A brief history of the fashion show.

The language of style.
Feb. 8 2006 5:28 PM

How the Runway Took Off

A brief history of the fashion show.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
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Fashion scholars have penned histories of the high heel, the corset, and the little black dress, but no one has yet written a definitive history of the fashion show. The omission is curious: The fashion show is not only the promotional linchpin of a multibillion-dollar industry, it was also central to the development of the American department store—and thus to the rise of American consumer culture. The problem may be that the fashion show, like any performative enterprise, is by nature ephemeral. Or perhaps it's that the fashion crowd, always in pursuit of the next thing, lacks the archival impulse: Why hash over yesterday's clothes? Whatever the reason, as Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told me: "The topic of fashion shows remains to find its historian."

It is, however, possible to stitch together the tale of New York's semiannual Fashion Week, which commenced once again last Friday in the tents at Manhattan's Bryant Park. Fashion Week in its earliest incarnation was, in some sense, a bid to overthrow the sartorial tyranny of the French. According to Steele, the event got its start in 1943, when a well-known fashion publicist named Eleanor Lambert organized something called "Press Week." Lambert was a canny PR maven who recognized that it was a propitious moment for American fashion. Before World War II, American designers were thought to be reliant on French couture for inspiration. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, one of the ensuing calamities was that buyers, editors, and designers were unable to travel to Paris to see the few remaining shows, and the fashion world fretted—would American fashion founder without the influence of French couture?

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With Press Week, Lambert hoped to give editors a chance to see—and more important, write about—the work of American designers, who, freed up to create without the anxiety of French influence, were quietly making innovative strides with indigenous materials and techniques, writes Caroline Rennolds Milbank in New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. Ruth Finley, publisher of the Fashion Calendar (a pink-and-red schedule that the industry finds indispensable) was present at those early shows. As she tells it, Press Week was held alternately at the Pierre and Plaza Hotels. Journalists and editors stayed on-site, which meant there was none of the modern dashing between tents and taxiing around. (Buyers, a key constituent at today's shows, were in those days forced to visit the designers' showrooms for a look, Finley says.)

Lambert's plan worked. As Milbank writes, magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, whose editors were besotted with French fashion, began to feature more work by American designers and, most crucially, to credit them by name. (Many supposedly "unknown" American designers had been working for years, but their clothing usually bore the label of the retailer for which they created.) American styles were praised as modern, streamlined, and flattering, and American ready-to-wear designers were finally garnering the respect previously reserved for European couturiers. Press Week, which continued through the late '50s, eventually featured work by designers like Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Mollie Parnis, and Pauline Trigere.

Long before Lambert entered the picture, however, there were fashion shows in America. William Leach writes in Land of Desire,his excellent study of the rise of capitalism, that in 1903, a New York City specialty store called Ehrich Brothers put on what was likely this country's first fashion show, in an effort to lure middle-class female customers into the store. By 1910, many big department stores, including Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and New York, were holding shows of their own. (American retailers had likely witnessed what were called "fashion parades" in Paris couture salons and decided to import the idea.) The events were an effective way to promote merchandise, and they improved a store's status in the eyes of its clientele: Showing couture gowns bought in Paris, or, more frequently, the store's own copies or adaptations of these garments was evidence of connoisseurship and good taste. The irony, of course, was that the stores emphasized the exclusivity of French couture, even as they made it—or some approximation thereof—available to a mass-market audience.

By the 1920s, the fashion show had gone mainstream. Retailers throughout the country staged shows, often in a store's restaurant during lunch or teatime. These early shows were often more theatrical than those of today. They were frequently organized around themes—there were Parisian, Persian, Chinese, Russian, and Mexican shows, Leach notes—and often presented with narrative commentary. Wanamaker's 1908 show, Leach writes, was a tableau vivant styled to resemble the court of Napoleon and Josephine, and the models were escorted by a child done up as one of Napoleon's pages.

The department-store shows were wildly popular, drawing crowds in the thousands. According to Leach, the throngs were so disruptive to city life that merchants in New York City and elsewhere were eventually required to obtain a license for shows using live models. In New York, police threatened to put an end to the shows altogether. Indeed, the phenomenon became so widespread that in 1950 Fairchild published a book titled How To Give a Fashion Show,which begins with an appeal to the executive assistant: "Have you ever been called into the boss's office at the end of a hectic day to be greeted with, 'Miss Gordon, I've been going over the figures of the ready-to-wear division today, and I've decided that what we need to pep them up is a fashion show. I'd like you to go to work on one immediately'?" And in 1954, Edna Woodman Chase—former editor of Vogue and organizer of the 1914 "Fashion Fete," an event to benefit the war-relief effort that is often (apocryphally) called the first fashion showcomplained in her memoir about the ubiquity of the phenomenon: "Now that fashion shows have become a way of life … a lady is hard put to it to lunch, or sip a cocktail, in any smart hotel or store front from New York to Dallas to San Francisco without having lissome young things … swaying down a runway six inches above her nose."

When, then, did the shows make their way to Bryant Park? During the '70s and '80s, American designers began to stage their own shows in lofts, clubs, and restaurants. According to Fern Mallis, vice president of IMG, the company that houses 7th on Sixth—the organization that produces New York's Olympus Fashion Week, as well as several other shows—the impetus for the event we are familiar with today was literally an accident. It was 1990 and Mallis, then executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was attending a Michael Kors show in a loft space in downtown Manhattan. When the bass started thumping, a piece of plaster came loose from the ceiling and fell onto the models as they went down the runway. As Mallis remembers it, the girls strutted on, but plaster also landed in the laps of writers Suzy Menkes and Carrie Donovan, while the rest of the crowd nervously searched for fire escapes. During another show in the early '90s, this one in a Soho loft space that was "packed to the rafters," a generator blew, leaving the crowd of editors and buyers in the dark. The audience waited for 30 minutes, holding cigarette lighters aloft as though swaying through a power ballad, until the generators were restored. It was then, Mallis says, that the fashion set said enough with small, unsafe spaces. "The general sentiment was, 'We love fashion but we don't want to die for it.' "

As head of the CFDA, Mallis took up the cause and sought out a venue where all the shows could be held in a single space. Designers, she says, were reluctant to sign on; they worried that showing in a group setting would hamper their creativity. But they also realized it would allow their work greater visibility. After an experimental first run at the Macklow (now the Millennium) Hotel on 44th Street, the concept took off. Mallis then worked out a plan with Bryant Park to put up tents in the East and West Plazas. A year later, the Spring 1994 collections were sent down the runway, and Fashion Week as we know it began. The CFDA also created 7th on Sixth, a separate company with its own board, and this organization formalized a schedule, drew up a press list (which is harder to infiltrate than the Vanity Fair Oscar party), and sold sponsorship to various companies. Finally, Mallis says, the shows were "organized, centralized, modernized." (Of course, as anyone who has braved the suffocating crush at Bryant Park knows, "hectic, chaotic, and frantic" seem more appropriate designations.)

Fashion Week—like Press Week before it—helped American designers reach a more international audience, as it allowed editors, writers, and buyers from abroad to see the country's best work at a single time, in a single place. But even though it can feel these days like it's always Fashion Week, the average American woman is now more removed from the fashion show than ever. Of course, department stores still host shows on occasion, but they no longer draw throngs—most of us can now safely lunch without lissome models undulating past us (if we take lunch at all). Now, the fashion show belongs to Manhattan the way the movies belong to Hollywood; the spectacle exists elsewhere, apart from our everyday lives.

Thanks to Ruth Finley, Valerie Steele, Caroline Evans, and Fern Mallis.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

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