“Paris Refashioned 1957-1968,” a new exhibition (through April 15) at the Museum at FIT demonstrates that, contrary to what is generally believed, London’s youthquake movement was not the whole story when it comes to fashion of that hallowed era. Curator Colleen Hill has long studied and been fascinated with this 11 year French era, writing a companion book.
The exhibition, culled from the museum’s permanent collection, is arranged chronologically — the anteroom is used to display famous examples of couture by well renowned designers including Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Nina Ricci, Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin from the earlier years 1957-1960.
Here, along with the fashions, you’ll find a case of shoes and one of hats, as well as a wall of videos showing clips from various films that have a fashion theme such as Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy in “Funny Face,” Catherine Deneuve in Yves Saint Laurent in “Belle de Jour,” and Jane Fonda in Paco Rabanne in “Barbarella.” There are also videos from fashion shows of that era — much more formal and serious affairs than what is the norm today.
As you enter the main room, you will notice that the influence of pret-a-porter aka ready-to-wear has pretty much exploded. By the early ’60s, what had begun towards the end of the previous decade with a few young, talented couturiers has now come to the forefront — challenging the staid system.
Designers such as Andres Courreges (a protege of Balenciaga) along with “stylistes” such as Emmanuelle Khanh, Karl Lagerfeld, Michele Rosier, Sonia Rykiel and others, managed to totally upend the industry to appeal to the large population of young people (more than eleven million citizens were under the age of 15 in 1958). Fun fact: did you know that Saint Laurent was a mere 21 years old when he became creative director at the House of Christian Dior; designing a line of short, swinging, A-line “Trapeze” dresses, definitively shifting fashion to the more relaxed, youthful side.
In 1966, Saint Laurent introduced his ready-to-wear line, Rive Gauche to great success. Courreges had established his own house in 1961, which was revolutionary as it eschewed evening wear in favor of clothes that a model could move briskly in. His 1964 “Space Age” collection experimented with vinyl and was shown on the runway with helmet hats, black tights, shiny black boots — all considered too avant-garde for the average customer, however by 1967
knockoff copies of his cut-out dresses became popular. Also in 1966, Cardin launched his similarly themed “Couture Future” line, and a collection called “Cosmos.” A dress with a cut-out design that was worn by Lauren Bacall is on view here.
This new, younger, shorter silhouette called for flatter shoes such as the white leather Courreges “space boots” with velcro and some interesting eyewear known as “Lunettes Eskimo” (obviously BCA — before cultural appropriation lol) which mimicked Inuit snow goggles. The scholar Vanessa Brown quipped that they were “designed for protection against the metaphorically blinding light levels of the future.”
While some of the old guard–established couturiers such as Balenciaga, Chanel and Madame Gres did not make the transition to ready-to-wear, they still made some adaptations to keep up with la nouvelle mode. Even so, Balenciaga found that it had become impossible to design true couture, closing his business in 1968, around the same time as his onetime protege Emanuel Ungaro started his own RTW line Parallele.
By 1972, the dictates of the fashion world had dissolved allowing a woman to “choose for herself, to interpret the mode according to her own style, taste and figure, to participate in creation without being reined by absolutes,” according to fashion writer Hebe Dorsey.
Although most of this time frame takes place on the edge of my existence and consciousness of fashion, I do remember wearing the poor-boy sweaters, mini skirts and even the label Daniel Hechter, represented here by a leather coat that could be plucked off the mannequin and easily worn onto Seventh Avenue without screaming vintage.