Vintage couture in the 20th century

July 6, 2015

Vintage CoutureGorgeous gowns and couture going back 100 years are part of a collection borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum of Art that’s closing soon at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco.  I love me a good fashion exhibition and all the better if it’s got vintage couture. So girlfriend and I drove up to see this amazing collection of dresses that were the height of fashion between 1910 and 1980.  Halston was represented, so was Worth, Dior and Givenchy, not to mention Norell and Mainbocher, among others. Come along and see some of the highlights. Well, more like low lighting, for conservation, so the colors aren’t vivid, sadly. The same was true in person, But some dazzling designs, nonetheless.


These designs scream Roaring 20s, don’t they? You had to be slim with no breasts at all. Considered mild today, they were daring designs in the early 20th century.  All the rage at Downton Abbey!
That’s because just a few short years earlier, women wore dresses like this, called “afternoon dresses.” By Jacques Doucet, 1903. As you can see, that general style lasted quite a long time, into Edwardian times. It’s reminiscent of dresses from the mid 1800s. All I can think of is how those outfits must have felt in the heat and humidity of a southern summer, when there was no A/C,  you couldn’t jump in a pool and the only thing to do was faint.

20150702_093913I love this design, very art deco.


20150702_094502I can imagine an artist wearing this stunning ensemble. The column dress underneath was beautifully pleated, but the tunic makes the look.
20150702_094750I’m not sure if I love or hate this Elsa Schiaparelli flower-seed packet applique dress. One is a pocket.  It’s a mix of homespun prairie and couture.
20150702_094849Here’s another Schiaparelli, a dinner ensemble, very body-conscious, as we say now.
Seriously one of my favorites of the exhibition, by the famous House of Worth in Paris, which features in many novels of the era. This evening dress, ca. 1938, is white, pink and purple silk taffeta chine. I love it. Close up, the construction is perfection. Examining couture closely, you can see that dress design is both creative design and good engineering, because the manipulation of fabric to make the look is so precise. Take a look at how the pattern fits together, and the pleating and gathers in the bodice were impressive. The House of Worth opened its doors 1958 and its haute couture (and ready to wear) was a favorite of the rich.Live models would show clients the ensembles, clients would choose and then measurements were taken and the outfits were made to order. The house was court designer to Empress Eugenie. It closed in 1956 but the brand was revived in 1999.
20150702_095234Stunning piece. The back of this robin’s egg blue evening dress by Givenchy, from 1960 flows gracefully.
I see this is as the late 1950s early 1960s look that it was.
20150702_095341A very pretty Christian Dior evening dress from around 1952-1953.
20150702_095625These were so of their era, weren’t they? On the left, by Madame Eta Hentz, a 1944 navy and white rayon dress, which was another one of my favorites from the show, high style, indeed!  The 1937 dress on the right is called The Tarts and was designed by Elizabeth Hawes, a designer I didn’t know about before.  She was an outspoken feminist and so were her clients. This suggestive motif included arrows appliqued on the front and back to draw attention to the wearer’s erogenous zones. Who knew?


20150702_095822I can’t remember who made this, but the designer traveled the world and worked here with Indian fabric. You can probably guess the era.


20150702_095904The Tigress, by Gilbert Adrian, 1949. It looks that era, no? That’s when outfits were given names like that. Fit for a movie star.


20150702_100004This James Galanos evening dress, 1955, was unbelievably beautiful. The layers of gossamer chiffon lent new meaning to a nautical theme. Another one of my favorites.


20150702_100149This evening ensemble by Arnold Scaasi, 1961, reminds me of a deck of playing cards and Vegas back in the day. I love it, but wouldn’t want to be seated if I wore it. Can you see the origin “current” bubble dress in it?
20150702_100510Charles James’ Clover Leaf ball gown,  1953.   Pink silk faille, copper silk shantung, black silk lace with ivory silk faille backing. The museum added a high tech CAD reproduction of how this gown was built, and it looked like an incredible engineering feat. I don’t know how designers come up with this stuff. But it’s brilliant.



This is called “La Serene” evening dress, by Charles James, 1939. The black peau de soie is manipulated so beautifully, no? Take a closer look.

20150702_100541The woman wearing this couldn’t have a single figure flaw. But really, the most amazing part was how the fabric was gathered and pleated. Creative and beautiful.

