The prototype for the modern fashion show is generally attributed to Charles Frederick Worth, the English-born, Paris-based couturier who opened his salon in 1858. Although Paris had been the epicenter of fashion for a century, Worth helped to further its reputation. In her thorough examination of the framework of the fashion industry, entitled Fashion-ology, the sociologist Yuniya Kawamura writes that Worth viewed himself as an artist; as such, he helped to forge a new perception of clothing makers, elevating them from the status of craftspeople to that of couturiers and designers. Yet his idea to show his designs on living models (then referred to as mannequins) was not new. Worth had taken inspiration from his previous employer, the Parisian mercer Gagelin et Opigez. There, shopgirls were employed to model the ready-made capes and shawls offered for sale. Beginning in 1847, Worth worked directly with the shopgirls, developing sales pitches that further promoted the shop’s fashionable wares to its aristocratic clientele.
Worth’s position at Gagelin afforded him insight into the importance of viewing fashion on a moving body. Furthermore, Marie Vernet, the woman who would become Worth’s wife, was employed as a model at Gagelin. She later brought her expertise to her husband’s couture house. As curator Michelle Tollini Finamore points out in her history of the fashion show, part of Vernet’s job entailed dressing in the latest styles fashioned by her husband, and then traveling to “socially important” parts of Paris to be seen and admired. Yet there were also presentations of Worth’s clothing on live models within his couture salon. Such events were integral to his business model, and were likely taking place by the 1860s. Paul Poiret, one of the great couturiers of the early twentieth century, worked at the House of Worth before starting his own label. In his 1931 autobiography, King of Fashion, Poiret wrote that Worth proved that the wooden mannequin (or dress form) was far surpassed by the living model. Poiret would make his own mark on the history of fashion presentations, conceiving of traveling “mannequin tours” akin to the modern trunk show and, in 1911, becoming the first couturier to use a film of a “mannequin parade”—as the live presentations had come to be called—as a promotional tool.
Worth’s fashion presentations not only appealed to his elite clientele, but they were also staged for an international group of manufacturers, helping to establish a precedent for the exportation of high fashion that would further develop during the twentieth century. The success of Worth’s live fashion showings inspired other couturiers to arrange similar events. Staged within the posh atmosphere of couture salons, they occurred at irregular intervals, depending on the needs of the clientele. Although they could be presented innumerable times, Worth designed two collections per year, based directly on his clients’ needs: one designated for the spring/summer season, and the other for fall/winter. In their research into an extensive archive of photographs from the House of Worth, fashion historians Amy de la Haye and Valerie D. Mendes mention that the couturier debuted his collections several months in advance of the season for which they were intended. Such attention to the fashion seasons was one of Worth’s numerous innovations.
The fashion show in its modern form developed during the early years of the twentieth century. Caroline Evans, one of few fashion historians to have thoroughly researched this topic, writes in her history of fashion models that the English couturier Lucy Duff Gordon, known professionally as Lucile, claimed to have invented the mannequin parade. Although knowledge of Worth’s and other couturiers’ earlier business practices show that this was an overstatement, Lucile’s fashion shows were significant, and their theatricality helped to establish a new precedent. In her 1932 autobiography, Lucile wrote of the importance she placed on selecting goddess-like models (each of whom became known by an exotic new moniker), crafting a showroom that was simultaneously welcoming and elegant, and giving each of her garments a poetic name. She wanted her clients to get the feeling that they were attending a social event, such as afternoon tea, rather than a business affair. She was also the first couturier to create a special stage for her models, and to set her presentations to music. Historian Janice Miller’s writing on “Catwalk Music” underscores Lucile’s prescience, explaining that descriptions of the garments on parade, rather than musical accompaniment, remained common until the mid-twentieth century.
Lucile eventually expanded her business to include salons in New York, Chicago, and Paris, where her fashion presentations became spectacles that drew enormous crowds and could last up to three hours. Although it is evident that she was not the first couturier in Europe to show her work on live models, it is possible that she was the first to do so in the United States. In his book History of International Fashion, Didier Grumbach, former president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, observes that Lucile was the first international couturier to be invited to present her collection in Paris.
