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.

2000-2009 – So What Was Fashion?

(Originally blogged November 27, 2009)

J-Lo in a low low cut dress, 2000

I know it doesn’t feel like a decade has passed since Y2K but in a little more than a month we will be entering the 2010s and that means the first decade of 21st century fashion is wrapping up. Science fiction predicted we would all be wearing unisex jumpsuits in crease resistant synthetics, but in reality the first decade of the new millennium offered no space age vision. The entire decade was about looking back, not forward.

Sarah Jessica Parker in a vintage inspired cocktail dress

Vintage fashions from the 1950s to the 1980s were the inspiration for all new fashions from chain stores to haute couture. Department stores resembled giant vintage clothing warehouses filled with separates from different eras to mix and match for a hodge podge contemporary look (a way of styling delineated by Patricia Field in her costuming for Sex and the City, but difficult to pull off successfully). Vintage shops carried authentic Jackie Kennedy sheath dresses, mod coats, beaded cardigans, Disco T-shirts, and Flashdance leggings that could transform you into any vintage fashion icon from Holly Go-Lightly to Rhoda Morganstern. Borrowing from the past to create modern style has been common since Barbara Hulanicki revived the 1930s and 1940s for her Biba label, but when Ralph Lauren got too close to copying an Yves St. Laurent tuxedo dress he was fined by a French court in 1994 for copyright infringement. But that didn’t stop the trend. From Anna Sui to Nicholas Ghesquiere, raiding vintage wardrobes for style ideas was the dominant trend of the 2000s. Cameron Silver of Decades, a vintage clothing store in West Hollywood, admitted in 2002 that 60% of his sales went to designers “who are just hyper stylists these days.”

Crocs – the summer 2006 hit

Some defining fashions of the 2000s were continuations of trends that began in the 1990s or before. Tattooing and piercing, for example, grew in popularity with the punk and fetish cultures but generally remained unseen until the early 2000s. At first, small ankle tattoos appeared, and then lower back tats were exposed in bare midriff tops and low-rise jeans (thong underwear straps were also showcased by low-rise jeans.) By the end of the decade, neck calligraphy and entire sleeves of Japanese motifs were covering arms. However, piercing all but disappeared, with the exception of the occasional tribal style ear lobe plug worn by skateboarders and bicycle couriers.

The Thong…

Shaved heads, made popular by Hip Hop singers and Sinead O’Connor in the 1990s, turned the street tough/chemo patient look into a mainstream tress code in the 2000s. For women, the tousled ‘I just fell out of bed’ look of the 1990s persisted but lost momentum by the end of the decade in favour of more coifed locks. And with a nod to the Studio 54 era, Afros and corn rowing had small return engagements, as did coloured hair, but really only for performers like Lil’ Kim and Pink. Caramel highlights was about as daring as anyone got who didn’t perform on stage.

Crop top and low rise jeans, New York, Spring 2001

Thin was very ’in’ despite the fact that most of the population was getting fatter, probably because we all put on weight while quitting smoking. Meanwhile in fashionland, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Lara Flynn Boyle, Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss resembled their wafer thin laptops when they turned sideways. The only discernable bumps on most fashion icons were those made by surgically implanted or padded breasts. Take away cigarettes, cocaine, and bulimia and you have to wonder how many rail thin celebrities would be able to maintain their 00 dress sizes.

Bratz dolls, fall 2002

Most work places saw casual dress codes expand from Fridays to every day. The most popular casual look for work and weekend at the beginning of the decade was low-rise jeans or trousers with full or flared legs. When worn in combination with a crop top, the toned tummy became the new erogenous zone but pudgy muffin tops were the reality. In the middle of the decade flares disappeared and tight tapered styles and leggings reappeared; waistlines also moved back up to the top of the hips. Crop tops were abandoned in favour of more modest empire-waist peasant tops, making an entire generation of women look like unwed mothers. The biggest non-fashion event of the 2000s was the return of the poncho. Ponchos were in fashion for about 3 minutes in the winter of 2004/2005, and were long gone by the time Martha Stewart emerged from prison or Ugly Betty wore her Guadalajara version to work. The poncho was part of the Bohemian or ‘Boho’ style of peasant tops and gypsy skirts that returned often throughout the decade. Also in for repeat performances were animal prints, denim, military (cargo pants, camouflage), and pimp and pole dancer styles (Pussycat Doll chic consisting of micro minis, Huggie Bear hats, and bling).