And the showstopper. by Charles James:
Do you have a favorite of these? Did you know the names of the designers represented in this spectacular show?

37 comments on “Vintage couture in the 20th century
  1. Thank you for the rich content. Great pictures and great use of vocabulary regarding fashion design. I learned a lot. I’m going to share this with my teen girl. She’s gaining greater interest in fashion, and this will be a good primer to get her started.

  2. Shann Eva says:

    Gorgeous dresses! I wish I could see them in person. I will have to check and see if we have any fashion exhibits coming up. Thanks for the great idea.

  3. All are stunning examples of creativity! With the exception of the seed packet dress, of course. LOL. The Tigress gave me goosebumps! Thanks for posting this. The fashion freak in me is a very happy girl right now.

  4. Laurel Regan says:

    What stunning dresses! I love seeing how design and trends change throughout the years. This must have been a fabulous exhibit – thank you for sharing it with those of us who can’t attend in person!

  5. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    These items are gorgeous!!! Oh, how I would have loved to go to this exhibit. What fun!

  6. Sacha says:

    These are amazingly beautiful

  7. I really enjoy a beautiful dress. The Schiaparelli, a dinner ensemble, is quite exquisite. Something I would wear. This would be a fun exhibit to attend.

  8. Ines Roe says:

    What stunning dresses. I would absolutely were may of them (ok – maybe some not) but I just love to look at pretty dresses – must have been a wonderful exhibit.

  9. Lovely, one and all! I adore each for various reasons. Such works of art, and to think women actually wore such things. Truly lovely pieces.

  10. Lana says:

    How wonderful that you got to see this exhibit – I’m very envious :)! My favorite is the Charles James gown. To me, many fashion pieces are works of art, and these certainly fit!

  11. So many gorgeous pieces here. I love seeing how fashion has changed over the years.

  12. Liz Mays says:

    That just makes me want to try them all on! It’s sooooo much fun to see fashion couture through the decades.

  13. Wow, I really love how these all look. Got some great designs.

  14. I wish I had to body to wear one of the those dresses. They are fabulous.

  15. Lux says:

    Wow. All these gorgeousness in this post will not fade in the fashion world for a long long time.

  16. Jeanine says:

    Wow so many beautiful dresses. I’m a huge fan of vintage couture. I love looking at it all!

  17. I’m obsessed with that little black number with the pink top and capped sleeves, though there were a few that looked like something Betty Draper from “Mad Men” would wear and I loved those too. What a gorgeous exhibit! – Jerusha,

  18. Dogvills says:

    These vintage dresses are gorgeous. I wish I could fit in them!

  19. Elizabeth O. says:

    I love vintage dresses and these are all so pretty. I wish I could see them, too.

  20. Amy says:

    Lovely dresses. Especially like the roaring 20s, Christian Dior evening dress, the tight pleated one, and the show stopper. Wow! Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  21. celeste says:

    There are so many gorgeous dresses. I love different fabric and details.

  22. Ashley says:

    Sometimes I wish I grew up in a different era, simply for the style! LOVE the Charles James’ Clover Leaf ball gown.

  23. K. Lee Banks says:

    As a seamstress, this post and the gorgeous pictures are fascinating. I think my favorite ones are the clover leaf ball gown and the final red one. And no, I’ve never really followed designers and wouldn’t recognize their creations.

  24. CourtneyLynne says:

    Omg these dresses are so fabulous!! I just love fashion so to see vintage dresses like this would be so cool!

  25. The late 1950s dress is my favorite, though they are all gorgeous. Looking at fashion from times past is so much fun.

  26. Lolette says:

    I too love the 50’s dresses and styles.

  27. This is a beautiful collection! It is interesting to see how certain silhouettes are timeless. Thanks for adding your summer fun to the #funsummerfinds linkup!

    Shellie @ShellieBowdoin

  28. LA CONTESSA says:

    #STYLEFOCUS sent me!
    I went to this and even did a POST AS WELL.
    However, you were much BETTER then ME in remembering who made what!
    I wish we could wear gowns like this today…………..but no one throws a PARTY that requires these outfits!Then again I could be hanging with the WRONG crowd!
    I thought it was a beautiful collection………and that SEED dress…………I’m with YOU!

  29. Rosemond says:

    The Galanos evening dress and the Christian Dior evening gown would have to be my pics, but they are all so gorgeous!

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