The history of Fashion Week

Jenessa Williams 27 September 2021

All of the trends we know and love begin on the runway, but where did the concept of the fashion show begin?

Early Beginnings

Coco Chanel in 1920

Coco Chanel was one of the brightest lights to emerge from the Parisian haute-couture scene in the 1920s, credit: Wikimedia Commons

Identified by many as the father of Haute-Couture, London-born, Parisian-based designer Charles Frederick-Worth is thought to have been amongst the first to pioneer the idea of a fashion show. In the 1860s, he launched his latest collection at Longchamp Racecourse, displaying clothes on live models as opposed to mannequins. Presenting garments-in-action, the event gave good publicity to the noble people of the time, giving them a keener idea of how a garment might actually look and feel to wear.

Over in New York in 1903, department store Ehrich Brothers had also put on their own showcase of their latest garments, but there is scarce information to be found on the events of the day. Nonetheless, other department stores swiftly followed suit, and in both Paris and London, large-scale balls and walking events were staged to entertain clients, often using clothing as a means of conveying cultural knowledge and expensive ‘exotic’ materials.

With burgeoning 1920’s Parisian stars such as Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madeleine Vionnet, the high-end fashion market was booming despite the great depression, presumably a beacon of aspirational elegance. When Schiaparelli showed her collection at Saks in New York in 1931, attention was high, but only sketchers were allowed in to capture the garments; photography was banned for fear that the looks would be copied by other designers.  

The 1940s

In 1942, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture decided that in the wake of the second world war, it would be necessary to regulate Paris’s fashion shows, stipulating that all couture houses would have to present seasonally, with at least 36 day and night pieces on show. When Christian Dior shared his first collection–Corolle–in 1947, it was adored on sight by the fashion press, and was permitted for photography, creating iconic images of the exaggerated, feminine silhouettes that would become highly popular in both “haute couture” and “prêt-à-porter”, a term often used for more wearable garments.

"With American press unable to travel to Europe during the war, it was the perfect era to cement homegrown US talent in its own right, and so in 1943 the first New York events were held"

Meanwhile, the US had stamped their own style on fashion week. American publicist Eleanor Lambert had also decided that clustering shows under the umbrella of ‘fashion press week’ would be the most efficient way to showcase and sell garments to clients, as well as demonstrating the overwhelming strength of American fashion during the French occupation. With American press unable to travel to Europe during the war, it was the perfect era to cement homegrown US talent in its own right, and so in 1943 the first New York events were held, spread across the Pierre Hotel and the Plaza.

The 1950s

Herme's Ostrich Birkin Bag

The Hermes Birkin bag 

With the first Parisian collection showing by Hubert de Givenchy, 1952 marked the beginning of one of fashion week’s most iconic celebrity partnerships. Having met Audrey Hepburn in the early 50s, Givenchy would use her as a muse for a great many of his runway showings, dressing her for both ‘Sabrina’ and ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s. A clear marker of fashion week as an emblem of multi-medium appeal, their pairing would inspire a great many down the lineJean Paul Gaultier and Madonna, Galliano and Foxy Brown, Jean-Louis Dumas and Jane Birkin, namesake of the famously covetable Birkin bag.

The early 1950s also saw the introduction of the Italian fashion shows. Hosted in Florence, they attracting couture houses from Milan, Capri, Turin and Rome to show the best of their talent at the Sala Bianca, an elegant ballroom once used by the Medici family, an Italian banking and political dynasty. Taking nods from the other events, such shows were promoted as a handy stop-off point for American editors who had made the journey over to Paris, often undertaking great journeys on ocean liner. For special clients, luxurious spreads were laid on to create the notion of exclusivity and invite-honour that is so often associated with fashion events.

In 1958, the shows moved from Florence to Milan, settling into the regular formal ‘week’ schedule. Still the smallest of all the fashion weeks, many of Milan’s largest namesDolce and Gabanna, Guccishow at their own signature events, but it remains core to our cultural understanding of the core fashion cities.  

The 1960s–1970s

In the 1960s, eager fashion fans were starting to move away from couture buying. Fun-with-fashion was no longer reserved for the financial elite, and so designers were responding with garments that more adequately reflected the European weather patterns of the seasons, in shapes and styles that felt more wearable in buyers natural lives. While not quite ‘everyday’ (some of these items were still very expensive and formal), they reflected a significant shift which would pave the way for the sessions that we see fashion week organised in today; the core spring/summer, autumn/winter collections, but also mid-seasonal and specific garment event that appear right around the world—resort/cruise, pre-fall, Miami Swim Week, Bridal Fashion and Indonesia’s Islamic Fashion Week to name but a few.

Having developed his craft under the tutelage of Christian Dior, the emerging name of the 1960s was Yves Saint Laurent. Showcasing his tuxedo suit, Saint Laurent encourages his models to move fluidly, to wear the clothes as they naturally would as if walking down the street rather than on a scrutinised catwalk. Thus, the era of Ready-To-Wear was fully legitimised; garments that represented the very pinnacle of fashion, but weren’t strictly resigned to costume.

