Before the Catwalk: Early Fashion Shows

Before the Catwalk: Early Fashion Shows

Fashion week in NYC wrapped up a couple of weeks ago on Sept. 14, London ended its shows last week, followed by Milan, and Paris Fashion Week ends this Tuesday, Oct. 2. Fashion week has become systematized with a specific calendar of designers showing in different cities at different times so that buyers and influencers can potentially go to the maximum number of shows and prepare for the coming season. Granted, this system has become less centralized in recent years, but for the most part, high-end designers will follow this time-tested formula for showcasing their work. This had me thinking about the origins of the fashion show and how it became such an organized mechanism.

In my research, I concentrate on the first locations used to show designs with live models in the early 1900s-19-teens, both the cities and specific place or event, who was modeling the clothing, and the perception of this evolving business scheme. In the early 1900s, the idea to show clothing on a living person had taken off and was more than just a one-off by a few trailblazing designers. Yet, it was still so new and not yet formulated into the system we recognize today.


First Things First

Charles Frederick Worth, 1887, French (English born) silk evening ensemble, MET Museum, 2009.300.1094a–g

To briefly backtrack, before public showings, designers would have live models in their ateliers wear their designs for customers and wholesale buyers. Charles Frederick Worth, often hailed as the first “couturier,” or fashion designer, is usually credited as the first to utilize this method, although this was adapted from his employer at Gagelin et Opigez, and future designers soon followed. Colleen Hill, Curator of Costume and Accessories at the Museum at FIT, noted in her article Fashion Week, “Beginning in 1847, Worth worked directly with the shopgirls, developing sales pitches that further promoted the shop’s fashionable wares to its aristocratic clientele.”[1] Having the models, usually shopgirls, wear clothing in an atelier was business savvy in that, for the first time, the burgeoning career of designer meant that they could dictate what they created (versus a tailor or seamstress, obedient to the requests of their patrons) and a live model could better translate a new idea to customers. Worth would also dress his wife to display his clothing at public events. Other designers around the early 1900s began adopting similar methods of parading clothing to consumers like Lady Duff-Gordon of Lucile and Paul Poiret, and these two especially expanded on the idea of an organized public display.

Poiret 1911.jpg
Paul Poiret, 1911, French, silk opera coat, MET Museum, 2008.288


Getting Organized

In the 1910s, the shows were becoming more organized as designers recognized the unprecedented marketing value of a live model show. Around this time too, fashion shows might also be called mannequin parades, the live model method, or some variation of that wording. Professor of Fashion History and Theory, Carol Evans, said “the first living mannequins, or ‘manikins,’ took their name from the static dummy or lay-figure they were soon to replace as the principal form of display in the dress-maker’s salon.”[2] The idea of a model as a profession was also gaining traction, versus modeling as an additional part of a shopgirl’s duties or someone close to the designer advertising their wares at a social event.  Michelle Tolini Finamore, Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, writes that in the early 1900s, “Lucile was one of the first to promote her mannequins as public personalities, giving them exotic names such as Dinarzade and Sumurun, and training them to walk with a distinctive gait.”[3] She also notes that tours of live mannequins would often begin in Paris or London and then travel to the United States.

In 1903, Town & Country, a weekly $0.10 magazine at this time, listed as part of their social calendar that on August 31, “The first Fashion Show held in this country” would be held at Madison Square Garden in New York.[4] [side note: T&C was first published in 1846 and remains the oldest continued general interest magazine in the U.S.!] Prior to this date, while models may have been shown in stores or traveling fashion shows may have come from abroad, the United States still had not generated its own public show. This is the only instance I have found of this specific date mentioned, but the timing seems in line with other research. I think it’s also possible that public shows had occurred in other American cities, but it seems more difficult to find a record of this.  Also, FFF doesn’t usually cover the changes for men happening between 1880-1930, but in this case I think it’s important to note that a 1926 article in the New York Times said the first “Men Mannequins Parade” happened in London on October 26 of that year in a Regent Street store. London had long been an epicenter for expert menswear, what with the established Saville Row, so it seems reasonable that they would hold the first men’s fashion show. The article interviewed the models’ employer who said, “‘They are paid the same rate as girls. […] It is a job that should appeal as a side line to chorus men and to others who are trained in the art of wearing any sort of clothes and walking well.’”[5] It took likely upwards of 25 years after the first female fashion show for men’s retailers to follow suit.