Baby Doll Dress, spring 2000

For dressier occasions the baby doll dress lasted most of the decade. Worn with dark stockings or no stockings at all, baby doll dresses never reached the nth degree cult status of the Japanese Goth-Lolita look. However, most other subculture fashions, from Goth to Gay, went mainstream in the 2000s.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was launched in 2003 as part of the landslide of reality TV makeover shows (What Not to Wear, Ten Years Younger, Extreme Makeover…) The format became routine: An overweight woman of a certain age who is exhausted from work and taking care of her kids is given a brutal talking to by a bunch of stylists who sharpen their wits on her high school hair-do and age inappropriate 90s wardrobe. She is given a dye job, her eyebrows are plucked, she puts on a new outfit or two, and her life is suddenly worth living again because she says she feels sexy in her new too-tight jeans floral print blouse, and stiletto shoes. The sponsors of these shows were often mainstream chain stores, which meant New York location shoots did not explore the wonderful shops of Tribeca or Chelsea, but rather the H&M on Broadway.

Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton, 2003

The Gap and Banana Republic, leading retailers in the 1990s, waned in popularity in the 2000’s, while Old Navy, a budget basics store from the same parent company, held its own alongside strong fashion retailers like H&M and Target. Founded in Sweden in 1947, H&M began opening franchises across Europe in the 1960s; their first American store opened in Manhattan in 2000. The origins of Target date back over a century but in the shift from five and dime retailer to Walmart competitor, Target hired designers such as Steven Sprouse in 2002 and Isaac Mizrahi in 2003 to create collections for budget-conscious customers. H&M followed suit, hiring designers Stella McCartney in 2005 and Roberto Cavalli in 2007.

French Connection, founded in 1972, accidentally discovered in 1997 that their UK branch was identified in a fax as FCUK. Leaping upon the vulgar dyslexic acronym for marketing purposes, the French Connection sold T-shirts with sayings like ‘FCUK fashion’ to style-deprived imbeciles. The company feigned surprise when they lost their bid to the rights of the acronym; First Consultants UK Ltd. proved precedence in court and in 2006 French Connection abandoned their FCUK campaign.

Juicy Couture track pants and Uggs

One of the decade’s leading marketing success stories began when Gel Nash-Taylor, the wife of Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and her partner Pamela Skaist-Levy branded a line of maternity pants in 1996 under the name Juicy Couture. Juicy Couture offered affordable, comfortable casual wear aimed at the yummy mummy’s market wedged between girl power and cougars. The label found limited success until 2003 when Liz Claiborne bought the fledgling company for 50 million dollars. By 2005, Juicy Couture and its knock-offs had women 18-45 in tracksuits with words like Juicy, Sweet, Sexy, and Meow written across the butt.

Chavs in Burberry plaid

Long-standing brands re-marketed themselves for a hipper look in the new millennium. The English classic Burberry reinvented itself in 2002 to appeal to a younger crowd, losing most of their older, established clientele in the process when Chavs (English term for teenage delinquents such as soccer hooligans) picked up on the trend for Burberry plaid. Similarly Marc Jacobs hired artist Takashi Murakami to update a bag for Louis Vuitton that would appeal to the Japanese Lolita aesthetic in 2003.

Celebrity brands exploded in the 2000s. In most cases the celebrities had marginal input into the design and only loaned their name for branding. The list included: Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Gwen Stefani, Kelli Osbourne, Lenny Kravitz, Anna Nicole Smith, Mariah Carey, Donald Trump, Lil’ Kim, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Alba, Kanye West, Kylie Minogue, Jennifer Lopez, P Diddy, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff, Elizabeth Hurley… and many more.

