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The Secret History of Fashion Shows

Historian Caroline Evans spills the beans on the catwalk’s clandestine past in a revealing new book

Fashion shows weren’t always this way. Before the supermodels, the over-the-top productions and the weird, wonderful quirks that make up modern runway experiences, there was a very different type of presentation.

In her new tome, The Mechanical Smile, Caroline Evans, a professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, examines the history of the fashion show from its Parisian beginnings through its more modern incarnation.

But it’s more than just the clothes that have changed since fashion shows began more than a century ago. Here, Evans shares some of the most surprising tidbits about the sartorial spectacle’s evolution.

Early fashion shows were secret.

“The very first fashions shows were for sales and for buyers, so the public didn’t see fashion shows,” Evans explains. But there weren’t phalanxes of ye olde PR assistants keeping party crashers at bay—the confidentiality had more to do with trade secrets.

“They really policed the fashion shows because the risk is always piracy,” Evans says. “It was very hard to get into a couture house sometimes. Even if you came with letters of recommendation, or you were well connected or rich, it was still quite difficult until you were trusted enough.”

Models weren’t always a main attraction.

Forget a model going by a single name—Evans says when fashion shows first began, most designers didn’t want their models known at all. And that’s not the only thing that’s changed: “Models now are obviously much more respectable,” she says. “They were very badly paid in the beginning, so they often were kept women. Whereas you look at the salaries models come on nowadays, they don’t really need a man to keep them.”

Early fashion shows could last a week or longer.

While today’s fashion shows tend to be over in less than 20 minutes—and have long waiting periods before the show begins—that’s just a fraction of the time fashion shows once occupied. “In terms of shows, they’ve actually gotten much shorter, ” Evans reveals. “The first ones were anything from an hour and a half to three hours long.”

In some cases, Evans says, buyers would sit and wait while models were changed and accessorized for each look, dragging a show on for hours. And no designer showed only once; often times the shows would be repeated for up to 10 days for different groups of buyers.

Thin hasn’t always been in.

The idea of models being trimmer than other women wasn’t always around. According to Evans, it surfaced just before World War I. “Up until then, what we consider today to be thin today was thought really unattractive,” she says. “It was a much more buxom figure that was the fashionable one. But you could say those models, those really slender models at the beginning of the 20th century were avatars of the future because that’s the body shape that still everyone aspires to.”

Knock-offs have always been a problem.

In the early 20th century, designers are said to have dressed models and sent them to the horse races, where their eye-catching couture would create a buzz. It didn’t work for long. “There’s a great moment in about 1912 when all the couturiers in Paris got together and they lobbied the Paris police and asked them to ban photographers from the races,” Evans says. “Once you have photography and you have the telegraph, you can wire your designs around the world really fast, and what you find is that by the time buyers from New York return to the U.S. with all the new models they’ve bought, someone else has already go them there and they’re not worth anything. The designers wanted to stop the photographers, but the police said, “Well, actually, you can’t do that.”

(Images courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology | SUNY, Gladys Marcus Library Department of Special Collections)

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