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The History of Fashion Week

The History of Fashion Week

The History of Fashion Week

Fashion Month is in full swing – let’s travel to the “big four” of Fashion Weeks: New York, Milan, Paris and London. We are going back to the mid-19th century when the first runway shows came up in Paris but it was not until the ball started rolling in America that Fashion Weeks were more formally organized. Let’s travel back in time and explore the history of Fashion Week.

You can also watch my video here.

Long Before Fashion Week There Were Private Fittings and Runway Shows

We could say that the precursors of what we know as Fashion Week or Fashion Month today go back to the mid-19th century and it is also no surprise that it originated in Paris. At the time, those who could afford fancier garments, went to tailors for custom orders. Usually, fittings took place at the tailoring shops or the tailors came to fittings in their customers’ homes. A real turning point happened because of Charles Frederick Worth.[1]

Charles Frederick Worth is often referred to as the first couturier.

You may have heard about him, Often referred to as the “father of haute couture”, the first couturier, he was the first who invited his customers to his atelier for a special event where presented one collection during a dedicated show. In contrast to today, it was less about the event and buzz around it, it was a rather practical way to market his creations and showcase them to his clients.[2]

Today, the fashion shows are gigantic affairs, back then they were targeted at a select group and they were by invitation only. While fashion shows today are more about the aforementioned buzz by attracting journalists, celebrities, influencers, the fashion shows of the early 20th century were targeted at clients only. Worth ended up organizing two showcase events per year and with this, he also created the concept of collections of garments – something we consider normal today, but at the time it was quite unusual.[3] 

Gown designed by Charles Frederick Worth.

Another Parisian designer, Paul Poiret, had the idea of marrying a sales event with socializing; he was known for his lavish parties where he asked his invitees to come dressed up – probably his most famous event was the “Thousand and Second Night”-party in 1911 where he presented a collection of harem trousers and lampshade dresses.[4]

Paul Poiret and his wife dressed up for the “Thousand and Second Night”-party in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the shows moved away from the socializing aspect and became more intimate again. Furthermore, they were strictly limited to clients. (It is said that the designers were worried about being copied, hence, there were no photographers allowed.) This tradition established under Worth was kept until after the Second World War – an intimate affair for selected customers which slowly opened up to buyers and fashion journalists.[5]

Fashion Weeks Actually Started in America

When we think of fashion shows today, we immediately think of grand events, often with a theme related to the collection. We owe this rather theatrical dimension not to France but to America. At the beginning of the 20th century, the trend of showcasing collections to customers also travelled across the Atlantic: It is assumed that a small shop in New York City called Ehrich Brothers was the first to organize runway shows in 1903 as a way to attract customers. Their concept proved to be successful and from 1910 onwards, department stores copied it to sell couture gowns from Paris or copies made in America of these gowns. The theatrical dimension was added in the 1920s – retailers organized shows at their own restaurants during lunch or teatime and they added themes. William Leach in reports in his “Land of Desire” about a fashion show of the department store Wanamaker in Philadelphia in 1908 which imitated the court of Napoleon and Josephine. The shows became extremely popular and an intrinsic part of New York society in particular.[6]

The Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia also hosted runway shows.

While Paris has always been the centre of fashion, fashion week did not start in France. It was across the Atlantic, that the shows became more and more formalized. It took almost another century for America’s most fashion week to officially launch (New York Fashion Week only started in the 1990s) but there were important precursor events which would shape fashion weeks around the world.[7]

World War I was approaching and then Vogue editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Edna Woolman Chase had a critical view on Paris’s status as “the” global fashion capital. On a bus ride, she came up with the “Fashion Fête” to celebrate New York designers – she wanted to move away from the notion that only imported French fashion was seen as desirable. Needless to say, this caused a big rift between American Vogue and French fashion houses and to mend their relationship, there was also a Parisian version of the “Fête” focusing on French designers.[8]

Eleanor Lambert was the brains behind “Press Week”, a major move towards a more formalized New York Fashion Week in the 1940s.

Wars seems to have been major impulses for American fashion, as the “birthday” of another precursor fashion week event falls into war times as well – in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the “Press Week” was launched and it was created as a necessity due to the war: With the German occupation of France in 1940s, the French couture houses were heavily affected; some even had to close their business. Furthermore, American buyers and journalists could not travel to Paris to see garments. Until the second world war, many American designers worked in the shadow of Paris – they often merely copied the French designs. With the lack of accessibility, Eleanor Lambert, a PR expert, saw the chance for American fashion and organized the Press Week. Held at the famous Plaza Hotel, Lambert cast a spotlight on American designers and allowed them to create without the influence of Parisian couture. Her plan worked – editors, buyers and customers praised the works of American designers. The main target group was fashion journalists, hence the name “Press Week”. Buyers were invited to schedule private meetings at showrooms.[9]

A show during Press Week in 1943.

