Factories of Elegance

The Optical Unconscious of Twentieth-Century French Couture Houses

Caroline Evans (University of the Arts, London)

Please note: Images discussed in this lecture can be found in Caroline Evans, The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).


This paper looks in detail at a photographic album which records the inner workings of the Paris couture house of Worth over two days in November 1927, in order to tease out some of the contradictions between art and industry in early twentieth-century French haute couture.

The principal contradiction arose from the dichotomy between the original and copy underlying couture production, as Nancy Troy argues in Couture Culture (2003). In the early twentieth century, haute couture was still a relatively new kind of French industry just finding its feet in the world of international trade. Its origins lay in the 1850s when Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman in Paris, developed a new model of design that was to replace the traditional French dressmakers’ practice of making customised dresses for individual clients. Worth not only instituted the idea of the pre-designed collection, he also sold his collections to overseas buyers before the private clients saw them. These were the designs that were mass-produced in the garment industries of North America and much of the rest of the Western world.

The private client, however, was never to know this. In order to promote itself as a top-end, craft-based luxury trade, the French couture had to disguise its commercial links and present itself as an art. Thus, to some extent, its promotion was built on a lie. It claimed the high ground of French culture through its sale of luxurious one-offs but it depended for its lifeblood on selling toiles and patterns worldwide for mass production by foreign producers. This structure of doubling was disavowed in couture rhetoric yet built into the couture industry.

The relationship between copy and original was replicated in the forms of doubling and differentiation of the image that shuttled between the model dress, the mannequin and the client in the fashion show. Furthermore, the unique model worn by the Paris mannequin became serial in the mirrored walls of the couture house, as if to picture future sales and American production – à la répétition, as mass-produced clothing was called. This visualisation of knowledge was further replicated in the architecture and business organisation of the house, with the living mannequin in the fashion show functioning as the fulcrum between backstage production and front-of-house sales.

It is this aspect of the business that I hope to ‘read’ off the interiors of the house of Worth in the album of 1927, tracing a relationship between the spatial and business organisation of the house. I draw on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the optical unconscious and Pierre Nora’s concept of ‘realms of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) to read these interior spaces, both as spaces of production and as an example of how the French fashion trade represented itself to itself. The album is thus, I argue, not only a record but also a representation: a sort of optical unconscious of the industry itself, in all its contradictions and with all its tendencies towards mystification.