Beginning around 1908, as mannequin parades became an increasingly popular form of elite entertainment, many couture houses began to present their collections at fixed times during the afternoon. It was also during the first decade of the twentieth century that the term “fashion show” came to be used in its current context. As historian Elspeth H. Brown notes in her studies of fashion modeling, “fashion show” was initially a trade term that described window displays of goods and mannequins in department stores; after 1910, it became used to describe presentations of clothing worn by live models. Brown’s research also highlights an event that can be considered a precursor to the concept of fashion week: in 1915, when the events of World War I precluded many American women from making visits to their favorite couture houses, a group of Parisian designers organized a showing of their work in New York, the established fashion capital of the United States. Their designs were specially targeted toward the American market and were, for the first time, conveniently scheduled to be shown within a short time frame.
A more formalized calendar of haute couture fashion showings, with fixed dates, was established after World War I. In his book The Empire of Fashion, the philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky argues that this systemization of the seasonal, biannual collections regulated the pace of fashion and accustomed clients to the regular turnover of clothing styles. This calendar also corresponded to an increase in foreign fashion buyers visiting Paris, who could plan their trips in order to view multiple collections easily. Simultaneously, greater numbers of couturiers were recognizing the importance of regularly showing their collections outside of Paris. Buyers in American department stores and their clientele were especially keen to view—and replicate—the latest Parisian designs. In her research on the transatlantic fashion trade during the 1950s, curator Alexandra Palmer underscored that an American retailer’s couture offerings, sold in the form of licensed copies, were often essential to its reputation. Beginning as early as the 1910s, fashion shows featuring Paris couture designs were staged within American department stores to garner publicity and encourage sales.
The exchange between Paris and New York was critical to the development of a more international fashion system, but as early as the 1930s, some American fashion designers were eager to prove that they had come into their own. They crafted a petition in May 1934, requesting that the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, officially designate a New York Fashion Week. Such a decision would challenge the reign of Paris as the capital of fashion by featuring clothing that was exclusively designed and made in New York. This request would not come to fruition until 1943, when the fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, then working as press director of an organization called the New York Dress Institute, organized what is typically considered the first official fashion week. Initially referred to as “Fashion Press Week,” this was a milestone that came at a critical time in fashion history. Because of World War II, American fashion editors and manufacturers no longer had access to the French fashion collections on which they had so long relied, and thus had little choice but to make significant changes to their business practices. In her history of the Council of the Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), another organization established by Lambert, fashion curator Patricia Mears writes that the convenience of press week—with its centralized and condensed showings to fashion editors—resulted in far greater press coverage for the designers involved. New York also set itself apart with its emphasis on ready-to-wear-fashion: costly haute couture still dominated in Paris. Historian John Tiffany writes that in spite of the greater accessibility of New York fashion, Lambert was careful to position her press week as a sophisticated affair, staging it in locations such as Manhattan’s glitzy Plaza Hotel. While the presentations in New York had roots in the traditions of Paris fashion, the couture industry’s governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, did not organize what is generally considered the first Paris Fashion Week until 1945.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Lambert and her colleagues, American-designed ready-to-wear fashion began to challenge the dominance of French haute couture within the United States. In her writing “How New York Stole Modern Fashion,” the geographer Norma Rantisi explains that by the mid-twentieth century, the fashion collections presented by New York-based department stores, fashion labels, and wholesale manufacturers were receiving consistent and favorable coverage by the fashion press. American designers such as Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, and Pauline Trigère thrived during the World War II era, and they continued to be prominent arbiters of fashion after the war ended.
Paris and New York dominated as the world’s fashion capitals until the 1950s, when designers in Florence and London began to organize their own calendars of fashion shows. (Florence and Milan both vied to be known as the fashion capital of Italy, with Milan eventually dominating; Florence is now best known for menswear). By the latter half of the 1960s, several influential French couturiers—including André Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent—had launched ready-to-wear lines in addition to their couture collections. This resulted in the expansion of the fashion calendar in Paris, where ready-to-wear collections were initially presented two weeks after the couture shows. In the early twenty-first century, the Paris couture and ready-to-wear shows are separated by six weeks, and couture collections continue to be presented first.
Since the mid-1980s, the term “fashion week” has been used to describe the seasonal fashion shows and related events. Fashion weeks held in what are known as the “Big Four” cities—Paris, New York, London, and Milan—continue to be the most celebrated, but they are increasingly challenged by the development of fashion weeks in countless other locations around the world. In his chapter for the book Fashion’s World Cities, the geographic historian David Gilbert observed that as the number of fashion weeks began to increase during the mid-twentieth century, the lives of international buyers turned into a road show—an observation that is even more acute during the early twenty-first century, as hundreds of cities worldwide vie for recognition.
Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian-born, Paris-based couturier best known for uniting fashion with art, is considered the first designer to have presented themed fashion collections. She showed the first of these, entitled “Stop, Look and Listen,” in 1935. In her extensive research on Schiaparelli, the curator Dilys Blum observed that the collection was simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and self-referential, and included fabric printed with a collage of the designer’s press clippings. Later collections included “The Circus Comes to Town” and “Lucky Stars.” Such spirited themes inspired a new mode of presentation influenced by theater, with music and lighting that corresponded to witty jokes and choreography. Schiaparelli’s fashion shows marked a deliberate departure from the staid procession of models typical of many other couture houses.
In spite of Schiaparelli’s innovations, most couture fashion presentations continued to be formal and lengthy, due in large part to the number of designs shown. During the 1950s—a decade that is often considered to be the golden age of haute couture—a collection of nearly 200 designs was not uncommon. In his autobiography, Christian Dior, the leading arbiter of 1950s fashion, noted that clients and buyers occasionally complained about the length of couture shows, which could run for two hours without an interval. During the following decade, several young, innovative designers sought to lessen the length and formality of these events. Mary Quant, the ready-to-wear designer who led the 1960s fashion revolution in London, organized fast-paced, entertaining shows that corresponded to her youthful clothing styles. André Courrèges brought a similar mode of presentation into the realm of couture, sending his models quickly down the runway to the beat of modern music. In his fundamental text The Language of Fashion, philosopher Roland Barthes identified the style of Courrèges’s fashion shows as a key element in the designer’s reputation as a futurist. Curator Olivier Saillard notes that the average length of a fashion show decreased to approximately forty minutes during the 1960s, fell to twenty minutes during the 1990s, and was further abbreviated to between seven and eleven minutes by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
During the 1970s, several events staged outside of the regular calendar established the concept of the fashion show as a high-profile spectacle. The Battle of Versailles, which took place within the French palace in November 1973, is among the most memorable. As the journalist Robin Givhan writes in her book on the subject, the “battle” was originally planned as a fundraising event to help fund repairs to the palace, but quickly turned into a fashion spectacular that pitted such venerated French couturiers as Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent against American ready-to-wear designers, a group that included Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Halston. Many historians believe that the American designers “won” the battle, due in part to the exuberant manner in which their diverse group of models presented the clothing. In the book Fashion Show: Paris Style, Didier Grumbach recalled another important event staged in Tokyo in 1978, entitled “The Best Six.” Organized by the influential Japanese designer Hanae Mori, the show featured work by Mori herself, fellow Tokyo-based designer Issey Miyake, the aforementioned New Yorker Stephen Burrows, Thierry Mugler from Paris, Milan-based designer Gianni Versace, and Jean Muir from London. Grumbach argues that late 1970s fashion embodied joy, freedom, and hope, and those concepts were expressed through dynamic runway shows. It is also clear that fashion presentations were becoming a truly international affair.
According to fashion journalist Danièle Bott, it was Thierry Mugler who truly transformed the runway show into a momentous event. To celebrate his label’s tenth anniversary in 1984, Mugler staged a runway show that accommodated 6,000 guests. For his twentieth anniversary, Mugler organized his show at the landmark Paris venue Cirque D’Hiver. The entire event was broadcast live and played on television channels around the world, allowing unprecedented, widespread access to a fashion show. In her summary “Fashion Week,” fashion historian Lise Skov writes that the idea of the fashion show as televised entertainment resulted in a drastic increase in press attendance. The drama of Mugler’s shows—which included happenings such as the supermodel Pat Cleveland being lowered from the ceiling—was also influential. In her book Fashion at the Edge, Caroline Evans writes that during the 1990s, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen were credited with reviving couture presentations through their own dramatic, compelling runway shows that were often focused as much on spectacle as they were on the clothes themselves.
The presentation of runway collections in unorthodox settings—such as churches, railroad stations, and even the Great Wall of China—became another means of drawing attention to a designer or label. As fashion historian Nathalie Khan noted in her article “Catwalk Politics,” these locations often had little to do with the designer’s ethos or political stance, with some notable exceptions. For his spring/summer 1990 show, Belgian designer Martin Margiela invited guests to the far-flung 20th arrondissement in Paris, where the raw, deconstructed aspects of his garments were matched by the graffiti-painted walls and rubble around which they were presented. Journalists noted that Margiela’s aesthetic highlighted his disillusionment with fashion’s status quo, and simultaneously forged a new aesthetic vocabulary. Additionally, Margiela knowingly disrupted the concept of the centralized fashion week venues, proving that excitement surrounding a designer or their shows can occasionally overshadow convenience.
