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Evening dress - Silk satin and chiffon with sequins and silk thread decoration, by Jean Dessès


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About the artwork

Between 1940 and 1955 the fashion industry had undergone an enormous amount of change. This dress by Jean Dessès, is the height of femininity and opulence, a reaction against the ‘make do and mend’ years of the Second World War. Not only is it in complete contrast to what women had become accustomed to wearing but it also signals a new era of prosperity in post-war Briton, when people had ‘never had it so good’.

From 1939 women had learnt how to cope with the shortages caused by the war. However, in June 1941 the shortage of material for clothing was so severe that the government introduced clothing rationing. Clothing could only be purchased by giving up a fixed number of coupons from a very limited quota. Each person was given 60 coupons for the year; a skirt was seven coupons, a short jacket  was 11 and shoes were five coupons. Buying enough clothing for a whole year was a struggle.

The government in May 1941 had also introduced ‘utility’ clothing which regulated the clothing industry. Everything was regulated, even down to the number of buttons and pleats a garment was allowed. This led to criticism by some that costume had become nationalised and purely functional, so much so that it no longer reflected the personality of the wearer.  However, the government set up a panel of top designers, including Hardy Amies, to show how with a bit of imagination clothing produced under the new regulations could be flattering and desirable.

By the end of the 1940s, everything was in place for a revolution in the clothing industry. In 1947 Christian Dior launched his ‘new look’ which had rounded shoulders, and emphasised a shapely bust with a narrow waist, teamed with a flowing skirt and petticoats. This basic shape was to filter through fashion and remain a favourite throughout the 1950s. During this time manufacturers were gearing up to post war production and were helped by some of the measures introduced during wartime. For example, as a result of utility clothing guidelines, sizes had become standardised and manufacturers had become far more accurate in working out prices. More clothing was factory produced than before the war and to a higher standard than before.  New fabrics and fibre were made, such as orlon and terylene, which was developed in 1941 but only really exploited after the war. These new fabrics were easier to wash and dry than fabrics made with natural fibres.

Women had looked to America for fashion ideas whilst France was occupied and continued to draw inspiration from fashion houses in both countries after the war.  In general, people were becoming more affluent in the 1950s, especially young people, who suddenly became ‘teenagers’ with their own money to spend. There were glamorous Hollywood film stars in Technicolor movies and new pop stars to emulate. The average family first acquired a television set during this period and with it they could watch television presenters wearing sophisticated evening dress. All this coupled with a desire for new ideas which were feminine and opulent led to the creation of ultra-feminine clothes by the top fashion houses during this period. These clothes were copied by clothing manufacturers, who sold them for less money through high street stores.

This dress is a good example of how top fashion is sought after all over the world and not just in the country it was produced. The designer Jean Dessès was one of the leading designers at this time and his creations would certainly have been copied by other designers and manufacturers. He was born Jean Dimitre Verginie in Egypt to Greek parents. As a young man he worked for a couture house in Paris from 1925 before opening his own couture house in Paris in 1937.  His early designs were mostly in draped jersey but after the war he turned more to chiffon which he used to explore asymmetry through draping. After the war he travelled and absorbed ideas for designs although he is best known for his draped evening dresses in chiffon, which he launched in Paris in 1951. By the late 1950s these were seen as classics. These draped creations bore similarity with ancient Greek dresses and Egyptian robes.  He also worked in fine wools, silks and tweeds and developed skilful and innovative draping and cutting techniques. 

His clients included the Queen and Royal Princesses of Greece, the Duchess of Windsor and society hostess Elsa Maxwell. He also designed the wedding gown for Princess Sophia of Greece when she married the future King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1962. He designed dresses for several films and Marlene Dietrich wore his gowns in the 1946 film Martin Roumagnac. In 1963 he retired to Greece because of ill health, where he ran a small boutique until he died in 1970.

Unfortunately, we do not know if the owner of the dress purchased it for a special occasion, such as a ball. It would certainly have been a very expensive purchase. However, being made only six years after clothing rationing was abandoned in this country and only three years after ‘utility’ clothing restrictions were lifted, it is a real shining example of the confidence and glamour of women’s fashion in the mid-fifties.

Accession number 1978.165.  Gift of Mr and Mrs Crewe, 1978.