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Exhibition Explores the Rebirth of High Fashion in Europe after World War II

NASHVILLE, TENN.—(April 20, 2010)— The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957, an exhibition that transports visitors to the most glamorous fashion houses of Paris and London in the years after WWII, opens in the Ingram Gallery of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts on June 18, 2010, and remains on view through Sept. 12, 2010. The exhibition was organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which possesses one of the finest costume collections in the world. Following record breaking attendance at its launch in London and its subsequent presentations in Australia, Hong Kong and Canada, The Golden Age of Couture continues its international tour at the Frist Center, the exhibition’s only venue in the United States, before traveling to Museums Sheffield in 2011.

The exhibition celebrates an important decade in fashion history that began with the launch of Christian Dior’s famous New Look in 1947 and ended with his death in 1957. The romantic postwar silhouette pioneered by Dior scandalized and delighted the public, and ushered in a period of remarkable creativity. Dior himself called it a “golden age” for haute couture. He and his contemporaries set a standard for impeccable workmanship and design that has rarely been surpassed since.

In addition to Dior, the exhibition highlights the work of such luminary Paris designers as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain and celebrated London designers including Hardy Amies, Charles Creed and Norman Hartnell. Included are examples of daywear, cocktail dresses and evening gowns designed for royalty and aristocracy. Photographs by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn show how images in fashion magazines enhanced the prestige of couture, while also making its innovative ideas widely known and accessible in America as well as Europe.

Evening dress by Cristobal Balenciaga. Silk taffeta, 1953–54.
Given by Miss C. Coombe, V&A: T.427-1967. © V&A Images/
Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A has tracked down and purchased several couture garments especially for this exhibition. One is a Givenchy blue cape (1957), identical to the one worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Another exciting find is a red version of Dior’s glamorous Zemire (1954). The bodice and long jacket with full length skirt, previously known only through archive photographs, was recently discovered in a cellar near the River Seine in Paris and has been cleaned and repaired for the exhibition.

“The Golden Age of Couture offers a rare opportunity to learn about the creative, social and economic forces that shaped fashion in the dramatic postwar years through the clothing itself. The meticulous care that went into creating every single couture dress, suit, hat and shoe is clearly and engagingly conveyed,” says Trinita Kennedy, Frist Center associate curator. “The ripple effect of high fashion on the clothing worn by women of all social classes is also made evident. The garments on view truly defined an era. The Frist Center is proud to be the only place in the United States where this unique exhibition can be seen.” Kennedy concluded.

Paris’ reputation for high fashion began in 1858 when British dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth opened his prestigious fashion house in Paris with the goal of unifying design and fabrication under one roof. The production of couture was based on the division of labor and almost entirely a handcraft industry.

Separate in-house workshops for tailoring and dressmaking were supported by the luxury trade of handmade accessories and trimmings such as feathers, embroidery, beading and ribbon work that was supplied by specialists throughout France.

At the turn of the century, the Parisian couture trade quickly began to flourish. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne was formed to regulate the increasing number of houses. By 1938, there were 70 registered houses varying in status and importance; each was distinguished by its designer and gained social value based upon the fashion of French women.

The industry was disrupted by the wartime occupation of Paris. Towards the end of the war, couturiers created Théâtre de la Mode—small dolls dressed in the latest styles and set in arranged scenes, or tableaux, designed by artists such as Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau. The first part of the Frist Center exhibition will display a small sampling of the Théâtre, which originally toured to Scandinavia, Britain and the USA between 1945 and 1946 to raise funds for war victims and to promote French fashion.

After the war, on February, 12, 1947, Dior launched his couture house and became an overnight sensation. The exhibition will trace how Dior, who once likened couture to marriage in the way design and material with its instances of perfect harmony mixed with a few disasters, created the most successful fashion business model of the 20th century through advertising, licensing, perfume and publicity.

Dior’s voluptuous collection was the antithesis of masculine wartime fashion. His designs featured sloping shoulders, full bust and a cinched waist above long, full skirts. Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of American Harper’s Bazaar, was quick to call it the “New Look” because it was so different from all that came before it.

The Paris couture system set a template for London couturiers, and with the creation of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers in 1942, the small community of fashion houses gained increasing recognition. Many British designers were trained in Paris; John Cavanagh, for example, worked with both Edward Molyneux and Pierre Balmain before returning to establish his own London business. Although London could not compete in terms of output, its fashion and textile industry became increasingly profitable. During the postwar period, Paris’ dominance was challenged as increases in material and labor costs and higher taxes put pressure on couturiers. However, for France the couture industry remained vital to the economy with Dior alone providing five percent of the country’s national export revenue
in 1949.

A section of the exhibition will focus on handcraft and techniques, with undergarments and the insides of dresses on display. To enrich the content of the exhibition, photographs, documentary film, textiles and archival material will also be on view. It will close with a look at the state of haute couture today.

