Fashion shows today are extravagant media spectacles, but it wasn’t always that way. When did the concept begin? Discover the history of the fashion show.
The early days
The best fashion shows can transport an entire physical and virtual audience into a different universe. They bring a designer’s precious work to life on models’ bodies within a set created to tell the story of the collection.
The concept of the fashion show has evolved. Before catwalk shows featuring live models wearing the clothes, fashion was solely advertised on mannequins. There was no movement or flourish to reveal how the clothes would look on an actual person. Customers could only imagine how a garment might look on themselves, based on still, motionless dolls.
Eventually, the first fashion parades arrived in the 1860s and featured real, breathing models wearing the clothes. Customers could now see the rhythm and movement of a garment, bringing designs to life. The birth of the fashion show by fashion’s earliest pioneers paved the way for the modern catwalks we know today.
The world’s first fashion show
The beginnings of the fashion show date back to the 1860s in Paris when English designer Charles Frederick Worth ditched mannequins for real-life models. He hired young women to model his collections, including his wife, Marie Augustine Vernet, who is credited as the world’s first fashion model.
These early shows were known as fashion parades, which saw one model after another wearing the designs to showcase to an audience. They were small events, unlike the mind-blowing spectacles we see now. They were simple presentations with no music, elaborate set design, or special effects. However, these parades were just the beginning, setting the way for the arrival of the modern catwalk show.
These women were dressed in Worth’s haute couture creations, which featured rich fabrics and elements of historical dress, bringing luxury fashion to the forefront of women’s minds. Worth is synonymous with being the pioneer of several first critical fashion movements, including the fashion show, haute couture, and the first to revolutionize fashion as a business.
Case study: Lady Duff-Gordon
Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon, also known professionally as Lucile, was another fashion design pioneer and is credited as being among the first people to debut the world’s first catwalk show. Like Charles Frederick Worth, the British designer also used live mannequins in fashion parades in early 20th century London. Unlike Worth, she is regarded as creating the first catwalk show with all the additional theatrical elements we associate with the modern catwalk, including scenic stages, music, special lighting, and models striking poses in the gowns.
This new approach introduced the fashion show as more of a performance rather than a presentation solely showcasing the clothes. Lady Duff-Gordon revealed her collections on models at her shop in Hanover Square in Mayfair, London. The audience attended by invitation only to view the latest creations in luxury fashion.
Aside from being a Titanic survivor, Lady Duff-Gordon is best known for her early runway shows, training professional models, and dressing high society in feminine silhouettes with slit skirts and low necklines.
Case study: Paul Poiret
Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, French designer Paul Poiret was also playing with the fashion show concept and presenting his designs on live bodies in action. He is another name linked to the early development of haute couture and is considered one of its founding fathers as he dressed the Parisian elite before the First World War.
Poiret was famous for throwing elaborate society balls that helped showcase his work. These events made him one of the first couturiers to use publicity as a marketing tool for his designs. In 1911, he staged the 1002 Nights costume party to launch his new brand of perfumes. The party was Persian-themed and took place at his mansion, with guests arriving in Persian dress. The highlight of the evening was Poiret’s wife Denise sitting in a gilded cage wearing his latest style of harem pants. Poiret had realized the huge power that social currency could hold in the art of marketing fashion.
Case study: Coco Chanel
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the French designer and founder of the Chanel brand who ruled Parisian fashion in the 1900s.
Her 31 Rue Cambon apartment in Paris served as her home residence, boutique, and haute couture atelier spread across the floors. It was here that she would stage salon shows to showcase her creations to an audience. It is believed that Chanel would perch herself on the steps of the now famous mirrored Art-Deco staircase and watch her shows in secret, supposedly watching the audience’s faces in the reflections.
Chanel’s signature styles incorporated elements of men’s fashion, notably in the form of her famous yachting trousers inspired by male sailors. She also used a lightweight jersey for most of her garments—a material previously popular for making men’s underwear. Her collections at the salon shows offered women a versatile and more practical way of dressing.
Today, 31 Rue Cambon remains the epicenter for the House of Chanel.
