Dorian Leigh in Piguet evening dress, Paris, August, 1949., Photograph Richard Avedon, Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation, © 1956 The Richard Avdeon Foundation.

When Couture Ruled the Runway and Fashion Magazines

Model photographed by John French, © V&A Images.

Autumn/Winter 1945/5 from the Ligne-H collection, Dior 'Zemire' dress.

Coats by Molyneux and Hardy Amies, worn by Barbara, Goalen and Wenda Parkinson (nee Rogerson). 1948, © Norman Parkinson Archive London.


Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
+44 (0)20 7942 2000
The Golden Age
of Couture:
Paris and London

September 22, 2007-
January 6, 2008

A golden age seemed to have come again.

— Christian Dior, 1948

Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the launch of the New Look in 1947, the
exhibition shows how Dior’s ballerina-skirted dresses signaled the return to luxury and elegance after wartime austerity. It will examine the world of couture, highlighting the work of Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain in Paris and their London counterparts Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies. Other successful designers of the time — such as Fath, Griffe, Stiebel, and Michael of London — features in a broad survey of the decade.

The V&A’s autumn exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957, explores one of the most glamorous and remarkable decades in fashion history. Starting with the impact of Christian Dior’s New Look after the Second World War, it looks at the work of Dior and his contemporaries during the period when haute couture was at its height.

More than 100 dresses are on display including daywear, cocktail and evening dresses made for society and royalty alongside photographs by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon and original Hollywood and documentary film. There are audio recordings, textiles and archival material such as bills of sales and letters. More than 95 per cent of the dresses are from the V&A’s own fashion collections.

In a decade when Dior set the popular style, with couture’s ripple effect influencing women’s fashion at every level, the exhibition traces how Dior created the most successful fashion business model of the 20th century through advertising, licensing, perfume and publicity. It reflects the sense of pride in Parisian couture that emerged in France after the war and examine the world of haute couture: designers, the history of couture, the houses, practices, clients, workshops and dissemination into popular fashion. A section focuses on handcraft and techniques, with undergarments and the insides of dresses on display.

The exhibition shows the distinct characteristics of London couture houses, their strengths in tailoring and the formality of court and debutante gowns. Several dresses made for the Queen and Princess Margaret and other aristocratic clients by British designers are on display.

The V&A has tracked down and purchased several couture gowns for the exhibition. One is a Givenchy blue cape (1957), identical to the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Another is a Givenchy black wool dress suit (1955) worn by Leslie Caron. An exciting find is a red version of Dior’s glamorous Zemire (1954), a full length skirt, bodice and long jacket discovered in a cellar near the Seine in Paris, and previously known only through archive photographs. Other purchases include a red silk Dior Ecarlate cocktail dress (Autumn/Winter 1955-56), a Givenchy two-piece print day dress (1956) and a rare Jacques Griffe halter-neck evening dress (1950). New research has been carried out on many of the dresses for the exhibition, and around 70 have been especially conserved.

Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, said: “The exhibition celebrates an important decade in fashion history which had a huge influence on the way women dressed and the way the fashion industry evolved. The V&A is lucky to have a superb collection of dresses from this period. This exhibition has been an exceptional opportunity to research the V&A collections and to tell the story of the couture industry after the war.”

The exhibition finishes with a small selection of pieces of contemporary haute couture from the Autumn/Winter 2005/06 collection of John Galliano for Christian Dior in Paris, a collection that was an homage to the skills of Dior.

Dovima with elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955, Richard Avedon, Photograph by Richard Avedon, © 1955 The Richard Avedon Foundation, Courtsey The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Fashion designer Christian Dior (sitting in white coat) commenting on red gown for his new collection prior to showing. (Photo by Loomis Dean//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images), Loomis Dean, Time Life Pictures.