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Paris, Capital of Fashion

Special Exhibitions Gallery
September 6, 2019 – January 4, 2020
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Paris is widely regarded as “the most glamorous and competitive of the world’s fashion capitals” (to quote The New Yorker). But how and why did Paris acquire this reputation? The history of Paris fashion is usually presented, simplistically, as a genealogy of genius, dominated by “the great designers,” “kings,” or “dictators of fashion.” Paris, Capital of Fashion is the first exhibition to explore the cultural construction of Paris as the capital of fashion.
Curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, it features approximately 100 objects, dating from the 18th century to the present. The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly book, Paris, Capital of Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2019), edited by Steele, who is also the author of Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. In addition, there will be a free symposium on October 18, 2019.
court dress in ivory patterned stripe silk brocaded with multicolor floral and feather bouquets and leopard pattern bows
Robe à la française, 1755-1760, France. The Museum at FIT, P82.27.1
runway image of model in court dress
Christian Dior (John Galliano), dress, fall/winter 2000-2001 haute couture. Photograph © Guy Marineau.

Paris, Capital of Fashion opens with an introductory gallery that places Paris within a global context, presenting it in dialogue with other fashion capitals, especially New York. By presenting an original couture suit by Chanel together with a virtually identical licensed copy sold by Orbach’s department store, for example, the exhibition demonstrates how the idea of Paris fashion “works” across fashion cultures, appealing to elite American women and making money for American manufacturers and retailers..
Entering the main gallery, visitors are immersed in the mythic glamour of Paris fashion as the exhibition traces a trajectory from royal splendor at Versailles to the spectacle of haute couture today. An 18th-century robe à la française is juxtaposed with a haute couture creation for Christian Dior, which was inspired by Marie Antoinette. Clothing and accessories will be drawn from museums in Europe, Britain, and North America, as well as from couture archives and private collections.
The development of the haute couture transformed women’s fashion from an artisanal craft into big business and high art. In the late 19th century, Charles Frederick Worth praised his American clients, saying they had “the faces, the figures, and the francs.” Among his dresses on display is the famous “Electric Light Dress” worn by New York’s Mrs. Astor. After World War II, the haute couture entered a new golden age from 1947 to 1957 and, by the 1980s, the haute couture was recognized as part of the unique patrimony of France.
calf length evening cape in doubled red silk crepe de chine crinkled and smocked along curved edges of cocoon silhouette, crimson feather trim forming shawl collar and wide hem band
Gabrielle Chanel, evening cape, 1927, France. The Museum at FIT, 96.69.15
red long sleeve cocktail dress with coordinating black tie at neck
Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert, cocktail dress, 1952, USA. The Museum at FIT, 2013.19.1
corset hat in deep red satin and lace
Christian Dior (Stephen Jones), top hat, fall 2000, France. The Museum at FIT, 2003.70.1
In today’s era of globalization, foreign designers often choose to show their collections in Paris, home to luxury conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering. In a world with many fashion cities, Paris defends its title of world capital of fashion by producing and maintaining the aura of Paris fashion.
Original Chanel suit on left with licensed copy on right
(L) Suit by Gabrielle Chanel, 1966, France.
(R) Licensed copy of a Chanel day suit, c. 1967, USA.
On Wednesday, September 4, 2019, the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT honored iconic footwear designer Christian Louboutin with its 2019 Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion at a luncheon at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. After the luncheon, Mr. Louboutin joined Dr. Valerie Steele for an intimate conversation on his career. Listen to the audio below. View Transcript.

The publication, Paris, Capital of Fashion (Bloomsbury), was edited by Valerie Steele with additional contributions by Christopher Breward, Grazia dʼAnnunzio, Antonia Finnane, David Gilbert, Sophie Kurkdjian, and Agnès Rocamora. The book will be released in September 2019.
Paris, Capital of Fashion by Valerie Steele book cover
Paris, Capital of Fashion by Valerie Steele
(Bloomsbury, 2019)
In conjunction with the exhibition, Paris, Capital of Fashion, The Museum at FIT will hold a symposium on October 18, 2019. Confirmed symposium speakers include all of the contributors to the catalog, among others. Register online.
Paris, Capital of Fashion has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT, The Coby Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov. Additional support was provided by Chargeurs Philanthropies and Chargeurs Creative Collection. Live captioning of the symposium is provided, in part, by a grant from NYSCA/Theatre Development Fund’s TAP Plus. We also thank the Château de Versailles, Art Graphique & Patrimoine, and EPV/Thomas Garnier for providing photographs of the Hall of Mirrors, including a photogrammetric survey of the vaulted ceiling.
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