The 1950s was a period of prosperity in French fashion. Christian Dior’s New Look had, a few years earlier, made French haute couture known to almost everyman. His fashion revolution heightened French pride of country and his burgeoning empire accounted for almost half of France’s haute couture revenues. In the same decade, prêt-a-porter became a commodity. Before then, fashion in France was not produced for a wide range of consumers.

The room of cocktail dresses

The Les années 50, La mode en France exhibit highlights the work of the most popular fashion designers of the era. Cristobal Balenciaga’s simple cuts are displayed alongside Jacques Fath’s lengthened skirt and trompl’oeil design. Carven, Schiaparelli and Lanvin-Castillo exhibit not just craftsmanship, but also originality and the versatility of French fashion. Pierre Balmain’s strikingly feminine creations are put on center stage: I was entranced by intricately embroidered cocktail dresses (which grace the cover of the exhibit’s catalog), a magnificent gown that captured all that is the traditionally beautiful woman (or dress) – curvy, shiny, snow white with fuchsia roses and gold embroidery traveling from the hem all the way up to the bustier – and one graceful beige jacket that evoked utter security. 

Pierre Balmain, buttoned jacket, A/W 1950-1951

A surprising revelation upon digging deeper into this exhibit was the significance of the fashion press. Creating debate about and within the industry, and also playing up couturiers’ image, were part of the their role. News, it seemed, was reported with a passion and interest that nowadays is barely seen. Part and parcel of the French culture, and also of the new times, especially after a sobering war a few years earlier. But also significant in history in the sense that in the world outside of it, “fashion” is often still perceived as frivolous. These reporters were damn serious. And when the reporter evokes the inspiration he has felt from designers, the game of fashion travels more furiously along its circular path – which in the end benefits both the brand or designer, and the consumer – which leads to the topic of powerful fashion bloggers, but that’s for another article. These press personalities were inside the vortex of world-changing history – new silhouettes, growth in haute couture, growth in ready-to-wear – and unabashedly told us of its foibles and its glories. Champions.

According to the directeur of the Palais Galliera, Olivier Saillard, with the era came designers who were revered like gods: a precursor to the coming decades. The designers played up their image and vividly expressed their personalities. Elsa Schiaparelli was deliberately provocative and scandalous: from afar everyone knew the dress was a Schiaparelli. Dior was “Monsieur Dior” to his peers and subordinates; he was reserved, except when talking about his work. Fath was known as “Jacques” – he was the life of the party. Madeleine Vionnet in earlier decades won a petition for designers to be recognised as other artists were – no doubt a capable woman – while Chanel modeled in her own ads, evoking her own strong vision.  Balenciaga was admired by both Dior and Chanel; he was the most low-key of the lot.

A display of black and white evening gowns

The ‘50s also heralded the bridge between the old-fashioned and modernity. Mastery of technique, prettiness and femininity obliterated wartime memories of rationed fabric and clothing. Already, Pierre Cardin’s style was evolving into his ‘60s mod world. But it was Mademoiselle Chanel who, with undying fearlessness in 1954 at the age of 71, continued to give every woman the freedom to dress like a man. She offered androgynous designs and simple suits, the antithesis of her peers’ work.


Les années 50, La mode en France Palais Galliera, Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris 10 Avenue Pierre 1ère de Serbie 75116 Paris, France