Stemming from developments that began to take shape during the 1990s, technological advancements, globalization, and celebrity culture have each played a significant role in changes to the presentation of fashion during the early twenty-first century. In 1998, Helmut Lang became the first major designer to live-stream his new collection online. This bold, forward-thinking move allowed viewers from around the world to witness Lang’s latest creations instantaneously. The live-streaming of fashion shows has now become commonplace, a trend that sociologist Agnès Rocamora identifies as contemporary fashion’s predilection toward speed and immediacy in her article “New Fashion Times: Fashion and Digital Media.” Yet as high fashion becomes more visible and less elitist, it is also more vulnerable to copying. In her writing entitled “Global Fashion Local Tradition: On the Globalisation of Fashion,” fashion theorist José Teunissen notes that the Internet allows fast-fashion brands to rapidly imitate what is seen on the runways, and low-end knockoffs of high-end styles are often made available within six weeks—months before the designer pieces themselves are delivered to stores. As a means to counteract the lag between the fashion show and the availability of the new collections in stores, some brands have begun to experiment with a “see now, buy now” plan, which allows consumers to purchase styles as soon as they appear on the runway. This concept was pioneered by the British luxury brand Burberry in 2016, at which time the company also announced that it would present men’s and women’s collections together. Burberry also proposed a “season-less” model that dispenses with the traditional designations of fall/winter and spring/summer, instead referring to the collections as February and September—the months in which the garments become available for purchase.
Some experts anticipate that the influence of live-streaming, in addition to the popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, will eventually replace the traditional fashion show. This prediction is not unfounded. In an article entitled “Why Stage Fashion Shows?,” Imran Amed, the founder of the website Business of Fashion, describes a 2015 video released by the American designer Tom Ford in lieu of a runway presentation. Ford felt that since runway shows had become focused on the creation of imagery for social media, he wanted to present a compelling, cinematic presentation that was intended for online viewing from its inception. Ideas such as Ford’s also circumvent the enormous cost of producing live fashion shows. Furthermore, as scholar Barbara Vinken explains in her book Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System, “Fashion is now made, worn and displayed, not by the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy, but on the street. The great cities—London, Berlin, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Rome—are the theatrum mundi on which it makes its entrance.” Images of street fashions are circulated online, through websites, blogs, and various social media platforms, and effectively transform city sidewalks into the fashion catwalk.
The Internet has also propelled high fashion to become an increasingly global phenomenon. In 2012, Olivier Saillard noticed that the Paris fashion calendar included designers of twenty-three different nationalities. Furthermore, the quick and widespread dissemination of fashion imagery has led to the development of new fashion weeks around the world—a trend that took shape during the late 1990s and which has expanded rapidly during the early twenty-first century. As curator Anne van der Zwaag observes in her essay on fashion weeks, many of these are supported by their local governments, and rely to a lesser extent on commercial sponsors. Whereas the fashion shows in the “Big Four” cities generally highlight the latest creations from well-known designers, collection presentations in other cities are an important means of providing exposure for up-and-coming talent. They also promote tourism and stimulate regional economies. In her writing on what has historically been a Eurocentric fashion system, Jennifer Craik asserts that non-European fashion capitals usually fall into one of two categories: “places where local (customary or traditional) fashion and dress cultures have been supplanted or embellished by Western fashion and dress,” and “places that have been settled by Europeans who have imposed a largely European culture upon the country or city.” Some cities feature a mixture of these elements.
The increasing influence of celebrity culture began to make a substantial impact on the fashion industry during the 1990s. Journalist Teri Agins, author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers, writes that celebrities literally began to unseat the exclusive crowd of fashion buyers, editors, and select clients at fashion shows. New York Fashion Week, especially, benefited from the attention gained from attendance by high-profile celebrities. In her article “Fashion Journalism,” Marylou Luther, creative director of the Fashion Group International, described the CFDA’s initiative to produce major New York shows under tents set up in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, a plan implemented to better compete with European fashion capitals. The centrality and elevated glamour of the shows increased celebrity attendance, with many celebrities taking front-row seats. In 1998, emboldened by their city’s elevated reputation, New York-based designers Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein succeeded in reinventing the established fashion calendar. Whereas New York Fashion Week had previously lagged behind the shows in London, Milan, and Paris, Lang and Klein scheduled the New York shows to be presented first. This revised schedule persists during the early twenty-first century.
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