Paris, Capital of Fashion

Special Exhibitions GallerySeptember 6, 2019 - January 4, 2020
paris capital of fashion September 6, 2019 – January 4, 2020

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court dress in ivory patterned stripe silk brocaded with multicolor floral and feather bouquets and leopard pattern bows
Robe à la française, ivory silk brocade, lace, passementerie, 1755-1760, France, museum purchase, 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 opened 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 demonstrated 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 were immersed in the mythic glamour of Paris fashion as the exhibition traced a trajectory from royal splendor at Versailles to the spectacle of haute couture today. An 18th-century robe à la française was juxtaposed with a haute couture creation for Christian Dior, which was inspired by Marie Antoinette. Clothing and accessories were 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. Cornelius Vanderbilt II. 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, gift from The Dorothea Stephens Wiman Collection, 96.69.15

red long sleeve cocktail dress with coordinating black tie at neck

Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert, cocktail dress, silk satin and patent leather, fall 1952, USA, museum purchase, 2013.19.1

corset hat in deep red satin and lace

Stephen Jones for Christian Dior, top hat, silk satin and lace, fall 2000, France, museum purchase, 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.

(L) Suit by Gabrielle Chanel, 1966, France. (R) Licensed copy of a Chanel day suit, c. 1967, USA.
(L) Suit by Gabrielle Chanel, 1966, France. (R) Licensed copy of a Chanel day suit, c. 1967, USA.


In conjunction with the exhibition, The Museum at FIT published Paris-related content to its Fashion Culture podcast. Episodes featured past Fashion Culture programs exploring Paris designers and historical events, as well as original commentary about the exhibition from Dr. Valerie Steele.

The Publication

The publication, Paris, Capital of Fashion (Bloomsbury), was edited by Valerie Steele with additional contributions by Christopher Breward, Grazia dAnnunzio, Antonia Finnane, David Gilbert, Sophie Kurkdjian, and Agnès Rocamora. The book was released in September 2019.


In conjunction with the exhibition, Paris, Capital of Fashion, The Museum at FIT held a symposium on October 18, 2019. Confirmed symposium speakers included all of the contributors to the catalog, among others.

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

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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