Why do the fifties feel quite so right for today - at least when it comes to fashion? Maybe it's the only-just resolved twelve-month furore around who would succeed as Dauphin at Dior - the most famous fashion name of the fifties, hands down. Maybe it's a result of the collections created by that newly-named Dior head honcho, Raf Simons, during his time at Jil Sander: his three season 'couture trinity' of strict, almost severe lines, nipped waists and acres of fluttering skirts. Or maybe it's something to do with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, giving our modern lives a touch of the age-old pomp and ceremony Great Britain does to such great acclaim.
Whatever the reason, there's something about the here-and-now that's chiming with the there-and-then - and the period surfaces this summer as a key inspiration behind Selfridges' celebration of all things British under the pithy heading The Big British Bang. 'Surface' is something of an understatement, given that the entire Ultralounge at Selfridges London is given over to a picture-perfect recreation of the era, courtesy of Britannica 1951-1953, a collaboration between esteemed curator Judith Clark - the hand behind Selfridges' 2011 Washed Up exhibition - and millinery maestro Stephen Jones.
"Fifties fashion is such a crowd-pleaser - everyone can picture it," says Clark, declaring that the opportunity to re-invent the era for the twenty-first century "seemed irresistible". The inspiration, and the name, came from British Vogue, who in February 1951 began a section titled Britannica. "It was [Vogue] coming to terms with what was Britishness post-war, an attempt to re-evaluate British style," says Clark "it was something I had never come across before."
Jones' involvement was, it seems, almost pre-destined. "This is his period, this is something he refers to again and again," says Clark. "And in one coronation issue of Vogue they proclaimed 'champagne pink' was the colour of the season - and only Stephen could make champagne pink look current!"
Stephen Jones himself constantly voices his love of the fifties, a heyday for the hat. "Those Penn and Avedon poses of women in extraordinary graphic shapes with crazy things on their head - that seemed to be the most revolutionary thing," he says declaring that during his student days at Saint Martin's College "the one thing that turned me on was going into the library. There was one box in the corner, which was full of old Vogues, British Vogues primarily from the forties and fifties and nobody looked at them… people weren't referencing past styles. That was just not part of the language of fashion." Today - and especially for Spring/Summer 2012 - the timeless elegance of the era is an essential component to contemporary style, and few do it better than Stephen Jones, who reinvents fifties glamour for designers ranging from Marc Jacobs to Giles Deacon to Jil Sander. In Jones' own words, his hats provide "the punctuation within the story-line" of a designer's collection.
Jones' "punctuation" is key to the story of Britannica 1951-1953 - just as the perfect hat, at the perfect time, was a key element to every fashionable woman's wardrobe in the fifties. That was another source of inspiration for Clark, who laid bare the outfit changes that characterised a day of stylish mid-century living. Seven tableaux clock the hours of a woman's life, from a coat in a classic London downpour, through an afternoon of leisurely shopping to cocktails and, of course, the Cinderella moment of the multi-petticoated ball-gown, the misè en scene inspired by fifties window displays. Clark renders the entire exhibition in the grey-scale of classic fashion photography - from sets, to outfits, to exquisitely-realised coiffures. Jones hats, however, break the scheme to provide "an accent of colour, an accent of glamour… they're all couture hats by Stephen Jones with a champagne-pink element," like those delicate, hand-coloured details that illuminate mid-century couture imagery.
Couture they may appear, but the garments on show were available to almost everywoman. In the spirit of make-do-and-mend, these are not pieces from hallowed Parisian ateliers or even their esteemed London equivalents, but modern re-workings based on Vogue-brand home dressmaking patterns from 1951-1953 (the year of the Queen's coronation), representing rather than merely re-presenting the archetypal fifties wardrobe.
The hand behind the clothing belongs to costume designer Christine Atkinson, who used classic techniques to painstakingly craft an array of gowns in every shade of monochrome - from a coronet-embroidered day-dress to the black and white layers of tulle and pearl detailing on a debutante gown - with the shapes determined by those original patterns. It seems archaic, but in the fifties, that was 'high fashion' for the normal British woman: she may, at a push, have had a department store's licensed recreation of a Dior or Balenciaga original, but her wardrobe mainly consisted of her own interpretations. That may sound frugal to modern ears, but before the high fashion ready-to-wear industry began, it was a fact of fashion.
There's even a fashion show in the exhibition, although the dress on show is, again, something any woman could have created at home. "Selfridges sponsored, in 1951, the Vogue pattern show," says Clark, "and because it is in a department store, this exhibition can be slightly self-reflective."
Only in one instance do you have an original couture gown, a creation by London-based couturier Victor Stiebel - who dressed the Royal Family as well as designing uniforms for the WRENS and WRAF in the forties and fifties - drawn from the archives of the London College of Fashion. "We've inverted the logic," says Clark. "Our hypothetical, Vogue pattern-making shopper is looking at an original couture dress and longing for it. The designer dress becomes the aspiration."
The result? Britannica 1951-1953 is like an exquisite Irving Penn editorial blown-up into three-dimensions - complete with mannequins "slightly manipulated, like an optical illusion" with cut-down waist and proportions that almost seem retouched. 'Picture-perfect' indeed - and definitely fit for a Queen.
By Alexander Fury - fashion journalist.
Visit the must-see Britannica 1951-1953 exhibition in the Lower Ground floor Ultralounge from 4 May until 24 June.