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The Haute Couture “Looks” of the Heidi Horten Collection in the Context of Fashion History

The Haute Couture “Looks” of the Heidi Horten Collection in the Context of Fashion History

Haute Couture Garments Heidi Horten Collection in the Context of Fashion History

In its exhibition “Look”, the recently opened Heidi Horten Collection aims at juxtaposing art and fashion by displaying some of its patron’s haute couture garments in the context of the image of women in the arts. According to the collection, the title “Look” on the one hand should stand for the meanings of visual appearance and fashion style, on the other, it is meant as encouragement to discover the personal aspects of the collection.

This article aims at putting the haute couture collection into the context of fashion history rather rather than discussing whether the juxtaposition of arts and fashion succeeded. The focus is on selected garments designed for Heidi Horten-Goess and giving a background of what they represent in terms of fashion movements and philosophies of the designers. Not all the garments at the exhibition were dated, but the majority was from the early to mid-1980s and involve creations by Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Dior, Jean Patou and Jean-Louis Scherrer.

In this article, the focus is on three couturiers who had more in common than just being active in the 1980s. Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and Jean-Louis Scherrer are connected through their work for the Maison Dior – with Saint Laurent and Scherrer soon setting out to start their own labels and Bohan shaping the maison for three decades. Whether this connection was important to Goess-Horten or whether she just commissioned the garments because she liked their looks, is, unfortunately, not known. Nevertheless, this connection offered an interesting red thread through – what seemed at first sight – randomly picked haute couture garments of the time.

Who Was Heidi Horten-Goess?

Before diving into medias res, the owner and collector of the art and fashion needs to be discussed. Heidi Horten-Goess (born in 1941 in Vienna) was the widow of Helmut Horten, a German businessman who she married when was 19. After his death, she inherited his fortune which was estimated by Forbes to have been USD 3 billion in 2020. In Austria, before being known for her art collection, Horten-Goess was a figure of public interest due to the controversies about the foundations of her husband’s business: Helmut Horten managed to acquire several Jewish-owned department stores benefiting from the Nazi regime in Germany. (These were also confirmed by the study which was commissioned by the foundation itself which can be downloaded from the museum’s website in German.) Horten-Goess’s views on her late husband’s business practice in the Third Reich which later served as the basis for his wealth after the war are unknown, as she herself never spoke about it in public. Horten Goess died in 2022, shortly after her museum was officially opened. (1)

Yves Saint Laurent

A big number of garments exhibited at “Look” are from the Maison Yves Saint Laurent and they involve a red Moroccan-inspired cocktail ensemble, a short pink cocktail dress, a “Matisse”-gown and several other gowns. They illustrate Saint Laurent’s passion for foreign countries which inspired him for many of his designs and also hint at his time at the Maison Dior in the early years of his career.

Yves Saint Laurent & Morocco

Haute Couture Heidi Horten Collection Yves Saint Laurent 1981 Moroccan inspired cocktail set
Yves Saint Laurent, red cocktail ensemble (Model 46), 1981, Heidi Horten Collection

Yves Saint Laurent often incorporated influences of foreign countries, he discovered his interest for Japan in the early 1960s, he was heavily influenced by China in the 1970s and soon after, he also designed Indian-inspired garments. Despite this strong influence and interest, he did not enjoy travelling. Other than his second home in Morocco, Saint Laurent often did not visit the countries from which he drew inspiration.(2) In an interview with Catherine Deneuve (Globe, May 1, 1986) he said:

I use my imagination to conjure up countries I don’t know. I hate to travel. For example, if I read a book about the Indies with photos or about Egypt, where I’ve never been, my imagination takes me there. That’s where I take the best trips.

Yves Saint Laurent (2)

For the collections in 1981/82, Yves Saint Laurent integrated outfits which were inspired by Morocco – like in the runway picture below of an embroidered blouse and a red hat.

The red cocktail ensemble (Model 46) exhibited at the Heidi Horten Collection reflects these Moroccan influences and the collection of 1981.

While the Moroccan elements are very obvious in the runway design as well as the cocktail ensemble of the Horten Collection, they also stand for another major design-focus of Saint Laurent: his passion for the arts. According to the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, the Moroccan-inspired dress above worn by Edia Vairelli during the fashion show for the Autumn/Winter 1981 haute couture collection was also inspired by impressionist painter Henri Matisse. (2)

Saint Laurent’s Passion for the Arts – Matisse & Léger

In the early 1980s, Saint Laurent took inspiration for patterns and colours from artists he loved – mainly Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger. (See the example of a Léger-inspired gown below.) (3)

This leads us to another exhibit at the Heidi Horten Collection: the Henri Matisse-inspired gown from the Fall/Winter collection of 1980. This version is made of a velvet long-sleeved top, a floor length patchwork skirt and a big bow.

Haute Couture Heidi Horten Collection Yves Saint Laurent 1980 Matisse inspired gown velvet and patchwork
Yves Saint Laurent, Matisse-inspired gown, 1980, Heidi Horten Collection

In my opinion, this is one of the most important items of the collection, as the Matisse/Léger-collections are even cited by the Musée Yves Saint Laurent as a cornerstone of the designer’s career and there are many pictures in the archives of the Matisse-garments and quite a few of this patchwork gown itself. The patchwork gown was also exhibited at the exhibition “Dialogue avec l’art” of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in 2004. (4)

The big bow may be interpreted as a nod by the designer to his time at Dior, where the bow has always been crucial element of the brand identity (see below). Like his successors, Saint Laurent incorporated bows into his designs at Dior.


Haute Couture Heidi Horten Collection Marc Bohan Yves Saint Laurent 1981 short pink ruffled dress with bow
Yves Saint Laurent, Fall-Winter 1981, Heidi Horten Collection.

The pink short dress with ruffles is a version of the black dress on the runway of the Yves Saint Laurent Fall-Winter 1981 shows.

Again, the big bow on the left side is a hint to the next next garment of the Heidi Horten Collection, a Dior gown with a big bow in front which was exhibited in the same room as the two garments with bows by Yves Saint Laurent.

Dior (under Marc Bohan)

The golden-brown gown with a big bow in front is a 1981-design by Dior under creative director Marc Bohan. Before joining the Maison Dior, Bohan designed the haute couture line of Jean Patou and joined Dior in London until he replaced creative director Yves Saint Laurent, who was called for the military, in 1960. His first collection for the Maison was received with big applause and he became Dior’s longest-serving creative director who led the company through major shifts during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. (5)

Haute Couture Heidi Horten Collection Marc Bohan Dior 1981 brown gown with bow
Dior (under Marc Bohan), evening gown with bow, 1981, Heidi Horten Collection

Christian Dior himself was being quoted that he liked bows on necklines, hats and belts and would not mind their size, he would love them in many ways and made of different materials. According to a press release by the Maison Dior published by The Makeup Museum, the bow stands for femininity and acts as “an essential punctuating element, an eye-catching, finishing touch of a dress”. It references the so-called “fontanges”, a round or oval cap popular in the second half of the 17th century which was pinned onto the back of the hat. On its top was a tall frame of wires with various layers of lace or ribbons, for example. This head piece with ribbons is also said to have been worn by Louis XIV’s mistress. (6)

Bows have always been part of the Dior-DNA – already at the very first fashion show in the salons of 30 Avenue Montaigne in 1947, there was a dress with a big bow on the back. (See video of the Galerie Dior official website.) Another example was shown at the Presentation of the haute couture collection of Spring/Summer 1950 at the Savoy Hotel in London: an evening gown with many small bows in the front and one placed on each shoulder. (Also in a video on the official Galerie Dior website.) (7)

The bow quickly became a recurring theme of the brand. Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferré also incorporated bows into their designs (see the L’Officiel photo from 1981 above and Bohan’s 1983 collection and Ferré’s 1989 “Arbitre Suit”). Even on the iconic “Miss Dior” perfume, a ribbon bow is placed just under the vaporiser. And in recent advertising campaigns, celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence or Mila Kunis wear bows as accessories. The bow became intertwined with other elements of the brand and is frequently referred to as “Noeud Dior” (Dior knot). (6)

Jean-Louis Scherrer

Even though his name might not be as known today as the afore-mentioned Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, Jean-Louis Scherrer was equally symbolic for the times when designers left established Maisons and founded their own labels. Scherrer founded his own couture house after working for Dior (under Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Féraud) and was backed by a French millionaire. In the 1960s, Bergdorf Goodman acquired the rights to exclusively resell and reproduce his designs in the United States. He became famous in the 1970s when his clientele included the then First Lady of France, Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing, Sophia Loren and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Raquel Welch wore one of his animal-print dresses in the movie “L’Animal” in 1977. Similar to Yves Saint Laurent, Scherrer was inspired by foreign countries and also incorporated Indian elements, patterns and fabrics into his collections. His opulent designs were particularly liked by the so-called “petrol princesses”, the wealthy wives of oil tycoons. (8)

Haute Couture Heidi Horten Collection Jean Louis Scherrer yellow embroidered cocktail dress with stand up collar and Jean Patou gowns
Jean-Louis Scherrer, cocktail dress (Model 57), 1981, Heidi Horten Collection

The Heidi Horten Collection exhibited a yellow cocktail dress with an embroidered top. Its stand-up collar references some designs of Scherrer’s 1981 collection which was published in L’Officiel magazine (see below). The embroidery could be a nod to India (this would need to be confirmed, but the front of the yellow cocktail dress looks similar to popular embroideries on Lehengas, ankle-length skirts often worn for special occasions). The turban-like head pieces below are clearly influenced by India as well.

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An interesting conclusion can be drawn from the selection of haute couture garments of the Heidi Horten Collection: At first sight, the gowns seemed to have been chosen without any major connections between each other, probably at random. Most likely, the major motivation of the collector, Heidi Horten-Goess, was that she appreciated the designs and liked their looks. Nevertheless, whether on purpose or unintentionally, the garments discussed above illustrate how interlinked the fashion world has always been. Many designers trained at the same houses, they gained experience and learned from others before they started out to found their own labels. In this case, there are three designers with very different approaches and philosophies towards fashion; yet, the common thread is their time at the Maison Dior. This common experience shaped the designers’ paths in the long-run – some express this “legacy” more than others. While Bohan is probably the most “classic” of the three designers, an interesting commonality of Saint Laurent and Scherrer was their taking inspiration from foreign countries. This shows the beauty of fashion: tiny details such as a bow or embroidery, which are easily overlooked, can hint at many more facts about a designer’s development, career steps, their sources of inspiration and the overall context of fashion history.

Sources: (1) About the Heidi Horten Collection, Forbes, Study commissioned by the Helmut Horten Foundation about Helmut Horten’s business practices during the Nazi Regime (2) Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, Pen Online Magazine, (3) Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris 2 , (4) Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris 3, (5) V&A Museum London, (6) Makeup Museum, FIT New York, (7) Galerie Dior Official Website, (8) The New York Times, The Guardian

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