A remarkable collection of French couture including Chanels, Lanvins, Vionnets, and Schiaparellis donated to the Museum in 1946 captures the rapturous elegance of café society in the frivolous, extravagant years immediately preceding World War II. Dating from 1935 to 1940, this group of evening gowns formed part of an earlier exhibition in 1940 organized by Lady Mendl and chaired by the Duchess of Windsor to benefit French War Charities. Drawn mainly from the collection of The Costume Institute, with loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the exhibition celebrates a period in fashion history that is unsurpassed in terms of beauty, elegance, and craftsmanship.
At a time when fashion required an appropriate backdrop, the exhibition situates these romantic and spectacular evening gowns within the larger context of the fine and decorative arts of the period. This close relationship between fashion and interior design is expressed through works by Jansen, Emilio Terry, and Jean Michel Franck. At the same time, drawings by Vertès, Beaton, and Bérard, along with photographs by Horst, Man Ray, and Hoyningen-Huene, reveal the high style of the times. A centerpiece of the exhibition is the Mainbocher dress worn by Wallis Simpson upon her marriage to the Duke of Windsor in 1937.