In little over 15 minutes, a runway show can bring to life a designer’s vision of the future and leave an indelible mark on culture. Far from monolithic, just as fashion itself evolves with the times, so does the concept of the fashion show. From the earliest beginnings (presentations on mannequins for customers), to the introduction of fashion parades featuring live models, the catwalk show as we know it was born in Paris’s gilded ballrooms in the 1910s, and forged by the creative freedom of earliest pioneers—Charles Worth, Paul Poiret and Yves Saint-Laurent—you can trace the beginnings of today’s greats. Without the early pioneers, there would be no Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo or John Galliano.
Below are the fashion pioneers who paved the way for the modern runway show and shaped the global fashion industry that we know today.
A fashion show on the upper deck of the RMS Franconia, 1925. Image credit: Getty Images
Mannequins, models and movement
The Anglo-French haute couturier Charles Frederick Worth is known for making haute couture easier to wear in the late 19th century. Moving away from large crinoline in favour of the princess or straight-line worn by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, made it easier for women to pass through doorways, sit down and move around.
Haute couturiers had traditionally visited clients at home for fittings, but Worth hosted customers at his atelier, starting the tradition of a salon along with the social scene that became part of the brand’s success. Virtuosic craft was most obvious in the Worth bodice, which was made up of 17 pieces of material to ensure a perfect fit. Widely considered to be the father of haute couture, Worth was also the first designer to do away with mannequins, favouring live models, including his wife, Marie Augustine Vernet, when showcasing his collections.
3/12Paul Poiret fits a model while on a tour of the US, circa 1930. Image credit: Getty Images
One of the founding fathers of haute couture, Paul Poiret changed the course of fashion history through both his revolutionary uncorseted silhouettes and his early experimentations with fashion shows in the 1900s. As with modern designers Alessandro Michele and Marc Jacobs, who have used everything from carousels to travelators and experimental choreography within their fashion shows, Poiret wanted to show his designs in motion.
Poiret’s trailblazing concept? Throwing Parisian society balls, including the lavish La mille et deuxième nuit, where Mrs Poiret wore a gilded cage. Poiret’s glittering social network also gave rise to another fashion milestone. In 1911, photographer Edward Steichen shot Poiret’s designs for the April issue of Art & Décoration magazine in what is believed to be one of the first fashion editorials.
Coco Chanel admires a model wearing a flounced brown chiffon evening dress from her collection, 1957. Image credit: Getty Images
The haute couture salon
History remembers revolutionary designer Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel for freeing women from restrictive corsets from the 1920s, with sports-inspired silhouettes cast in lightweight jersey—a fabric associated with men’s underwear at the time. The Chanel wardrobe was all about effortlessness style and functionality, with her designs (signature striped Breton tops and yachting trousers) pioneering a versatility that women’s wardrobes hadn’t known before, which made the salon shows held at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris a revelation. Unbeknown to audiences, Chanel herself would secretly watch their reactions in the reflection of the curved mirror staircase that led to her apartment.
Elsa Schiaparelli watching closely as a model is fitted at her Paris atelier, date unknown. Image credit: Getty Images
Rome-born fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s love of the surrealist art movement—she enjoyed lifelong friendships with artists Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray—saw her pushing the boundaries of what clothes can say.
A central figure in Paris’s fashion scene between the two world wars, Schiaparelli combined the irreverence and intellectualism of surrealism with fashion, giving her designs a unique wit. She was also way ahead of her time when it came to collaborations. Between 1937 and 1940, the designer paired up with Salvador Dalí to create a rotary telephone makeup compact and the ‘shoe hat’ that would have delighted her cultured FROW, among them French poet Jean Cocteau.
Further afield, Schiaparelli also secured an early iteration of Hollywood fashion ambassador, dressing stars including Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, who wore Schiaparelli in 1937 musical comedy Every Day’s a Holiday. It wasn’t all limitless adoration, however. The designer’s close ties with the art world gave her cultural influence beyond fashion, which drew a famously arch observation from Coco Chanel, who referred to Schiaparelli as “that Italian artist who makes clothes”.
Joan Crawford wears a daring Vionnet gown in Vogue, 1938. Image credit: Getty Images
Known for her mastery of the bias cut (a technique of cutting fabric against the grain on a diagonal, to let it drape across the body), French haute couturier Madeleine Vionnet took movement (particularly, dancer Isadora Duncan’s barefoot ritual dances) and Ancient Greek sculpture as her cue for a fresh approach in the 1920s.
Instead of corsetry and padding, Vionnet debuted slinky designs that clung to the body, drawing a roster of high-profile clients including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. The admiration of Hollywood’s elite proved to be Vionnet’s passport. Her first collection presentation took place at American department store Charles & Ray Ladies’ Tailors in New York City, influencing the shows she would go on to hold at her Paris salon on 50 Avenue Montaigne.
