Fashioning Our World; Glamour Girl ... Barbara Goalen - the British Supermodel of the Fifties - Photographed by John French

Article excerpt

Byline: Philip Hensher

Of course, these are just frocks, and therefore not necessarily the mostimportant things in the world. But the Victoria & Albert's wonderful show ofthis decade of Paris and London couture is elevated beyond commerce into therealms of sublime craft, and even of art. They are productions of extraordinarybeauty and subtlety; they are also profound witnesses to a cultural moment.

The lavishness of the New Look, as Christian Dior's revolutionary firstcollection of 1947 was termed, was immediately controversial.

From an age of austerity sprang garments using a dozen or more metres to make askirt. The age of the common man and of efficiency seemed to be directlyinsulted by the staggeringly tiny waists; the impractical exaggeration of thefeminine form.

Plenty of people protested against it.

There is an amusing newsreel snippet of an interview with the young HaroldWilson, then the highly censorious President of the Board of Trade.

But fashion, as everyone knows, operates through fantasy.

Very few people could ever have seen one of these extraordinary garments in theflesh, but they seized the collective imagination.

The couturiers of the time were men of exceptional skill, and one of thepleasures of this exhibition is of observing clothes put together in feats,almost, of engineering.

In some garments, the cloth is cut nearly in a single piece, with fewer seamsthan seems possible. In others, the virtuosity is all external, in shimmeringwaterfalls of embroidery and even collage.

It is all about show, but the great masters had quite different ideas abouttheatrical exuberance in their work.

Dior was devoted to shape and silhouette, and everything works towards that.Many of his dresses have systems of concealed fastening so elaborate that thewearer could not possibly put it on by herself. …