to carry herself and wear clothes, but because she had great charm and knew how to smile’ (Evans, C., 2013).
Figure 1.6 Models in a Parisian fashion house, early 1900s. (Apic/Contributor via Getty Images)
The fashion system
The fashion system is about recognized practices in the design, production, consumption and disposal of fashion. It is about the art of creating fashion and about the business, the marketing and the selling of fashion. It is about the consumer’s relationship with fashion and the role that fashion plays within our contemporary culture. The fashion system has a pace and a language of its own. It has a yearly calendar and its nature is predicated upon change.
The beginnings of the fashion system
It was in the mid-1800s that the fashion system, as we know it today, began to emerge. Different cities became reputed for the very best in clothing. London’s Savile Row became world-renowned for its men’s tailoring, and Paris for its couture. Dressmakers such as Worth and Patou became internationally renowned for their craftsmanship, and more importantly for their creativity and innovation, which they also applied to the promotion of their collections. Their businesses became established as fashion houses, and a pattern began to be established whereby twice-yearly collections were produced, with national and international customers visiting the couturiers twice a year, thereby establishing the two ‘seasons’ of autumn/winter and spring/summer, that form the basis of the fashion calendar.
Since the late Middle Ages, guilds had existed so that craftspeople making cloth, shoes and clothing had greater power as collectives over the production and sale of their products. In 1868 in Paris an association called the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture replaced these medieval guilds. In the 1900s this organization set out rules to govern the couture industry, which included the minimum number of outfits to be shown, the number of staff to be employed to create the collections, that there must be two collections a year and that they must be shown on live models.
Figure 1.7 The Cunard ocean liner Lusitania at the pier in New York City, 13 September 1907. (ullstein bild/Contributor via Getty Images)
The social scene and internationalization
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the social season was the time in the year when the social elite congregated in cities to socialize and attend glittering events such as balls and dinners. Greater leisure time for some brought developments in culture: music, photography and the theatre, and the fashion show became a central feature of the season. Luggage-making companies such as Louis Vuitton grew their businesses as travelling became fashionable amongst the wealthy. Travelling to Paris from as far away as America, they chose their clothing for the...