A brief history of the fashion show.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Sept. 6 2007 1:06 PM

How the Runway Took Off

A brief history of the fashion show.

Wednesday marked the start of New York Fashion Week (Sept. 5-12), during which designers will display their spring 2008 collections. In 2006, as Fashion Week descended upon New York City, Amanda Fortini began to wonder how the semiannual ritual began. She discovered that in the early years, Fashion Week "was, in some sense, a bid to overthrow the sartorial tyranny of the French." The entire article is reproduced below.

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."

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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?

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.

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