Last week, Vogue unveiled its new digital archives, which will allow readers to search and read 110 years of the magazine (for the hefty price of $1500).
We were naturally interested to see what Vogue will offer. The Post is in the middle of a multi-year project to digitize our archives so readers can view our 190 years of issues online. It also prompted us to look back over our own fashion reporting, which covered the art and business of haute couture.
In 1953, for example, a Post article reported how Christian Dior was driving up both hemlines and gown prices. The house of Dior had grossed $7 Million in 1952 by selling his creations for $300 to $2400 apiece:
Will the ladies obey M. Dior?
Christian Dior, tyrant of the hemlines, decrees short skirts for American women. This foxy French designer grosses $7,000,000 a year selling $300-$2400 gowns [$2400 to $20,000 today], and says, “Aren’t people crazy to spend so much on a dress!”
[His] hand-sewn, petticoated, boned, and padded product takes an average of 110 hours to complete, and three fittings are compulsory.
Who can afford it?…Dior, who sells some 6500 originals a year—nearly half of them to Americans—has reason to believe that there are just about 2500 women in the world who have the time, the money and the inclination to dress regularly at his house, rated among the three most expensive.
The Post covered the return of Coco Chanel in 1959:
The fabulous fashion queen reigned in the ‘Twenties as a daring autocrat of feminine style. Three decades later she has returned to rule again…
When she retired, in 1938, Chanel already was a legend. And then, in 1954, she suddenly emerges from fifteen years’ oblivion, acting as if she had merely been out to lunch, and presently reoccupies the throne of fashion!
If such a comeback would be something to write home about in any business, it is unique in the rough little world of dress designing, where lives and memories are short.
Custom-made to the client’s measurements, the average Chanel costs roughly $500* —a price slightly below the Paris top.
What with virtually all the stitching done by hand and with each garment representing about 150 working hours, the output of “originals” is limited—no more than about 1800 a year. *[$3,700 today]
In 1962, Oleg Cassini wrote about fashion trends for the Post between designing gowns for Jackie Kennedy:
For reasons no one can explain logically, styles come and go in cycles that last seven to ten years. Skeptics regard the process as a racket to stimulate sales but a strong motivation is behind it.
That’s great for me as a designer and a manufacturer, but I can’t help deploring the aesthetic damage to fashion.
Women seem to need the emotional lift a new fashion outlook gives them. Sure, overhauling wardrobes periodically runs into money, but I submit it is more desirable than the drab uniformity of clothes in countries where individuality is suppressed.
Women who adhere to the old maxim that elegance is the art of omission, seem to be vanishing. The great majority have a tendency to overload themselves with gewgaws and to fuss over superficialities. Proportionately more money is spent on clothes than ever before, and it is thrown around with an abandon that suggests women are latching onto new styles as an escape from reality.
In 1964, famed journalist William Zinsser considered the challenges posed by that season’s plunging necklines.
Fashion layouts… began to appear last fall illustrating new styles variously known as “the Plunge, “the V,” “the U,” “the Split,” “the Slash” and “the Scoop” which women would start wearing in February.
Well, February is here, and obviously we are all in for a nervous winter and spring. Any way you look at it—and almost any way is possible right now—the bosom is back on the national landscape.
Obviously, the new dresses have been plunged, slashed and scooped for [men’s] benefit…it follows that [men] are supposed to gaze at the semiexposed bosom with some sort of favorable attitude: admiration or reverence or plain old friendly respect. Anyhow, we are supposed to notice. In so doing, we are playing our proper role of cavalier.
But we cannot notice too much, or too long. If we do, we play our other traditional role of boor or lecher. Unluckily, the line separating the two is so thin as to be invisible.
And in 1965, the infamous Rudi Gernreich fretted that fashion was moving out of the hands of the designing elite:
The clothes [at Rudi Gernreich’s new show] satisfied everybody’s longing for the weird, the dramatic, the uncompromising. There were leather suits and loudly striped stockings, reversible jumpers, aviator suits, helmet-hats and ostrich feathers. The colors, equally bizarre, as vivid as barber poles or billboard advertisements, modulate from purple to lavender to hot pink to murky eggplant.
The violence of the colors and the design bludgeoned the onlooker into sudden attention. Some of the costumers, causing the same kind of confusion as certain abstract paintings, looked as if they could be work backwards with the same effect. “My dear,” said a lady in ruffles, “it’s pop art.”
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “a young girl was supposed to look sweet and innocent. But that ideal no longer applies. Before they’re seventeen they cultivate a wild, conscious, sexy look, which is very unnerving…The generation feels defeated; nothing seems to make any difference. The look in clothes expresses an anti-attitude, the result of being bored…If you’re bored, you go for the outrageous gesture. Everything else seems to have lost any meaning.”
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