the catwalk

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N°5 Fall 11 , Anja Cronberg

Commercial staging, "preview" for journalists, spectacular event... the status of the parade has evolved in a century and a half, but everything seemed to be already present in its infancy. Ten-point demonstration.

1 As befits a very typically Parisian phenomena, the catwalk can trace its humble beginnings in the capital of fashion already in the 19th century. In 1848 the couturier Charles Frederick Worth first paid a shop girl, Marie Vernet, to model his creations, and in the process created the first live fashion model (later also to become Mrs Worth).

2 In the late 19th century “fashion parades” are periodically staged by the couture salons in Paris and in 1885 an illustrated book, “Art et la Mode” is printed, portraying four real women modeling garments. For modesty’s sake all women wore high-necked, long-sleeved and full-length undergarments in either black or white.

3 In 1903 Ehrich Brothers, a New York City store, staged what was to become the very first fashion parade in America, and in the early part of the 20th century the concept of the fashion show continued to spread across the Atlantic. Evermore American department stores realised their potential and by the 1920s the fashion show had gone mainstream. Used as a way to entice middle class female clients, they also represented a great way to display merchandise and improve a store’s status. Commonly taking place in the store’s restaurant during lunch or tea time, they often featured exotic themes. A client could feast her eyes on Parisian, Persian, Mexican, Russian or Chinese shows, often narrated to further guide her through the garments on display.

in the 1970s a catwalk show could still last up to an hour, each model taking her time on the catwalk, twirling, strutting, flirting and posing for the photographers.

4 Department store fashion shows continued to be a great way to draw customers. So much so, in fact, that the shows came to disrupt everyday city life enough for the New York police department to threaten to put an end to them altogether. Instead the stores were required to apply for license to use live models, in a bid to regulate the unruly crowds.

5 Photographers weren’t allowed at fashion shows until the 1940s, when, in an attempt to overthrow the French dominance of all things sartorial, the first organised fashion week was held in New York City.

6 Dubbed, “Press Week” and dreamed up by PR maven Eleanor Lambert, the very first fashion week saw the light in 1943, as the French were still struggling under Nazi occupation. Lambert recognised that the misfortune of the French could signify the longed-for kismet of the American fashion industry, which had hitherto toiled in the shadow of the mighty French.

7 When buyers, editors and designers were unable to travel to Paris, Lambert instead made sure that they got to see what the home grown talent was capable of, freed from French influence. Held alternately at the Pierre or Plaza Hotels press were invited to see American innovations on the catwalk, whereas buyers were only welcome to the showrooms after the shows had already been held.

8 Press week continued in organised form in New York well into the 1950s, but, later, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, American fashion designers increasingly held their shows in lofts, clubs and restaurants around Manhattan. Increasingly unsafe spaces however led to a lobby for a return to a more controlled form of fashion show and in 1994 the first catwalk shows were held in tents in Bryant Park.

9 In the 1970s a catwalk show could still last up to an hour, each model taking her time on the catwalk, twirling, strutting, flirting and posing for the photographers.

10 Today the most important catwalk shows are held consecutively and twice yearly in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Although budding fashion weeks were in evidence in these cities already in the mid 20th century, they began in their current form in Paris in 1973. Six years later Milan fashion week changed to follow suit and in 1984 London fashion week was first held with a centralised venue and adjoining exhibitions. Today however, fashion weeks have become a wildly popular way of promoting a country and fashion weeks are held all over the world; from East to West, from North to South; from Cali, Delhi, Johannesburg, Tehran, and Sao Paolo to Reykjavik, Tokyo, Moscow, Miami and Stockholm – fashion weeks are spreading and are showing no signs of slowing down.