I thought some comments from journalists were interesting regarding the fashion shows. One article from Women’s Wear (before it was Women’s Wear Daily) detailed the continued interest in semi-annual fashion shows (fall/winter and spring/summer) in 1913. In the article the writer explained, “The purpose of these fashion shows is primarily to provide one place in New York where those retail merchants coming here at least semi-annually may see, spread for their inspection and classified in orderly array, a representative selection of all that merchandise for the coming season in which fashion is the controlling factor.”[6] Today, the importance of live model fashion shows for translating next season’s goods to buyers is assumed, but in 1913, many people still felt a convincing argument needed to be made, even for a large city with a high aristocratic population. The show mentioned was held in Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall. The Palace was built over Grand Central Terminal in 1911 (replacing an older Grand Central Palace), so in 1913, this would have been an opportunity to highlight the new architecture of the redesigned GCP as well as the latest trends.


Unusual Spaces

Something I found to be really interesting in the early 19-teens, was that as the fashion show was catching on it became very popular to showcase models at horse races. It may seem unusual at first, but horse races had long been fashionable events where any woman of means would wear her best gown. In the early 1900s, designers began taking this a step further in not only dressing society women fashionably for the races, but also specifically showcasing their newest designs on models who would walk along the grounds. In researching this topic, there were many articles in Town & Country, Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and other publications that followed fashion at the races. In 1910, the New York Times described the Grand Steeplechase at Auteuil saying, “from the point of view of fashion and elegance the Grand Steeple has become the most important fixture of the year, and now completely eclipses the other final meeting at Longchamp and the Grand Prix. […] Every dressmaking house of any importance, and many others, spend weeks in thinking out some would-be sensational toilette for Auteuil.”[7] I think this underscores the importance of showing new gowns at the races for designers and how this would make a natural transition into an opportunity for deploying multiple models in their latest styles. Women’s Wear Daily in New York wrote in 1939, “For the opening day at Belmont Park yesterday, International Silk Guild sponsored a group of summery silk fashions, worn by mannequins who promenaded during the afternoon, and were photographed.”[8] Even though a little after the FFF timeline, by the late-1930s, race tracks were still used by designers as a center for showcasing their work. Not only would the race’s attendees view the garments, but they are also photographed and detailed by journalists which would further promote the styles.

Considering the attention she’s attracting, this woman at Auteuil could very easily be modeling a new look for a designer, likely ca. 1908, By Université de Caen Basse-Normandie [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

There was no formula for an event so new, the fashion show, so designers and department stores were getting creative testing new methods of showcasing goods on live models. Some other unexpected places were happening in theaters, or really any large public space with pleasing atmosphere. An article from Women’s Wear in 1923, wrote, “The mannequin parade craze grows space, and each day sees the announcement of a further restaurant, hotel, or nightclub introducing such a show for the entertainment of their clients. The latest idea is mannequin parades at the afternoon matinees of a theater. The Alhambra, one of London’s best known variety houses, has staged a mannequin parade to be produced at each matinee performance.”[9] They also mention that this is a good opportunity for a variety of social classes to see the clothing as it can be very difficult to procure a ticket to the shows otherwise (ok, not much has changed there).


Across the Country

Most often articles regarding fashions shows in the U.S. at this time took place in NYC, but it’s important to give credit to other shows taking place throughout the country. In Los Angeles in 1913, Women’s Wear touted the fashion show there as a great success. Underneath the headline they wrote, “All leading stores unite in making event the most brilliant ever held in Los Angeles – Splendid window displays and effective live model shows amid unique and interesting surroundings.”[10] Apparently part of a Hamburger’s department store was converted to look like an Italian garden for the live model show, other stores along the same street participated with elaborate window displays, and film actresses were used as models. The names of the actresses weren’t mentioned, and I think this is because in 1913, Hollywood and the movie business were still relatively nascent, so film actresses didn’t amass the kind of public following and recognition they do today (not until about 15 years after this date).

Hamburger Department Store, 1907 illustration. Alfred Rosenheim [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Other cities that mentioned fashion shows were Paterson, NJ, Cleveland, and Boston. It seems like most major cities in the 19-teens and 1920s were already developing a seasonal staging ground in a city theater or within department stores.

While New York may have been an easier sell on maintaining recurring semi-annual shows, one writer in 1928, still felt the need to convince readers in Chicago in the late 1920s. In Women’s Wear Daily they said, “The display of garments on mannequins, even though the limitations of space and equipment make a regular fashion show inadvisable, is an effective way of presenting apparel at the beginning of the season.” [11] In the end, the argument may not have been enough as Chicago did not become another fashion focal point in the U.S. like NYC and LA (not yet, perhaps!).


