couture, Fashion history

What is HC ?

Chiffon Evening Dress – Jean Dessès
Photograph by Seeberger of evening dress by Jean Dessès
Paris about 1953
After the WW II, the rich and famous went back to their couturiers and bought some very special, outrageously expensive, limited edition clothing which was then tailored to fit them perfectly. These rare couture pieces are now among the most sought after of all vintage clothing and regularly sell for huge amounts of money at auctions and specialist shops. The late 1940s through the 1950s is thought of as a real high point for twentieth-century couture, so pieces from this era are especially prized, but how do you spot a couture treasure in a thrift store full of mass produced mediocrities?
Labels are an obvious starting point but they can be remarkably difficult to find on vintage couture pieces. These labels did not necessarily appear in the inside neck of the garment as most labels tend to today.

Evening Dress with Sketch – John Cavanagh
Photograph of a Coronation collection evening dress by John Cavanagh, with the silk designed by Oliver Messel for Sekers
, London, 1953 spring/summer

If you see a piece that looks good but does not bear an obvious label, turn the garment inside out and examine its side seams, hems, even under the arms. Remember that labels, especially in the 1950s, can be concealed under yards of petticoats and tulle netting, so don’t be afraid to root around a bit.
Couture labels usually bear the designer’s name and possibly a couture number. Such numbers can either be printed or handwritten in ink, and the customer’s handwritten name occasionally appears as well. A piece that is beautifully hand sewn, both inside and out, can often indicate something of couture origin, so look for careful, even rows of tiny stitches around button holes, collars, cuffs, and linings. Vintage pieces with intricate beading and/or embroidery, either couture or otherwise, make a good investment because the sheer detail and artistry of this handiwork would be virtually impossible to reproduce today in anything but the most extravagantly expensive creations. Designer John Galliano has tried to revive the lost art of spectacular decoration in some of his fin de siécle couture creations.

Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston (later Lady Dacre) wore this dress at the official visit of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip to Paris in May 1948.

Most people imagine that vintage couture clothing can only be found in the finest specialist shops and auction houses in cities like New York or Paris, but this is not strictly true. Fine couture pieces, possibly cast-offs given to maids or cooks, can surface in the most unlikely places -anywhere from jumble sales in Dallas, Texas to street fairs in tiny Provencal villages, so it’s always worth keeping an eye out for these vintage gems.
Couture can be a joy to wear, especially if you know an expert seamstress who can alter a garment to for you. Some collectors disapprove of alterations but the choice must be yours. “To wear or not to wear?” That is the question. Frustratingly, many women removed designer labels before wearing the clothes. Dior’s habit of dating his pieces is particularly satisfying for the historical minded. Much of his costume jewelry from the 1940s and 1950s is dated as well. The best pieces feature beads and trims that were sewn on individually while cheaper garments were decorated by strips or rows of ready-made, prefabricated embroideries or bead work.

‘Les Muguets’ (Lily of the Valley) – Hubert de Givenchy The strapless bodice includes inset boning, so the wearer could step into the garment and not have to wear cumbersome corsets. This was standard in a couture gown.

All pictures from Victoria & Albert museum.


Did I born in to a wrong time, did I?


14 thoughts on “What is HC ?

  1. I really don’t think you were born in the wrong time! come on! wars must be horrible, despite after it comes HC. Beautiful pictures!You can see my Manolos in the post of 21th of July. I bought them when in Paris, they are simple black stilettos.

  2. the red dress…. oh MAN, I want it so bad. I’m drooling hardcore right now :( anyway like you said, I’ve noticed that with many vintage fashion, the labels had been removed. I never understood/knew why.

  3. Love the dresses and you give such sound advice. I love vintage and sometimes I am amazing on what you can find. The craft, tailoring, fit and fabric is truly of another world.

  4. Oh these dresses are so beautiful, my how times have changed! Great advice – I’ll definitely be paying more attention to these details the next time I go thrifting :D

  5. Your posts are always so throrough! Haute Couture makes me swoon…maybe one day, one day I will own one.P.S. I often feel I was born in the wrong time…except as a feminist I don’t know if I could handle less control!

  6. I have the book all these pictures come from and it is just stunning!It is nice to see a post on old couture rather than the new collections.

  7. Nice post! I love thrift stores and couture, so this was a perfect combination for me.And you have a really nice style of writing.

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