The year 1947 left its stamp on the history of fashion in the form of a new silhouette. With his first spring/summer haute couture collection, Christian Dior disrupted old codes with what the fashion editors immediately christened The New Look. Far removed from the canons of elegance imposed by the austere War years, this innovation ushered in the golden age of Parisian haute couture: the 1950s. 'Haute couture' stood for a system turning out luxurious, typically Parisian clothes for women: the garment was to be created in its entirety to the client's measurements, using the finest materials and the most demanding levels of skill.
Comprising over 7,000 labelled items from some thirty different makers, this is one of the most abundant, representative and exhaustive collections of its kind in the world – and a perfect reflection of the creative diversity of Paris's couture houses: Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Grès, Carven, Fath and Balmain in the 1950s were the forerunners of Yves Saint Laurent, Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin in the 1960s. With ready-to-wear prevailing over haute couture in the 1970s, the department's contents continue to provide a graphic illustration of the creativity of recent periods, with high points including garments by Christian Lacroix and by John Galliano for Christian Dior.
The many evening gowns, worn for galas, balls and premières are emblems of haute couture that fuelled the collective imagination.
At the same time, couturiers were alert to the need for discretion in more sober everyday situations, as was made clear by the taste and technical perfection of their dresses, suits and ensembles. The department's collection offers many illustrations of the double-edged savoir faire that makes haute couture what it is.
The collection began during the 1950s with donations by haute couture clients, or in the form of donations as tributes to a wife or mother, which explains the preponderance of these elegant memorabilia. Radical expansion came when the museum was set up in the Palais Galliera in 1977, with donations from the Duchess of Windsor, the Duchesse d'Orléans, Baroness Rothschild and Princess Grace of Monaco. These major additions were combined with gifts from the leading couture houses, which were keen to see their work preserved for the future. Examples include Cristobal Balenciaga, who gave Galliera prototypes from his most recent colections, and Yves Saint Laurent. There was, too, Givenchy whose gift included items from Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe.