The story of the fashion show is the story of mutability. For over 125 years, fashion shows have made visible the aesthetics, social mores, and economic forces that sally through society.1 Their evolution highlights the importance of adaptation — survival of the best-fitting, if you will.
Clients once appraised couture on the backs of actual dolls.2 Mercers and dressmakers in the 1800s traded mannequins of wood and wax for their flesh and blood counterparts.3 The boldest couturiers ushered cloistered models into public as the original brand ambassadors. Prominent venues like Paris' Longchamp racecourse doubled as hotspots for sighting bold new fashions in the early twentieth century.4
Known as "mannequin parades," the shows consisted of walkabouts complete with refreshments.5 Scripted mini-dramas and "tango teas" put garments and sales in motion.6 Couture displays sated the upper crust's theatrical fancies; shows for the aspirational middle class appropriated the trappings of exclusive social gatherings.7 All cloaked the mechanisms of commerce behind the scrim of conviviality.
The shows reacted to geopolitics. In 1918, Europe set the precedent for fashion week, organizing biannual events to accommodate international buyers.8 New York's answer to the sartorial hegemony of Paris came in 1940, when the German occupation of France spurred publicist Eleanor Lambert to create "Press Week" — the precursor to NYFW.9
By 1950, sketching designs at a fashion show was grounds for eviction.10 Designers viewed cameras with suspicion, fearing fashion piracy.11 This changed in the 1960s with the ascendency of designer ready-to-wear and menswear, a charge led by the prescient Pierre Cardin.12 Headline-feeding spectacles proliferated. Once relegated to the corner, media scored prime seating.13
Today, social media circulates fashion in near real-time. Traeger Communications tallied 427,000 Instagram photos related to NYFW 2016, a 47% increase in one year.14 Designers spring for radical locations (Fendi's Great Wall of China), drop albums (Kanye West's "The Life of Pablo") and riff on conceptual art (Gianni Versace's Warhol dress).15,16,17 For Fall 2017, a handful of designers abandoned the runway altogether. Zac Posen launched his collection with only photographic portraits.18 Vera Wang released the atmospheric film "It was Paris at the Start," echoing Paul Poiret, who made history with the first fashion promo film in 1911.19,20
To stay relevant, fashion programs adapt to changes in the creative marketplace. Relatively new specialties including luxury and fashion management, runway set design, runway show production and professional modeling necessitate updates to curriculum and events. At SCAD, the best way to prepare students to produce the full spectrum of fashion shows is to do just that — stage shows.
SCAD FASHWKND opens May 18 with a juried runway show featuring the collections of select seniors and graduate students. Models will wend through SCAD Museum of Art's Alex Townsend Memorial Courtyard. The experiential event culminates with tableaux staged on the third floor of SCAD Atlanta. These vignettes have the added advantage of showcasing interior design and furniture design. Both locations will offer garments available for purchase, a nod to instant fashion.
Ultimately, the history of runway shows reads less as a playbook, more as a book of plays. Students are free to create their own narratives at the permeable intersection of art and economics. The next generation of runway alchemists — our designers, editors, and tastemakers — has it all sewn up.
3Evans, Caroline. “The Enchanted Spectacle.” Fashion Theory, 5:3 (2001): 272
10Evans, Caroline. “The Enchanted Spectacle.” Fashion Theory, 5:3 (2001): 304
20Evans, Caroline. “The Enchanted Spectacle.” Fashion Theory, 5:3 (2001): 285