The birth of the fashion week
A fashion week is a week-long event where a range of fashion designers showcase their upcoming collections on the runway. Fashion weeks occur in several cities around the world, but the most prestigious fashion weeks are held in the top four fashion capitals; New York, London, Milan, and Paris.
The first official fashion week, named initially ‘Press Week,’ arrived in 1943 amidst World War Two. Due to the war, Paris shows were canceled, and the American fashion media could not enter France for inspiration. Instead, the media turned to New York City. Press Week soon became Fashion Week, with multiple fashion shows taking place across the city. It became the first city to organize seasonal fashion shows.
Eleanor Lambert, an American publicist, is best known as the founder of New York Fashion Week (NYFW). She championed American fashion and advocated for America as a fashion capital. Today, New York Fashion Week is among the four major fashion weeks known as the Big Four.
The first fashion editorial
French couturier Paul Poiret is known as the ‘King of Fashion’ as he led the fashion industry in the first decade of the 20th century. As well as introducing the hobble skirt and the lampshade dress, freeing women from corsets in favor of the brassiere, and dressing Paris’s finest, Paul Poiret’s work contributed to the first fashion editorial.
He changed the course of fashion when, in 1911, American photographer Edward Steichen shot Poiret’s designs for the April issue of Art & Décoration magazine. This is said to be the first modern fashion photography shoot, promoting fashion as fine art. It featured women modeling Poiret’s gowns, shot at new and creative angles.
The event paved the way for the fashion editorial we consider today an essential part of fashion magazines. Fashion editorials not only bring us beautiful images to look at but tell a story of the collection without words.
The first supermodel
The idea of the supermodel arose when models began taking big beauty contracts that brought their faces to the forefront of magazines, billboards, and the runway, making them stand out from the countless other models working in the industry. A handful of names are associated with the world’s first supermodels.
Evelyn Nesbit, for example, was one of the most in-demand fashion models in the early 20th century. Her face appeared everywhere, from newspapers and magazines to souvenirs. As she rose to fame, she came to define the meaning of the term ‘supermodel’ and is generally considered the first supermodel.
Lesley Hornby, aka Twiggy, was another of the first international supermodels and an icon of the 1960s. Janice Dickinson was one of the biggest names in the business in the 1970s and 1980s. She is considered one of America’s first significant supermodels and claims to have coined the term ‘supermodel’ in 1979, referring to herself as “the world’s first supermodel.”
However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that models truly became supermodels. By the 1990s, the supermodel craze was in full swing as a selection of models, like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, became superstars in the media, earning extortionate amounts of money.
The 1990s ‘Original’ Supermodels
The 1990s was the golden era for supermodels. At this time, models were more than faces on the catwalk. They were sharing their personalities all over the media, appearing on talk shows, dominating magazine columns, and even landing roles in the film industry.
Iconic photographs from the likes of Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts documenting these superwomen contributed to their fame and fortune. Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Tatjana Patitz are considered the ‘Original Supermodels’ and were dubbed the ‘Big Five.’ Claudia Schiffer eventually replaced Patitz, and the ‘Big Five’ became the ‘Big Six’ with the arrival of a young Kate Moss in the mid-1990s.
Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, and Gisele Bündchen later joined the supermodel scene. Today, all of these women remain household names with worldwide reputations. While there are many influential models in the present day, they have yet to match the power of the 90s originals.
Versace Fall 1991 show
Gianni Versace’s Fall 1991 show stands out as one of the most iconic runway shows of all time. It delivered an iconic moment in fashion history because it epitomized the 1990s supermodel era. In the grand finale, Versace sent Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington down the runway, four of the industry’s most powerful supermodels. They were wearing black, red, and yellow cocktail dresses and miming the lyrics to George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” in an unexpected recreation of the original music video, in which they all starred the year before.
The moment solidified their supermodel status within popular culture and merged fashion with the celebrity world. This particular show sparked the idea that the catwalk was not only a place to reveal a collection but a place to create an exciting media spectacle. Although the show occurred pre-internet, it hit the mainstream media with force.
The show took place in Milan and featured leather suits, cropped jackets, baroque prints, large belts, thigh-high boots, lots of black, and a lot of embellishment.