Two Dior evening dresses presented at a Paris fashion show, 1948. Image credit: Getty Images
Let in the photographers
By today’s standards, the most iconic post-war designer of his time would be described as a late bloomer. Dior launched his eponymous brand in Paris in 1947, aged 42, with impeccable timing. Just two years after the end of the second world war, his signature ‘New Look’, comprising voluminous full skirts and a structured Bar jacket, marked the end of the necessarily dour wartime wardrobe.
The designer’s debut collection, Corolle, took its name from his flower-like skirt silhouettes, emphasising the rebirth of luxury. The additional genius lay in his talent for showmanship: Dior invited photographers (previously banned from private salon shows) to his 1947 unveiling. With a talent for drawing fans beyond the close circles of his Paris clientele, Dior toured his collections globally including Cape Town and Caracas, bringing personalised programme notes, and ambitiously expanded his market by opening a store in New York in the 1940s.
With his leg in a cast following a skiing accident, Pierre Balmain prepares for his spring fashion show, 1955. Image credit: Getty Images
Like Dior, Pierre Balmain launched his brand in post-war Paris in 1945, unveiling tailored suits, generous use of animal print and opulent evening wear through private salon shows for Parisian society clients. By 1949, Balmain would stage a show further afield in 1952 in New York. His friendship with American writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas was documented in a tribute Stein wrote to the couturier in Vogue on 1 December 1954, aptly titled New grand success of the Paris couture remembered from darker days, in which she cited their friendship and his knack for darning socks as a bright spot during the privations of war. He also dressed Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn, and the Queen Sirikit of Thailand.
Jacques Fath with his models sporting his latest collection, 1949. Image credit: Getty Images
A self-taught designer known for his voracious self-promotion, Jacques Fath first showed his collections within a two-room salon on Rue de la Boétie in Paris, eventually moving to a grander location in 1944. Fath was a master of experimentation—from asymmetry and volume, to the use of unrefined materials (even hemp sacking and sequins made from almond and walnut shells).
He was also a favourite of Hollywood stars Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth, as well as Eva Perón, who famously wore his dress in a portrait painted during her final months as First Lady of Argentina. When the designer died of leukemia in 1954, his wife Geneviève Boucher, once his model and muse, took over as designer, showing her own collection in 1955 before shuttering the brand two years later in 1957.
Model in Hubert de Givenchy, 1952. Image credit: Getty Images
Models and muses
Count Hubert de Givenchy founded his eponymous house in 1952, after cutting his teeth with Jacques Fath and Elsa Schiaparelli. Givenchy’s singular designs took a starkly different approach to those of his teachers, however, as he rebelled against the emphasis they placed upon a woman’s waist, favouring abstract, ballooning silhouettes instead.
Givenchy understood the importance of celebrity as a tool to extend his brand beyond the doors of his Paris salon, launching ready-to-wear line Givenchy Université in 1954 and a menswear collection in 1969. Beyond Paris, his loyal following included Lauren Bacall, Maria Callas, Grace Kelly and Diane Vreeland, but it would be his longtime friendship with Audrey Hepburn that helped canonise the brand. The legendary black dress Hepburn famously wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the brainchild of Givenchy.
Yves Saint-Laurent with model, 1965. Image credit: Getty Images
Credited by many as the founder of the modern women’s wardrobe, Yves Saint-Laurent launched his eponymous brand in 1961 with partner Pierre Bergé, following several seasons as creative director at Dior (a post he took up in 1957 at the age of 21). Saint-Laurent’s progressive ideas—an androgynous mix of trench coats, pant suits and tuxedos that borrowed heavily from menswear—made his eponymous salon on 30 rue Spontini central to Paris’s fashion scene. It was here that Saint-Laurent presented his first collection on 29 January, 1962 to a glittering guestlist that included the Countess of Paris, Princess Anne, the Baroness de Rothschild, Zizi Jeanmaire and Françoise Sagan.
Performance at a gala arranged by the Baroness de Rothschild for Versailles’ restoration, 1973. Image credit: Getty Images
Fashion as theatre
Battle of Versailles
The brainchild of publicist Eleanor Lambert (who founded New York Fashion week in 1943) and Versailles curator Gérald Van der Kemp, the 1973 Battle of Versailles made fashion history as the first official ready-to-wear Paris Fashion Week. Billed as a competition between five French designers (Yves Saint-Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior creative director Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy), and five visiting American designers (Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston and Stephen Burrows), Lambert’s plan yielded suitably glamorous results as designers competed to outdo one another (Yves Saint-Laurent’s show boasted a Bugatti limousine, while Dior opted for a life-size pumpkin carriage). On the day itself, the American line-up was deemed to have the edge thanks to a series of live performances from Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker.
This story was first published by Vogue.in.