Negative Feedback

Fashionable Ladies at Longchamp in 1908. It’s not clear if these are models or fashionable onlookers. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Most retailers were satisfied with the results of mannequin parades and subsequent business they provided, however, I found two issues that still seemed to be a sticking point. Copying designs was a problem, and many retailers were worried that in publicly displaying their styles, anyone would be able to manufacture the same look and pass it off as their own. One article in the New York Times wrote in 1913, “The much-advertised and long-expected grand parade of mannequins on the occasion of the opening of the Longchamp season to-day proved a disappointment, the dressmaking establishments have decided at the last moment to make hardly any show, so as to prevent the latest models from being copied by smaller firms, whose representatives eagerly await the display in the paddock.”[12] Again, not much different than today, onlookers would sketch the new designs presented and hurry to copy an inexpensive version for their customers or sell to another buyer.

Another issue was that some department stores felt the lag time between when the shows took place and when customers would later purchase a look was too long. They may have been on to something here, as it would be unusual for a department store today to hold a fashion show. In London, an article in 1922 wrote, “Selfridge’s decided that mannequin parades do not pay, and are therefore concentrating all their attention on window displays.”[13] This is the only mention I saw of a department store not satisfied with the results, but there were likely others too.


Final Thoughts

I think it’s fascinating to return to the origins of Fashion Week and how it became a successful and integral part of the fashion industry. Some things have not changed much since the beginning (still very difficult to obtain access, major issues today with tracking down manufacturers that make copies of original designs, often semi-annual shows before fall and spring) but others have completed evolved (the high status of models, expensive theatricality in shows, a designated catwalk, and a very specific global calendar). As much as it’s fun to imagine attending the races in your best dress and passing by models dressed by Paul Poiret, I do appreciate the convenience of going to and looking through the archive photos of each designer. Not to mention, this makes collections so much more accessible! Recently it seems like a lot of designers are trying new methods of showing designs, like Rebecca Minkoff timing her show last February with the Women’s March to show solidarity, and some designers making films to showcase new looks [this is a great article about some of the new methods]. Should we break down some of the now-ingrained expectations of what Fashion Week entails and where it should be held? I think the magnetic pull of the fashion show spectacle will remain for a long time to come, but who knows? We may start seeing fashion shows in theaters again before long!


-Danielle Morrin


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[1] “Fashion Week,” In Bibliographical Guides, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, (accessed September 26, 2018).

[2] “Fashion Models,” In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010, (accessed September 26, 2018).

[3] “Fashion Shows,” In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010, (accessed September 26, 2018).

[4] “Town & Country Calendar: Engagements,” Town & Country, vol. 58, iss. 25, August 29, 1903, Women’s Magazine Archive, 3.

[5] “Men Mannequins Parade for First Time in London,” New York Times, October 22, 1926, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 23.

[6] “The Fall and Winter Fashion Show,” Women’s Wear, vol. 7, iss. 27, August 1, 1913, New York, Fairchild Fashion Media, The Women’s Wear Daily Archive, 8.

[7] “Gowns Worn at the Spring Races in Paris,” New York Times, Jun 12, 1910, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, X5.

[8] “Mannequins Parade in Summery Silks at Belmont Park,” Women’s Wear Daily, vol. 58, iss. 93, May 12, 1939, New York, Fairchild Fashion Media, 40.

[9] “Fashion Parades are Now  Being Produced at Theatre Mantinees, “Women’s Wear, vol. 26, iss. 53, March 5, 1923, London, Fairchild Fashion Media, 2.

[10] “Los Angeles Fashion Show a Big Success,” Women’s Wear, vol. 7, iss. 80, October 3, 1913, New York,  Fairchild Fashion Media, MS2.

[11] “Finds Mannequin Parades Effective,” Women’s Wear Daily, vol. 37, iss. 37, August 14, 1928, New York, Fairchild Fashion Media, SIII2.

[12] “Paris Dressmakers Withhold Models,” New York Times, April 9, 1912, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 3.

[13]“Dresses: Selfridge’s and Harrods, of London, Busy with Promenades and Window Displays,” Women’s Wear, vol. 25, iss. 83, October 7, 1922, New York, Fairchild Fashion Media, 26.

3 thoughts on “Before the Catwalk: Early Fashion Shows

  1. Thanks for sharing all your research! You know, I had never even wondered about the origins of the fashion show or fashion week, but this is interesting history.

    I’d never heard of the Hamburger Dept Store, so I did a quick search on Google. It looks like it was a marvellous place. It kind of sounds like The Paradise (the novel by Emile Zola). Have you read?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome! I am happy to share. And yes – great reference! That has so many wonderful early department store details. I think it’s interesting to see how department stores have been viewed and changed (like in the novel with most of the employees living and eating within the store complex!).

      Liked by 1 person

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