From the beginning of the 20th century to the appearance of Christian Dior's New Look in 1947, the First Half of the 20th Century Department has accumulated over 4000 items.
Callot Soeurs, Chanel, Chéruit, Doeuillet, Doucet, Nicole Groult, Jacques Heim, Lucien Lelong, Jeanne Lanvin, Molyneux, Paquin, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Redfern, Nina Ricci, Rochas, Schiaparelli, Suzanne Talbot, Madeleine Vionnet, Worth; the beginnings of Alix – the future Madame Grès – and of Jean Dessès and Cristobal Balenciaga, who both opened their salons on Avenue George V in 1937; and the work of the American Mainbocher, the Duchess of Windsor's favourite couturier. All these prestigious names are represented in the collection, along with those of couture houses whose memory has now faded slightly: Agnès, Boué Sœurs and Jérôme – and big Paris stores like Les Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine.
Particularly well represented is the flamboyant world of Paul Poiret (1879–1944), that iconic figure of Parisian haute couture, whose most lavish period was pre-1914: some 90 pieces, some of which were worn by his children. There are over 160 samples of the work of Jeanne Lanvin, from her beginning in 1908 to her death in 1946. Certain garments remind us that she initially focused on children’s wear, but others, from the summer of 1937 conjure up the International Exhibition of that year, where she was president of the Haute Couture section.
Invaluable samples from Raoul Dufy and Jean Dunand; a remarkable collection of pieces by Sonia Delaunay, who brought her radical painterly ideas to the world of textiles; and Natalia Gontcharova's association with the Myrbor couture house in the 1920s: all these provide vivid testimony to the close link between fashion and art.
The department is also home to numerous unlabelled garments, some of which are of a quality that suggests the touch of the great houses. Dresses and evening coats indicate that the Roaring Twenties, which brought a wave of female emancipation, euphoria and exuberance, truly were a golden age for embroidery. Drawing on and sometimes combining a host of different sources, fashion raised to the rank of decorative art saw the triumphal influence of ethnography and exoticism on decoration and textiles. In love with movement and freedom, the fashionably slimline, androgynous woman dressed soberly during the day and glitteringly at night. By contrast, the long, tapering, consummately cut robes of the 1930s marked the return of sophistication, femininity and classicism. The bias cut – pioneered by Madeleine Vionnet and taken up by everyone else – followed the body's contours. Inlays, oversewn seams, piping, contrasts between gloss and matte, and interplay of line reveal unrivalled savoir-faire. Evening wear – worn only occasionally and thus better preserved – makes up the greater part of the collection, but there are still examples of day and intimate wear, as well as sports outfits – skiing, tennis, beach, riding – to illustrate the variety of the feminine wardrobe of the time.
Memories live on here: of actress Madame Segond Weber; of Cléo de Mérode and Mistinguett; and of such famously elegant figures as Comtesse Greffulhe, who inspired Marcel Proust; Princess Murat; Anna Gould, wife of the dandy Boni de Castellane; Daisy Fellows; and the Rani of Pudukota.