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.

Marie Antoinette’s Dress at the Royal Ontario Museum*

(Originally blogged October 26, 2008)

Last week I made sure I made my way to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to view a dress with disputable but convincing evidence of having once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette of France. This is a rare opportunity to view the dress as it is rarely ever shown. According to the ROM the last time this dress had been displayed was 35 years ago but I had heard the dress had not actually been on public exhibition since 1927.

Podcast from the Royal Ontario Museum about Marie Antoinette’s dress

The Marie Antoinette Dress - possibly the most complete garment from her wardrobe extant

Before I write any more about the dress, I have to vent about the Royal Ontario Museum’s architectural carbuncle – the Michael Chin-Lee crystal, designed by the self-important architect Daniel Libeskind. This is not like the pyramid at the Louvre, or the redesign of New York’s Lollipop building – we aren’t splitting hairs over the value of the building as art – Libeskind’s building cost a third of a billion dollars (that they are admitting to) and the building doesn’t work! The entire structure was created without consulting the curatorial staff of the museum. The textile gallery was designed to be a glass house so that the weave of cloth and the seams of frocks could be studied through direct sunlight — Incroyable!

The addition does not relate to the original structure in any way. Fire escape-like stairwells attach the addition to the old building because none of the floors match up; the ground level floors of the new section are sloped – funneling visitors out the exit through the gift shop. The angled architecture will cost the museum endless thousands in the future for upkeep which so far they don’t seem to be bothering with (judging by the dust and fingerprint build-up). Purposefully designed crevices or mini-ditches in the floor are catchalls for gum wrappers, plastic proof-of-entrance-fee-purchase tags, and dirt.

To blame for the building are Daniel Libeskind, the architect, who was let loose like a baby with a gun, and the director of the ROM, William Thorsell, who put the bullets in the barrel. To make matters worse, half the museum remains closed for retrofitting even though the entrance fee is a hefty $20.00 per adult. I spent $19.00 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer for an entire day’s visit and I left at closing not having seen everything — at the ROM I was done with every exhibit within three hours of arriving.

The location on Bloor street, where this crystalloid now towers over the sidewalk, was once the home to century trees where squirrels and birds lived and played, and a wrought iron trimmed brick wall that added to the ivory tower elan of the old brick facade. The costume and textile gallery on the top floor of this new space has been altered with shutters and drapes to keep all sunlight out so visitors can spelunk about for bits and bobs of fashion history inside the black cavernous gallery. Although far from perfect, this gallery exists only because of the generosity of Patricia Harris, the daughter in law of the important Canadian painter Lawren Harris. The Harris gallery features highlights from the textile and costume collection ranging from a 2,000 year old Paracas culture shawl to examples of European couture, including items such as Marie Antoinette’s dress.

Ah yes, the Marie Antoinette dress – I bet you thought I forgot about that… The dress, although altered, is a phenomenal example of rococo bordering on the classical. Dating from the late 1770s or early 1780s, this dress is tiny in stature but grand in presence; even with the alterations it still held onto all its glamour and elegance of a time and place long vanished. It was almost poetic that a dress of such great cost, exquisite beauty and worn by a woman out of touch with her people should be housed in a building of such great cost, despicable ugliness and alienating and cold to its visitors — plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…