A great way to study fashion (and the history of Haute Couture as well) is not just visiting a well-stocked library, but also looking at fashion auctions organised by famous collectors and dealers.
Quite often the auction catalogues look indeed like proper volumes about the history of fashion and feature beautiful close up pictures, showing embroideries and appliqued motifs in detail.
The next chance to study the history of fashion via an auction is this Wednesday (8th July) at Sotheby's in Paris. Sotheby's will indeed auction (in association with Kerry Taylor) 172 Haute Couture items from the last 90 years.
This is Sotheby's first auction of Haute Couture, but you can bet it will be quite memorable since it will feature designs from the collection of French fashion dealer and antiquarian Didier Ludot, who opened his vintage couture boutique in Paris's first arrondissement in 1975.
The auction catalogue for "Rencontres Couture à Paris" (Couture Encounters in Paris; Sotheby's, 76 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75384 Paris) is a sort of compendium of 20th century fashion.
The garments and accessories included were indeed produced between 1924 and the early 2000s by famous designers and houses including Paul Poiret, Madame Grès, Schiaparelli, Jacques Fath, Hubert de Givenchy, Chanel, Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaïa, Yohji Yamamoto, Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons among the others.
Ludot declared in the past he would have never sold items from his personal collection, but he seems to have changed his mind now, in the hope he will give a new life to some of these pieces.
He therefore proceeded to personally select the pieces included in the auction following three main principles - technically remarkable, collectible and wearable.
Each of the designs included is a testament not only to a specific period of time, but also to the technical skills of the artisans behind the high fashion workshops who created beautiful embroideries, ethereal lace motifs and feathered decorations such as the ones seen in a 1965 Balenciaga cocktail dress gown covered in pink ostrich plumes worn by socialite Francine Weisweiller.
The auction opens with an ivory and blue moire cocktail dress by Chanel from 1963, but then goes backwards and forwards in time. Schiaparelli appears more than once with a rare silk crepe gown printed with designs after Marcel Vertès and with a brocaded silk dress with matching over-skirt and with pink and yellow woven prancing horses (both garments were part of the Spring/Summer 1938 "Circus" Collection).
Rare gems include a Poiret damask satin tunic dress made for his wife Denise; Chanel's sequinned "little black dress" owned by Romy Schneider; a long dress in swirling Pucci-like prints worn by the Duchess of Windsor; Loulou de la Falaise's Yves Saint Laurent hat; Countess Mona von Bismarck's black wool Balenciaga coat with a white mink collar and Balenciaga's 1950 black ottoman suit with a curvaceous line ("Pont" Model) originally owned by Madame Pauline de Rothschild.
Many of the pieces included have a story and an iconic wearer behind them: collectors will probably fight over a 1935 red quilted satin jacket with mandarin collar worn by Madame Lanvin when at work in her studio.
But there are further remarkable pieces such as Christian Dior's black wool "Corolle" line jacket trimmed with mink (A/W 1947-1948), owned by actress Josette Day, or the wardrobe Alaïa created for Bettina Graziani that also includes a black and white knitted chenille dress ("Houpette" Model, 1992), and a white draped jersey "Goddess" gown (1992).
Film fans won't be disappointed either: leaf through the catalogue and you will discover two 1967 designs by Emanuel Ungaro (a cream wool coat and a vibrant geranium wool mini-dress edged in white braid) both worn by Catherine Deneuve in Jean Aurel's Manon 70 (1968) and a 1972 Givenchy printed pink and white silk crepe and organza dress worn by Julianne Moore in Tom Kalin's Savage Grace (2008).
Fashion fans who are into conceptual designs or Surrealism will be delighted to rediscover in the auction Martin Margiela's "Semi-Couture" beige linen mannequin-style backless bodice (A/W 1997-1998) and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's jacket made from interlocking flattened Panama hats (Spring/Summer 1991).
Collectors who are into multi-coloured designs can choose instead among a wide rangeof garments that includes Jean-Charles de Castelbajac's sweater made with gloves (A/W 1988-89); Marc Vaughan's 1971 white silk dress with ribbon "braces" painted with polychrome abstract spots, and Christian Lacroix blue and white polka dot gauze blouse with boldly striped gazar skirt and pink belt ("Caramba" Model, S/S 1998).
Some designs are characterised by voluminous shapes and silhouettes: quite a few fashion connoisseurs may have seen at exhibitions all over the world pieces from Comme des Garçons' Spring/Summer 1997 "Body Meets Dress" collection with their iconic body morphing bumps, but most of us have sadly forgotten Gianfranco Ferré's finely checked wool suit with large bow to the neck designed for Christian Dior (A/W 1989-90).
Other pieces such as Pierre Cardin's 1962 green gazar evening gown with a slash effect rear bodice and trained skirt, Thierry Mugler's 1979 gladiator style moulded green leather breast-plate with matching chiffon skirt, Marc Bohan for Dior's speckle-printed silk evening gown with wide shoulders and large rear bow (A/W 1986-87) and Yohji Yamamoto's Autumn/Winter 2006-2007 black jersey "Cage" bodice, are instead perfect examples of sculpted or architectural designs in fashion.
One clever point to make is that at times the auction seems to compare designs from different times in an intriguing way.
Pierre Balmain's 1953 black velvet evening gown embroidered with trailing ribbon work flowers by Maison Lesage could be juxtaposed to a 1966 bright green mini-dress by Paco Rabanne made using ostrich plumes and plexiglass platelets, the two dresses turning into iconic examples of how fashion has experimented and played throughout the times with dramatically different materials.
Remarkable accessories include Courrèges's 1965 white patent leather open-toe ballet pumps and boots with their original box and his angular stylised futuristic "stetson" hat trimmed wth navy ribbon; geometrical bags (1963) and kinetic jewellery (1969) by Pierre Cardin, but also six tapestry toques from 1950 designed by Claude Saint-Cyr and woven by the Ateliers Pinton-Aubusson.
As you may guess, not all the pieces will be destined to private collectors and stylish women, but some may end up in museums as well.
"Couture clothes are an important cultural heritage, a testimony to the fashion of those periods and an extraordinary savoir-faire," Ludot stated on the Sotheby's site.
"I made it a point of honour to have only the most luxurious clothes in recognition of the artisans of couture (...) Each one is a strong testimony of a certain period and the style of a designer, from the ivory damask gown Paul Poiret made for his wife Denise in 1924 to Marc Jacobs's Downton Abbey-inspired 2012 collection for Louis Vuitton."
Can't afford anything in this auction? Don't despair: most of us will never be able to buy Haute Couture designs in our lives, but you can get the auction catalogue - you can rest assured you'll still find plenty to learn and dream about in its pages.
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