Sunday, 17 January 2010

The elusive fashion designer caught on film

1950s fashion shoot, originally uploaded by Trevira.

What is going on here? Its impossible to know for sure, but I like to speculate that its the fashion designer emerging from the shadows to express his robust opinion about the photoshoot (and perhaps the merits or otherwise of the photographer), just as the shutter clicks.

Although this is a generalisation, for the most part fashion designers weren't always the recognisable public figures they are today. Most people - even those with little interest in fashion - will be able to summon up a mental image of designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, partly because each has a very distinctive style and self-presentation that is instantly recognisable. But also because there is simply much more media out there now, and designers are expected to take part in the publicity machine in a way that just wasn't the case in previous decades.

However, the famous Parisian couturier Paul Poiret was decades ahead of his time, being a hugely accomplished self-publicist. His lavishly decadent costume parties were widely covered in the press, and his larger-than-life persona informed, and fed back into, the perception of his couture house. Poiret was about ostentation, exoticism, a romantic and picturesque kind of modernity and a challenge to conventions (let's not forget that he was credited with freeing women from the corset, which might or might not be true, but anyway).

This precious short film supposedly shows Poiret arriving from Paris at Hounslow airport with two of his mannequins (models), probably another stunt to attract the press since this would have been an appealing novelty item. In fact, it is Poiret himself who runs to greet the plane (look closely at that first figure to appear as it taxis to a halt), and help his models out of it, so perhaps he had arrived earlier:


There's no date given for this film, so I'm guessing early 1920s, by which time his house was already in terminal decline and, sadly, would close in 1929.

Leaping forward at least a decade, this delightful film from 1938 features the Greek-born Parisian couturier Jean Dessès, who had opened his couture house only the year before. We are invited into his busy workroom, and the salon where a fashion show is being presented. M. Dessès is shown creating a gown on a live model, and there's a painful pun by the perky narrator ("gauze and effect"!):


Jean Dessès is little known these days, and the name Olive O'Neill will probably mean even less to most people. She was, in fact, a very important figure in the development of ready-to-wear clothing in Britain.

Born in Southport, she came to work for the fledgling brand Dorville in London in the 1920s, where she began designing classic and elegant clothes to supplement their primary knitwear line. Having set up her own factory, she studied and adopted American methods of manufacture, grading and sizing, and visited America every year to keep up with new developments. O'Neill was an innovator in textiles too, co-operating with fabric manufacturers to produce exclusive materials and designs. (This information was gathered from Elizabeth Ewing's History of 20th Century Fashion).

This great short film shows the creation of a new dress, from Olive O'Neill's rapid sketch to the final product. Although far less glamorous than the previous film - it was shot in the last months of the Second World War, mind you - it is a fascinating glimpse of a forgotten designer:


Returning to glamour and glitz, Christian Dior was perhaps the most famous designer of the 1950s. Find yourself a seat in the Savoy Hotel, London and join the well-heeled guests (including British designer Norman Hartnell) for a very exclusive fashion show from 1950:


I'm charmed by M. Dior's expression - he looks captivated, like he's seeing his creations for the first time. Incidentally, that £500 gown would cost you about £12,835 in today's money (thanks to Measuring Worth for that calculation).

Another Paris luminary, and a personal favourite of mine, is Elsa Schiaparelli. This is the only film I could find of her on the British Pathé website. She is seen at a Dublin fashion show in 1953, admiring the Irish fashions on display. Sadly her own business was in trouble at this time, and was closed the following year:


Last up is this clip from 1958 of a young Yves Saint Laurent presenting his collection for Dior at Blenheim Palace. Princess Margaret presides, and looks completely in her element!:


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