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“When people think of couture in the 1950s, they often think of cocktail dresses like these,” says Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris, nodding to a room full of curvy dresses with bustier cuts, cinched waists and voluminous skirts.
The dresses make up just one section of an exhibition that opens on Saturday, and showcases some of the biggest names in French fashion: Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel and Lacroix, along with a selection of their most pivotal postwar designs.
The exhibition, which spans the decade from 1947 to 1957, begins with Christian Dior’s introduction of his hourglass silhouette – cropped jackets and voluminous skirts – deemed extravagant after the war for the extensive use of fabric, in a move that helped define both the era and his “New Look” ensemble.
“There were 60 couture houses at the beginning of the 1950s and by the end of the decade there were around 30,” says Saillard. “Today, however, we have designers such as Yiqing Yin and Bouchra Jarrar who are revitalising the sector.”
In addition to Dior’s wasp-waist suits, there are outlandish Schiaparelli skirts with oversized pockets and an elegant evening dress from Madame Grès.
Alongside the cocktail dresses section, there are rooms devoted to some of the other half-dozen daily wardrobe changes a woman of the era might have made – from a Christian Dior “Bernique” daytime ensemble to a Carven “Esperanto” white alpaca wool day suit (1951) topped with a geometric black horse hair design. Shown alongside it is a fitted cocktail dress from Chanel.
Other notable (and rare) Coco Chanel-designed pieces from the 1950s include a pleated wool dress dating back to 1954.
Elsewhere, early precursors to French ready-to-wear are seen in Lanvin’s yellow beach dress, while asymmetrical designs by Jacques Fath – along with Dior and Balenciaga – feature heavily.
“It was a spectacular decade and a big part of our French history,” adds Saillard. “Alber Elbaz, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld have all done collections inspired by the 1950s and, with TV shows such as Mad Men, you can see this [period] reflected in today’s culture.”
‘Les Années 50: La Mode en France, 1947-1957’ runs to November 2 at the Palais Galliera: Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
Photograph: Henry Clarke / Galliera / Roger-Viollet