PRÊT-À-PORTER, PARIS AND THE IMAGE OF WOMEN, 1945-1968
Undertaken at the Courtauld Institute of Art, my dissertation studies the development of the readymade clothing industry between 1945 and 1968, and asks how it connected to France’s wider project of post-war modernisation and reconstruction, and to conceptions of national and gender identities, and modernity.
Through its relative accessibility, readymade dress (known as confection until the 1950s and subsequently prêt-à-porter) concerns a wide populace and collective notion of fashion. The industry underwent heightened growth during the period covered in my research. Therefore, shifts in its development reflect those in France’s construction of modernity during this twenty-five-year period, which was informed by transitions, into new economic and industrial systems, decolonised and urbanised landscapes, and by its perceived loss of political and cultural hegemony. Modernity also comprised contradictions, notably between modernisation and tradition, and prosperity and tension, felt by the individual in an increasingly standardised society and by women in their ambiguous status as French citizens, enfranchised from 1944. My research determines how women and professionals from the industry and government used fashion to negotiate the contradictions of modernity and identity in various ways.
Five chapters trace shifts in the above themes, and a transition from a modern to a postmodern narrative, from the immediate years following the Second World War and in the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) in chapters two and three, to the first decade of the Fifth Republic (1958-) in chapters four and five. The first chapter illustrates a main methodological focus of this research in its exploration of readymade dress, women, and Paris through the lens of the fashion media between 1945 and 1965, and interprets these three elements as constructions and as realities. In introducing an analytical mode to consider the symbolic production of fashion, as it is crystallised in image and text, the chapter facilitates the study of the ways readymade dress challenges or enters into that construction in the following sections, as it relates to women’s lives, national projects and technological and cultural changes.
This research project thus connects and juxtaposes diverse subjects in its goal to rethink French fashion and women’s history through the lens of readymade dress. To show the variety of players involved in the production and experience of fashion, it cross examines image with a wide range of sources, including surviving garments from archives such as at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs; industrial documentation and trade press including Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin; various contemporary commentary and my interviews of designers, journalists and manufacturers. Further, it explores experiential aspects of dress through oral histories with French women.
Some sample writing...
“A French Dress and the OPjectscape of 1965-66”