“Press Week” and the shows in the following four decades were more loosely organized than fashion week today. In the 1970s and 1980s, American designers started to organize their own shows – they showcased their designs in restaurants, clubs or lofts. New York fashion week was started accidentally – literally. In 1990, Fern Mallis, then the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, attended a Michael Kors fashion show at a loft. Due to the thumping bass, some ceiling plaster became loose and fell not only on models but also the audience resulting in people abruptly leaving the show. Similar accidents happened at fashion shows of other designers. Consequently, Mallis saw the need for a single venue where all shows could take place. At first, designers were apprehensive but they realized the potential of reaching a bigger audience at such an orchestrated single event. The first of these fashion weeks took place at the then Macklow Hotel (today the Millennium Hotel) on 44th Street. A year later, Mallis had successfully worked on a collaboration with Bryant Park and the Spring 1994 shows took place in tents. The CFDA formed a separate company for the organization of fashion week called 7th on Sixth which developed a formal schedule, press and PR work and sponsorship.[10]

Milan Fashion Week Started Long Before Paris Fashion Week

Today, we Milan is the capital of Italian fashion but this has not always been the case. Before Milan cemented its position, Florence was Italy’s sartorial city – for a reason, as it was also a major hub of leather and textile manufacturing. In 1951, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a businessman with aristocratic roots, aimed at promoting Italian fashion by organizing fashion shows at his own residence and later at the Sala Bianco at the famous Palazzo Pitti. He invited designers such as Emilio Pucci and the Fontana Sisters to showcase collections for buyers, especially from American houses such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, and fashion journalists. It was so successful that it resulted in major traffic problems for the city of Florence.[11] 

Giovanni Battista Giorgione hosted runway shows in his residence and the famous Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

Florence was not the only city competing for fashion – Rome and Venice were serious contenders thanks to the Italian film industry. The Rome-based Fontana Sisters designed outfits for international movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. The Cinecittà studios, and especially Federico Fellini, and Italian fashion also contributed to creating “myth” around Italy as a popular tourist destination. Needless to say, it also laid the groundwork to promote the signature Italian sartorial style.[12]

Audrey Hepburn in a dress designed by the Fontana Sisters.

In 1958, the Camera Nazionale della Moda (the Italian Chamber of Fashion) was founded with the aim to promote the Italian fashion industry. Since then it has been hosting fashion shows also in the format of Fashion Week. This was long before the “birth” of Paris fashion week. More and more Italian labels became known also outside of the country – often because they were more affordable than Parisian couture and also because of their innovative textile use (Missoni and Etro) and designs. Slowly, a northern city made its way into fashion. I said Milan “cemented” its way as a sartorial capital and I said this on purpose: Milan then was an industrial city. Wealthy due to its industry but not necessarily the most fashionable. But because of its surrounding textile manufacturing centres, it was a natural choice for many designers. In 1961, Vogue Italia established their headquarters in Milan and in the 1970s, Giorgio Armani helped the city to its elegant style. Later on, in the 1980s, the Sicilian designer Gianni Versace brought his glitz and glam to Milan with his iconic shows, especially his 1991 show with the supermodels Naomi, Cindy, Christi and Linda – and the rest is history. Needless to say, today there are many more Milan-based brands at Milan Fashion Week – Gucci and Prada are just two really big names.[13]

Giorgio Armani helped elevate the status of Milan as a fashion capital.

Paris Fashion Week

As mentioned before, Paris was not the birthplace of Fashion Week and for a very long time, the runway shows and events were loosely organized by the designers themselves. The first step towards more formalization was right after the Second World War in 1945. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture established that to keep the status as an haute couture houses, the designers had to seasonally showcase at least 35 garments (day- and eveningwear).[14]

Needless to say, the Parisian fashion scene was well aware of the competition coming from America – they heard about “Press Week” in 1943. According to Vogue, Christian Dior was a major force in winning the competition for the sartorial capital. Like no other designer after the war, Dior himself and after his death the creative directors working for the Dior brand shaped the fashion – literally – until the mid-1960s. Along with Dior came other designers such as Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath and Yves Saint Laurent.[15]

Runway show by Dior.