Dior’s death in 1957 brought an end to the golden age of couture as fashion moved from the fitting rooms and ateliers into boutiques. Even so, the legacy of artistry and craftsmanship still thrives in the remaining grand houses of Paris.
Labels inside the bodice of “Zemire” evening dress by Chrisitan Dior, 1954. V&A: 24-2006. © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum

Tickets on Sale

Advance timed tickets for The Golden Age of Couture will be available May 17, 2010, through (additional charges apply) and on site at the Frist Center. The exhibition broke all attendance records at the V&A when it opened in 2007. As the Frist Center is the only U.S. venue for The Golden Age of Couture, the exhibition is expected to draw visitors from around the country.

The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the museum was founded in 1852, and its massive collections include more than 5,000 years of art and design from all over the world. The museum was conceived by Prince Albert as a way to improve the standards of British design by making examples of fine decorative arts and design available for viewing and study.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is divided into four major Collections departments: Asia; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass; Word & Image and Furniture, Textiles and Fashion. Together, the four major collection areas contain more than 6.5 million objects. The V&A holds one of the finest collections of fashionable dress in the world featuring suits, cocktail dresses and evening gowns accompanied by a superb archive that have been specially conserved and displayed to provide a unique window into postwar Paris and London couture.

A catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is available in both hard and soft copies.


2010 Platinum Sponsor: The HCA Foundation on behalf of HCA and the TriStar Family
Of Hospitals

2010 Gold Sponsor: First Tennessee

Hospitality Sponsor: Union Station, A Wyndham Historic Hotel

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is supported in part by the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission and the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Related Public Programs

Friday, June 18 Curator’s Perspective: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and
6:30 p.m. London 1947–1957

This talk will explore the golden years of Haute Couture in Paris and London after World War Two when Christian Dior’s “New Look” of 1947 made the headlines, shocking and delighting in equal measure. Dior’s luxurious full skirts signaled an end to austerity and launched one of the most glamorous decades in fashion. Haute Couture was defined by its stylishness, impeccable craftsmanship, and the intricate detailing of its hand sewn garments. It was also an important business that spread into accessories, cosmetics, perfume, and ready to wear; employed thousands of people; and was vital for Europe’s postwar economy. Curator Claire Wilcox of the Victoria and Albert Museum will discuss the processes required to create Haute Couture garments and the challenges and discoveries involved in curating this major show.

Thursday, June 24 Modeling Couture, featuring supermodel Karen Elson
6:30 p.m. and fashion journalist Libby Callaway

Libby Callaway, a local fashion journalist and the former fashion editor of the New York Post, will lead a conversation with Nashville-based supermodel Karen Elson about her experiences walking international runways and the art of wearing haute couture.

Friday, July 9 Films at the Frist: Stage Fright
7:00 p.m.

Christian Dior, the most influential fashion designer from the late 1940s through the late 1950s, designed Marlene Dietrich’s dresses for Stage Fright. Dior actually dressed Dietrich on- and
off-stage and was so important to the actress that she had him written into her contract for the movie. In fact, she was so insistent that Dior be the one to design her wardrobe that she declared to Alfred Hitchcock, “No Dior, No Dietrich!” This film is one of the first instances in which a leading actress wore couture creations instead of the clothing that the film studio costumier had decided on.

About the film:
Set in the world of theater, Stage Fright follows a struggling actress’s efforts to help a friend prove his innocence after he is accused of committing murder. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Richard Todd, and Jane Wyman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1950. 110 minutes. 35mm.

Friday, July 16 ARTini: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London
7:00 p.m. 1947–1957
Meet at information desk
Free with purchase of gallery admission

Join Anne Taylor , curator of interpretation at the Frist Center, as she leads an informal conversation about one or two works of art in this exhibition. Complete your evening by relaxing in the Grand Lobby with beverages from the café, including special ARTini cocktails, and visiting with friends.

Tuesday, July 20 ARTini: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London
12:00 p.m. 1947–1957
Meet at information desk
Free with purchase of gallery admission

Take a break from your day and join Anne Taylor, curator of interpretation at the Frist Center, as she leads an informal conversation about one or two works of art in this exhibition. Complete your visit with stop in the café or gift store.

Thursday, July 22 Gallery Talk: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London
7:00 p.m. 1947–1957
Meet at the information desk
Free with purchase of gallery admission

Join Trinita Kennedy, associate curator at the Frist Center, for a tour of this exhibition. Complete your evening by enjoying beverages and music in the Grand Lobby or visiting with friends in the café.

About the Frist Center

Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., is an art exhibition center dedicated to presenting the finest visual art from local, regional, U.S. and international sources in a program of changing exhibitions. The Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Center exhibitions. Gallery admission to the Frist Center is free for visitors 18 and younger and to Frist Center members. Frist Center admission is $10.00 for adults and $7.00 for seniors, military and college students with ID. College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of 2010 Frist Fridays), 5–9 p.m. Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation by calling (615) 744-3247.The Frist Center is open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. and Sundays, 1–5:30 p.m., with the Frist Center Café opening at noon. Additional information is available by calling (615) 244-3340 or by visiting our Web site at

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