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July 29 2014

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A Pretty Scandal: Revisiting the Fifties at the Palais Galliera

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Fifties dresses

Long before Olivier Saillard arrived to shake things up as director of the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum of the City of Paris had established a tradition of mounting exhibitions around a given decade, such as the twenties or thirties.

With The 50s: Fashion in France, 1947-1957, which opens on July 12, Saillard sought to honor that heritage and also remind the world that the fifties, at least in fashion terms, was a few years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. “It was really that revolutionary bomb of Christian Dior’s New Look in 1947 that brought the decade into the fifties,” Saillard commented during a preview. A decade later, Mr. Dior died suddenly and his young assistant, Yves Saint Laurent, moved to the helm. In between those bookends flourished what was arguably the last golden era of couture. “I like the idea of putting the couture heritage out there, because right now we’re seeing several young designers who are redeveloping it in their own way,” observed Saillard. “It’s also an era that’s joliment scandaleuse [prettily scandalous] as much at the beginning as the end.”

The Galliera’s considerable trove includes a lot of Dior. (Consider for a moment that by the mid-fifties, Dior alone accounted for 49 percent of French fashion’s total exports.) A Bar suit stands sentry at the entrance, followed swiftly by the rose pink Bonbon dress from Dior’s first collection and the asymmetrical peplumed Bernique (Winter ’50-’51), a recent discovery. But Saillard and his team bring to the fore other remarkable, iconic wares, including a 1954 Chanel suit (a look the Americans were quicker than the French to embrace, he noted, precisely because it was made to be worn from morning to cocktail hour). Elsewhere, a 1954 black Balenciaga suit that looks as though it could have stepped off the runway yesterday keeps company with pieces by Carven, Balmain, Fath, Givenchy, Cardin, Schiaparelli, and Saint Laurent, among others. All-but-unknowns get play, too, such as Jean Dessès, Grès, Henry a la Pensée, and Jacques Heim, a star of the time who costumed films such as Falbalas (known in English as Paris Frills).

“There’s a real feeling of destiny about this decade,” observed Saillard. “When you map out the stars, there are so many houses we still talk about. Givenchy, Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld were taking their first steps in fashion, and it’s also a time when future greats, such as Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier, were born. So many names are anchored in that decade in one way or another, it’s very strange.”

The show’s staging resurrects old nuggets from fashion’s lexicon (day suit, day dress, late-afternoon dress, city dress, tea dress, travel coat, etc.), a reminder of how much things have changed. “Today it’s just a dress,” quipped Saillard, rattling off a few numbers that speak volumes, too: There were 106 couture houses in Paris in 1946, a number that had dwindled to thirty-six by 1958.

Given that there are more than a hundred pieces displayed, highlights are too numerous to list here, but they include clever beachwear (a yellow popover by Hermès practically begs for re-edition), accessories, and evening dresses once worn by style icons: the Duchess of Windsor’s Palmyre dress by Dior (1952) is one of the museum’s most precious pieces. Nearby, the 1957 Opium dress from Dior’s last collection (Winter 1957) was donated by Best Dressed legend Jacqueline de Ribes, who will be the subject of her own exhibition at the Met next year.

The 50s: Fashion in France, 1947-1957 runs from July 12 to November 2 at Paris’ Palais Galliera

Photo: Courtesy Photo

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