1973 can be seen as the “birthdate” of Paris Fashion Week. The Fédération Française de la Couture was founded and hosted the so-called “Battle of Versailles” fashion show which featured five of the biggest French names: Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior (under creative director Marc Bohan), Pierre Cardin and Hubert de Givenchy. They “fought” against the American counterparts Anne Klein, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows who were relatively unknown in Europe at the time. It was a very theatrical event but despite the magnitude of the location and the French designers, many fashion experts said the American designers who worked with African-American models and also had a special appearance by Liza Minelli won the “battle”.[16]

Yves Saint Laurent’s show right before the Soccer World Cup finals in 1998 involved 300 models and was broadcast worldwide.

From this “Battle of Versailles” onwards, Paris established itself again as a major Fashion Week host. Its shows became more and more dramatic, especially in the 1980s, for example with Thierry Mugler’s 1984 show at the Zénith Stadium which was open to the public and Jean Paul Gaultier’s shows featuring his conical bra later worn by Madonna for her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour. And let’s not forget Yves Saint Laurent’s runway show just an hour before the Soccer World Cup final in 1998. It involved 300 models and was broadcast worldwide to about 1.7 billion viewers. When speaking of extravaganza, one designer has to be mentioned: Karl Lagerfeld’s ultra-extravagant shows for Chanel further cemented Paris’s standing in the fashion world. Furthermore, until today, Paris is the only fashion capital with an Haute Couture Week.[17]

Lagerfeld was famous for his grand runway show settings for Chanel.

London Fashion Week

London is the youngest of the “big four” fashion weeks. Similar to New York, there was a lot of groundwork before the actual Fashion Week was launched. One person who is repeatedly reported of claiming a stake in this groundwork is Australian-born Percy Savage, a PR and fashion personality. He is said to have advanced the careers of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent during his time in Paris. In London, he organized a fashion show at the Ritz called “The New Wave” and a follow-up event called “London Collections”. The latter showcased designs by Zandra Rhodes, amongst others, and was attended by Princess Margaret and Bianca Jagger.[18]

Nevertheless, London Fashion Week following the concept as we know it today is linked to the British Fashion Council which was founded in 1983. It hosted the first official Fashion Week a year later and also introduced the “Designer of the Year Award”. An amusing detail about this first Fashion Week is its location – a car park, but rest assured we are talking about Britain, hence it was a “royal” car part – the Commonwealth Institute’s car park. Together with the Kensington Olympia it stayed a main location of London Fashion Week and it was a perfect fit to the fashion scene in London in the 1980s which was heavily shaped by clubs and counterculture. Needless to say, the establishment soon recognized the importance of the event. In 1985, Princess Diana invited various designers to Lancaster House. (She also promoted British designers at home and on her trips abroad.)[19]

Princess Diana invited some designers to Lancaster House in 1985 and promoted British talent at home and abroad.

The economic downturn in Britain in the 1990s also affected Fashion Week. Consequently, the event was much more reduced involving fewer designers. Nevertheless, this was the time when designers such as Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen were emerging.[20]

Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell walked the runway for Stella McCartney, a close friend.

McCartney famously had her friends Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell present her garments in her shows. In 1993, the British Fashion Council introduced its NEWGEN scheme to support emerging talent. There was a reason for that: London saw an exodus of designers at the time – with the likes of McQueen leaving for New York at the end of the decade. However, in the early 2000s, a new generation emerged such as Christopher Kane, Erdem, or Mary Katrantzou and in 2009 even Burberry returned to London from Milan.[21]


Footnotes

[1] British Vogue 2024a.

[2-5] ibid.

[6] Slate 2024.

[7] ibid.

[8] Glam Observer 2024, Slate 2024, The Cut 2024.

[9] Slate 2024, The Cut 2024.

[10] ibid.

[11] British Vogue 2024b.

[12-13] ibid.

[14] British Vogue 2024a.

[15-17] ibid.

[18] British Vogue 2025c.

[19-21] ibid.


Sources

British Vogue, A Brief History of Paris Fashion Week, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

British Vogue, A Brief History of Milan Fashion Week, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

See Also
Schiaparelli Haute Couture SS2024 Why All the Unjustified Outrage

British Vogue, A Brief History of London Fashion Week, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

Glam Observer, The History of Fashion Week, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

Slate, How the Runway Took Off. A brief history of the fashion show, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

The Cut, 8 Runway Shows that Pushed Fashion Forward, last accessed on 16 February 2024.

Picture Sources Title Image: Pinterest.


Disclaimer

This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.


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