A new Frist exhibit — whose only U.S. stop is in Nashville — takes on the postwar couture silhouette and a make-believe femininity 

Mention the word couture to a woman, and unless she didn't get the female handbook, it's sure to elicit a dreamy sigh. That's because the word evokes images of extreme wealth, extreme leisure and extreme beauty — a life of exclusively grand social events, a full dance card that calls for painstaking fittings, primly cinched waists, perfectly sculpted bosoms, billowing tufts of exquisite, thousand-dollar-a-yard fabrics, elegant bling, poufs of powder and spritzes of perfume — the stuff of absolute, unequivocal femininity. Wandering through The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 conjures that feminine fairy tale. It's like stumbling into Vogue's famed "Closet" half a century ago or the wardrobe for the lavishly costumed Funny Face.

The collection — meticulously tailored day, cocktail, evening and ball-gown dresses of chiffon and silk, bejeweled shoes and various accoutrements from Paris' and London's renowned postwar fashion houses, acquired from the wealthy and royal women who once wore them — comes courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It portrays a defining moment in postwar fashion and a gold standard in craftsmanship not since duplicated. But more intriguingly, it encapsulates that don't-touch-me-or-you'll-muss-me notion of femininity from days of yore, when cocktail dresses weren't made to be sat in, when undergarments mimicked the support systems of steel framework and when women willingly returned to the very body-wrangling restraint their flapper mothers had kicked aside: the corset. It's oddly fitting, then, that looking over the pieces is strangely hunger-inducing, much like gazing over a batch of intricately decorated cakes in a bakery display case.

The exhibit is framed through a 10-year, silk-draped shop window that begins in 1947 with Christian Dior's unveiling of his New Look, and ends with his death. In between, it highlights the work of a handful of top couture designers as well — Givenchy, Balenciaga, Amies and Hartnell, among others — and the conversation between French design and British tailoring and textiles in the cities' parallel industries. The year 1947 marks a transition, not just from a wartime minimalism to a postwar recovery, but, as the collection illustrates, from the boxy-shouldered, militaristic practicality of a no-frills knee-length hem to the luxuriant frivolity of Dior's hourglass silhouette draped in rich fabrics and long-flowing skirts, plumped by enigmatic layers.

The exhibit begins by showing the two looks side by side, to powerful effect. Try imagining a 1940s Katharine Hepburn with her haughty triangularity next to Audrey Hepburn's soft elegance a mere decade later, and you'll get the idea. Dior's first New Look piece, the "Bar" suit and hat, with its impossibly tiny waist and padded hips, deftly manages to balance an almost cartoonishly exaggerated femininity with elegant restraint — take note, Lady Gaga. The look was a seismic shift for the time — it is said that the women in the audience of his first showing began tugging at their knee-length skirts because they felt suddenly out of fashion. Winding through the collection, the pieces become more elaborate and extravagant with each bolt of fabric. Highlights include the Zémire, a red Dior evening jacket and skirt made from a then-new, highly sought-after synthetic called cellulose acetate. (The pieces were rescued from a cellar near the River Seine and subjected to an eight-month restoration.) Also on hand is a silk gown worn by Princess Margaret and a silk taffeta cape identical to one worn by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.

Though the collection is bound to please vintage hounds, historians or anyone interested in seeing the original little black dress, it also makes the case for fashion as a bona fide art — in fact, anyone who would snicker at that notion ought to be hauled down to this exhibit and read their cultural literacy rights. There is no stitch out of place, no angle left unconsidered, no fabric too heavy to manipulate, no weaving too intricate. Couture sewing is so meticulous and labor-intensive, even for the pricey return, that the fashion houses that did survive often did so by also opening perfume or accessories companies on the side — that's how Dior made his fortune.

But the collection can't conceal the unique privilege of the wealthy. Though today's fashion houses are in the business of ready-to-wear lines with just a little couture on the side, they're still priced out of reach for most women. In response, we've produced a pervasive knockoff culture that has allowed any gal to imitate the runway for significantly less. In Dior's heyday, the average woman would have saved up for months to buy the same dress for her honeymoon that a royal woman would have likely worn as a casual day dress once, and for probably less than an hour. (Of course, such fashions could have never trickled down to the average woman were it not for fashion magazines and their dramatic spreads, and the exhibit also hosts a collection of elegant photos from Harper's Bazaar and Vogue by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and rare female fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, among others.)

Dior may have shocked the public with his bold frivolity in 1947 — fabric rationing was still in effect when he introduced his extravagant New Look — but there was no turning back. Fashion had flitted forward again, with the movie stars and royalty of the day, from the elusive Marlene Dietrich to the reclusive Duchess of Windsor, scrambling for fittings. Fashion yearned again for form over function. After Dior's death it moved into the boutiques, taking its inspiration from the streets, youth culture and its music, instead of the traditional turn-of-the century femininity, where he had taken his cues.

Indeed, in spite of the timelessness and vitality of the style and craft celebrated here, the collection has a pervasive sense of untouchability and distant make-believe — perhaps because for most women, it marked a return from the factory floor back to the kitchen floor, a short-lived shift backward that could not possibly follow women into the boardroom. A 1950 Pierre Balmain dress and petticoat on display is so daintily crafted out of boned silk net and silk — Dior described his dressmakers as having "doigts de fées," or fairy fingers, no doubt true of many dressmakers of the era — that it looks as if it's sculpted out of frosting. Elsewhere, there are flamenco bustles on cocktail dresses that made sitting impossible, and a short evening dress by Dior sewn with gold thread and tiny birds' nests filled with pearls that must have made moving around out of the question. Slouching? Don't count on it. Curator Claire Wilcox remarked that the fabrics for many of the dresses were so heavy that she found her arm going limp while handling them, an interesting contrast to the airy elegance their posture conveys. Taken together, the objects on display have such an exquisite heft, such a restrictive stillness about their beauty, that it's not difficult to imagine the women who wore them behind the glass cases, too.

On Thursday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m., in connection with the Golden Age exhibit, flame-haired supermodel and otherworldly Vogue regular Karen Elson will be on hand for a Q&A with fashion journalist, stylist and vintage slinger Libby Callaway to discuss her experiences in the modern-day ateliers of couturiers, from getting fitted for Lagerfeld and Gaultier to her career progression as a print and runway model for the top designers. The event is in the Frist Auditorium; it's free and open to the public.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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