Book Review: Couture and Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s

(Originally blogged September 28, 2010)

Couture and Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s by Alexandra Palmer, published October 2001 ISBN: 0-7748-0826-8

I originally wrote this review back in spring 2002 for the Costume Society of Ontario’s newsletter, and it was also published on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s site, but as this book remains the best on the market to describe the various terms of couture, I thought I would reprint my review here.

Alexandra Palmer’s book Couture and Commerce focuses on the real mechanics of couture from design to sale, and its practical use by real women. First of all, the definitions of fashion: haute couture, couture, designer, bonded model, toile, pattern, licensed copy, adaptation, boutique, prêt-a-porter etc. are delineated throughout the book. Fashion is then written about in the context of Toronto’s society women of the 1950s – who they were and what they bought. The concept one has of couture from the pages of Vogue is often remote from the reality of its purchase, wear, and re-wear. I was surprised that a dress model entitled “Espoirs perdus” was substantially redesigned in the atelier by the vendeuse and client from how it was envisioned by Balmain in 1956. The finished dress had little similarity to Balmain’s vision. As Palmer points out “The ability of a client to redesign is an aspect of haute couture that has been largely overlooked in favour of promoting the designer as artist and quintessential arbiter of taste.”

Retailers too had power to change designs to better suit the tastes and needs of their local clients. Bonded models, toiles or patterns could be purchased with an understanding to alter button sizes, materials, pocket placement and colours of original dress designs. Many of these surprising revelations are tied to the reality of the post World War II economy, as Palmer points out “Before the war, private clients had been of key importance to the couture houses. This changed dramatically postwar, when the big buyers were American stores and manufacturers purchasing primarily for copying.” Palmer points out too that the newly formed House of Dior in 1947 best understood these changes in the postwar world of couture, and suggests it was Dior’s assessment of the changing world that was primarily the reason for his huge success. This was evident by the mid 1950s when Dior’s fashions accounted for over half the total of couture exports, and 5 percent of all French export!

Couture is brought home in the book, as extant examples from the Royal Ontario Museum are illustrated (not always that well), with their histories from the women who wore them. Although at times leaning on the side of chatty gossip, the book attempts to understand what these dresses meant to the women who wore them. Couture gowns and suits purchased as far away as Paris, but more often acquired from Toronto shops such as the St. Regis Room of Simpson’s department store or the clothier Holt Renfrew, in the late 1940s were commonly donned annually throughout the 1950s. The concept of fashion as a season or two in length was irrelevant to many of its wearers who vied for the same designs as those worn by international fashion icons like Wallis Simpson or Marlene Dietrich. Sometimes this was possible through the conservative clothes chosen by retailers to offer locally to Toronto women who could wear a subdued suit by Sybil Connelly or Hardy Amies for many years to many functions, however, glamorous evening clothes from Jacques Fath and Balenciaga, with similar histories of repeated wearings, are just as evident in the book.

Couture and Commerce may not be the first choice by fashionistas who wish to ooze over the creations of couturiers who like to laud designers as gods of style, but it is the best book for those who wish to understand the world of couture and how it worked from postwar era London runways and Paris ateliers, through its various methods of dissemination and alteration to the wearing public. Alexandra puts a face to couture through the real women who bought and wore these creations and what they meant to them.

An interesting appendice determines the cost of a couture dress or suit in today’s money. For example, in 1950, a dress from Molyneux which sold for about $150.00, translates into about $1800.00 of today’s money.