Japanese Goth Lolita

On a high fashion note, the leading American designer torch passed from Tom Ford to Marc Jacobs in the 2000s. Across the pond it was the talented ‘l’enfant terrible’ Alexander McQueen who managed to find recognition and funding for his label from the Gucci Group, courtesy of Tom Ford in 2002. John Galliano remained a bright light in fashionland at Christian Dior, even though his couture consists of irrelevant fantasy gowns made solely for media exploitation. Galliano has Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour, chief editor of American Vogue, as his number one fan. Anna Wintour’s thinly veiled send up in the 2003 book and 2006 film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ proved that fashion was just business after all, and not a very nice one at that. While getting along with Wintour is necessary for good reportage in Vogue, Armani and Alaia are not quiet about their disdain for her. She may need to be wary of burnt bridges now as the current falling circulation doesn’t look good on her twenty-one year reign at Vogue.

Fashion reportage is changing and the fashion magazine is no longer the dominant style delineator. The 2000s saw the birth of television channels devoted to fashion. The Internet put the power of fashion coverage into many more hands; The Vintage Fashion Guild, The Sartorialist, Worn Fashion Journal, and numerous other professional and amateur websites and blogs now report on and influence the path of fashion.

Roberto Cavalli dressed as Karl Lagerfeld for Halloween 2007

In the 2000s we saw less of Karl Lagerfeld (42 kilos less). We also saw brilliant designers retire: Issey Miyake, Calvin Klein, Hanae Mori, Valentino, Christian Lacroix, and Tom Ford from Gucci. And some designers we lost forever: Thea Porter, Bonnie Cashin, Bill Blass, Roberta de Camerino, Pauline Trigere, Hardy Amies, Geoffrey Beene, Stephen Sprouse, Giovanna Fontana, Donald Brooks, Liz Claiborne, Mr. Blackwell, Oleg Cassini, Gianfranco Ferre, Yves St. Laurent, and fashion illustrator Rene Gruau.

Gladiator platform sandals, spring 2008

As for coming attractions in the 2010s, I suspect we will see more environmentally friendly fashions including sustainable materials coming into fashion – more hemp, less polyester. Mixed in with revivals, including a broader shoulder line from the 80s, fashion is already showing a trend for new ways of constructing and decorating that are contemporary, not retro. Vintage is here to stay, but not always in its original form. There is already a strong trend for ‘up cycling’ – remaking bad vintage into good wearables. Don’t forget this was the way things used to be until prosperity in the 1950s made North Americans consumers with voracious appetites for novelty. We have already seen shoes with built in Ipods and coats and dresses with cell phone pockets so perhaps more technology and fashion will combine in the coming decade. On the negative side expect to see significant cost increases in labour and shipping. Other than these few prognostications – time will only tell.

Ten things I will remember about fashion in the 2000s, and most of them aren’t good:

Miss Piggy takes a cue from Janet Jackson from a 2004 viral email image

1 – 2004’s ‘Wardrobe Malfunction’ – Tell the truth Janet it wasn’t an accident; it was just a bad idea.

2 – Flip-flops – They are too casual and dangerous to wear any place other than the beach or the back yard

3 – Uggs – They get stinky and dirty quickly, they make your legs look fat, and they’re ugly

4 – Eco terrorists – from P.E.T.A. members who send images of skinned animals to vintage websites that have a 1940s rabbit muff for sale, to vegans who like to remind everyone at the table why they are superior because they don’t wear leather shoes or use cosmetics. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

5 – Paris Hilton and all the other celebrities with sex tapes and no underwear

6 – Knock-offs – Fashion is all about knocking off someone else’s ideas – Victor Costa and Nettie Rosenstein weren’t designers, they were copyists. Fake purses, sunglasses and shoes became common in the 2000s but the real issue here is trademark infringement. Obviously a company logo is clearly copyrightable, but is quilted kid or contrast stitching? China (the United States biggest creditor) makes the most profits from the production and sale of knock-offs so until websites that offer $89.00 ‘Louboutin’ shoes are closed down, don’t tell me tales of terrorists making money from Louis ‘Fauxton’ bags because I am not listening.

7 – Non-clothing accessories – everything from a Starbucks coffee to a teacup Chihuahua – must you walk around with perceived status symbols in your hand?

8 – Oversized, over-designed handbags – What happened to all those elegant crocodile Kelly bags and evening clutches from the 90s – purses were wonderful then but now they are big and ugly, especially Michael Kors’ bags.