"Having developed his craft under the tutelage of Christian Dior, the emerging name of the 1960s was Yves Saint Laurent"

Though Paris has showcased its designs for some time, the first official Paris Fashion Week was organised in 1973, in an epic showing known as the Battle of Versailles. Directly referencing the historic fashion tension between Paris and New York, five French designers were pitted against five Americans—Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior (then designed by Marc Bohan), Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy on the French side, with Anne Klein, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows representing New York. Who ‘won’ is something of a personal choice, but fashion historians widely suspect that the diversity and opulence of the American showing rendered them the victors, raising a great many funds for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.

1980s1990s

In 1984, Britain finally joined in on the action. Organised by the British Fashion Council (who still sit at the helm to this day), London Fashion Week was an instant success, birthing a punk icon in the form of Vivien Westwood, who cleverly subverted many of the stuffy, exclusionary aspects of the traditional fashion week show.  Progressive label Bodymap also caused a stir, making a point of casting models who showed significant diversity in race, age, size and gender expression.

Similar rock’n’roll energy could be found elsewhere. Showings from Comme des Garcons and Yamamoto at Paris 1981 brought Japanese design to a global stage, while New York’s events from Stephen Sprouse tapped into the cross-pollination of fashion, music and art, with Debbie Harry and Keith Haring in regular attendance.

As the 80s became the 90s, the events finally got their official ‘fashion week’ titles, heralding a new era of slick professionalism in which each designer working harder than ever to outdo the next. Many British designers had become embedded in Parisian designJohn Galliano as artistic director of Dior in 1996, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy in the same yearslowly changing the narrative around the cities as rivals but rather one big glorious culture exchange, often taking place in locations that would showcase the best of a city’s culture. Supermodel culture was well and truly alive, and could not be better personified than in Versace’s signature autumn/winter 1991 show which featured the big 4—Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, all linked at the elbow and walking along to a soundtrack of George Michael’s "Freedom".

The 2000s2010s

With the format fully established, the noughties were a period of subtle innovation, finding new ways to share fashion week with the masses. Austrian designer Helmut Lang was one of the first to embrace the digital boom by presenting his autumn/winter 1998 show online, and many would go on to follow suit, often recruiting vast production teams and sponsors to create an atmospheric buzz.

As blogger culture began to grow in the late 2000s-early 10s, the notion of ‘street style’ was almost as hot a ticket as the show itself. Once highly exclusive and accessible only to the editorial elite, attendance at fashion week was being offered to these young internet writers, whose self-styled outfits could create the same kind of analysis and subsequent sales as a designer showing could. A generational gap between old and new press led to much ‘front row’ debatewho was worthy of such a position, and how fashion could accommodate both types of journalism in a manner that felt suitably innovative while respecting the traditions of the past.

"London became the first fashion week to stream the majority of its runways live, allowing them to be accessible in real-time to a global audience."

By 2010, these boundaries were broken once more. London became the first fashion week to stream the majority of its runways live, allowing them to be accessible in real-time to a global audience.  The everyman had become a core consumer—in 2015, Gucci invited their audience via public lottery, while Tommy Hilfiger gave away 1,000 free tickets to his ‘Tommy Pier’ fairground event in 2016.

With the event becoming more equitable for viewers, moves were also being made to make it fairer on designers.  In 2013 Paris hosted the MADE platform for independent creatives, which had run successfully in New York for eight seasons prior. A way to capture the youthful dynamism of designers who might not otherwise have been able to afford a show at such a prestigious event, it has paved the way for ‘next gen’ involvement and also given designers the voice to critique many of fashion week’s ongoing moral debatesthe use of real fur on the runway, the health and welfare of models, and the issues of diversity and representation.

Present Day

As fashion week contemplates its future, a core consideration is its environmental cost. Each year, designers face pressure to make each show grander and more press-grabbing than the year prior, particularly given that they are often now communicating to a huge global audience in real-time. An increase in ‘see now, buy now’ eventswhere designers make garments available to buy simultaneously with the showing – have been a successful marketing tool for sating the appetites of eager fashionistas, but they also make a brand susceptible to fast-fashion imitation, working at lightning speed to recreate the garments in a cheaper manner, often leading to great mountains of post-trend waste.  

Whether it’s the flights necessary to transport garments and attendees around the world, the cars taken to get quickly between shows, the yards and yards of waste fabric and cosmetics trying to get a look exactly right under the bright lights, there is no denying that an intervention is necessary.

In 2019, British environmental organisation Extinction Rebellion called for a boycott of London Fashion Week, and then again in 2020 following mass controversy of Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 2020, in which they showcased their collection on a hidden beach in Malibu, violating multiple environmental regulations to protect the area’s delicate natural resources. With the pandemic putting a great many events on hold, there is a necessary conversation ongoing about the very nature of fashion week, and how its inspiration and entertainment can be preserved in a manner that might contribute less to the world’s climate crisis.

Despite these very real fears for our planet, there is hope. Prodject, the production company behind shows for the likes of Chanel, Prada and Tom Ford, have invested significantly in suitability, swapping out stage lighting for LEDs, and establishing a renting system in the hopes of diminishing undue buying and discarding at the end of a season. Many designers are opting to show smaller collections, or else utilising live streaming and smarter fabric choices as a means of reducing travel and material waste. By thinking a little harder about what fashion truly means, designers are able to make shrewder decisions, encouraged by the activism of the younger generations.

With over 100 years of history, who knows where the next 100 years of catwalks might lead? We’ve come a long way since those early department store showings, but fashion remains a key societal talking point. 

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