9 – Overpriced cheap products – Crocs are a good example. They are great shoes for the beach or back yard, but why are knock-offs available for a tenth of the price? Hey Crocs – your products are rubber sandals, not art, charge accordingly.

10 – Reality fashion programs. I keep promising myself to stop watching Project Runway and I will – next time. I don’t like the unfair and unrealistic expectations set upon the contestants. I am still angry over the 2006 ‘couture’ challenge in Paris – couture can NOT be made with glue in two days, to fit two different models

All Images were gleaned off the net – if any are copyrighted I will gladly credit or remove them at the owner’s request.

If you want to read someone else’s take, the Globe and Mail had an interesting article about fashion in 2009: Globe and Mail best and worst of fashion 2009


1. It’s always so interesting to look back and ask “did I really wear that?”~ Some were keepers, others, maybe no~ Comment by Sharon — November 27, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

2. Excellent–and depressing–summation. It has been a very difficult decade, ‘The Decade From Hell’ according to Time Magazine ( Comment by Maggie — November 27, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

3. Don’t say you mention crocs… Great coverage on what is a huge topic….. This decade was spent rehashing other decades fashion sort got lost and there was no real real strong fashion movement. What I saw was a rehashing of other movement. I drew the line when they started to redo grunge… Comment by chris anderson — November 27, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

4. This is a wonderful post. I particularly like the 10 things you’ll remember about fashion especially the Starbuck’s reference. Comment by Lisa — December 3, 2009 @ 9:27 am

5. loved reading this!! thanks Comment by BetsyM — December 7, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

6. Fabulous post. You are so great! How did you not miss a thing? You should teach fashion at Parsons, or sumfun. I totally soaked in your fashion history. You know, i lived it all, & you didn’t miss a thing!!! Comment by shell — July 4, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

The Last Emperor’s Clothes – fashion and film

(Originally blogged July 11, 2009)

Valentino with some of his iconic red dresses and pug dogs

The fly-on-the-wall documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor was just released in Canada yesterday and Kenn and I made sure we saw the first showing at 10:30 a.m. It was mesmerizing! The film can induce laughter and tears but its insider expose of the fashion business is pure privilege for the viewer.

Valentino Garavani and his longtime companion and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti are products of La Dolce Vita – the early 60s in Italy when all things Italian, from Vespas and Pucci to Sophia Loren and Fellini, were the definition of chic. At the height of this second Italian Renaissance Valentino emerged as a couturier, becoming internationally known when he made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress for her marriage to Aristotle Onassis in 1968. For the next thirty years the company grew, expanding into ready to wear, accessories, and licensing, until 1998 when the company was sold for 300 million. Four years later, the company was resold, bringing Matteo Marzotto, a handsome, shrewd businessman into the picture, who at times is an antagonist to Valentino and Giancarlo.

This film captures 2006/07, before Valentino, age 75, decided to retire after celebrating his 45th year in fashion. The film also captures the death of couture, as it was defined in the 1950s by couturiers who had been trained by masters of dressmaking from the 1920s; Lagerfeld whispers into Valentino’s ear, thinking the microphone can not capture his words, ‘You and I are the last two… everyone else makes rags.’ This may sound egotistical, but its not far from the truth. Couturiers are as rare as smokers these days; in place of the couturier is the designer, who makes a living branding accessories and scents while creating unwearable over-the-top creations intended as marketing opportunities for the fashion media.

This film also wryly captures the absurdity of fashion; a Fellini soundtrack plays while a string of fashion caricatures arrive at the finale dinner, from Donatella Versace and her perma-tanned skin and white-blonde hair to Karl Lagerfeld in his signature three inch tall collar and leather pants, to fan fluttering three hundred and fifty pound Andre Leon Talley. Valentino’s fashion world is full of extraordinary characters; aging European princesses with bosoms bulging over their couture necklines ride on the back of Vespas like its still 1962, while cut throat businessmen make deals behind the guise of flirting smiles for the camera. Valentino tries to appear calm and in control but easily succumbs to childish temper tantrums, befitting his artistic temperament, while Giancarlo, who yields more authority over Valentino than anyone knows, tries to keep everything on an even keel.

This film is worth seeing more than once and the DVD will definitely be making a permanent home in our library!