Scandinavian fashion is associated with restraint, simplicity, understated elegance, natural colours and thrift. But what do we know about the history of Nordic fashion? After visiting of the exhibition “Paris of the North” at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm (Sweden), I know a little bit more about how northern fashion developed during the golden age of haute couture.
You won't be surprised about the fact that Northern European fashionistas were inspired by Parisian fashion. At that time, in the capital of every European country you could find the main “fashion point”, which spread world trends locally.
In Stockholm, between 1902 and 1966, the French Couture Atelier operated at the Nordiska Kompaniet department store (known as NK), where the main fashionistas of Scandinavia dressed.
Clients arrived directly at the sophisticated pearl grey salon via the legendary golden lift from the beauty and fragrance department on the ground floor. One ecstatic visitor described the elegant salon as a “branch of the real Heaven”. Clients included members of the royal family, representatives of high society, scientists, stars of stage and screen: Princess Sibylla, Queen Louise Mountbatten, Greta Garbo, Zarah Leander and others.
The atelier at that time was known as the northernmost outpost of Paris haute couture. Scandinavian customers gathered in the salons of NK’s French Couture Atelier to view and order the latest fashion made to measure after Paris originals designed by Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The heads of the atelier were famous for their unsurpassed ability to adapt Paris fashion to local conditions.
The exhibition featured about 100 items of clothing: from floor-length dresses with corsets to emancipated miniskirts. The exhibits are organized by type: little black dress, business power suit, businesswoman's tailor-made coat, timeless and romantic ball gowns, and unforgettable stage costumes.
The exhibition was based primarily on the extensive NK archives stored at the Nordic Museum since the 1970s. They include tailored clothing, documents, magazines and photographs of fashion shows.
The tailored skirt suit symbolized women’s new, active role in society during the first half of the 20th century. It did exist before the turn of the last century, but with a floor-length skirt. It was only after World War I, in the 1920s, that the tailored skirt suit took on its modern form with a slim skirt and matching jacket over a simple blouse – an elegant uniform for the new businesswoman. At NK’s French Atelier, the tailored skirt suit became a popular mainstay. Discerning customers order two skirts to match the same jacket for variation, and because the skirt wears out quicker.
The tailored coat was the couture customer’s great favourite in the 20th century. It was an elegant and practical investment that was always part of the NK’s French Atelier collection. A superior couture coat has served for generations. Several of the coats at the exhibition are still in use, even half a century after NK’s French Atelier created its last garment. For customers who did not order the coat of the season, the atelier offered to alter an old favourite. The seamstresses and tailors did not only produce new garments, they also took on alterations. To adapt an exclusive couture garment according to fluctuating trends or life changes is a natural aspect of the wardrobe strategy.
Sophisticated evening wear was the real strength of NK’s French Atelier. The atelier was working flat out in anticipation of the social season. The dream gowns were delivered just before the ball began.
The theatre was an important fashion show ground in the early 20th century: both for stage stars and for spectators. It was an opportunity for the ateliers to show off. NK’s French Atelier was a meeting place for the poster names of the stage and the growing film industry.
Ingrid Bergman ordered this jacket at NK’s French Atelier and wore it in the film “Only One Night” (1939). Before moving from Stockholm to Hollywood, she also ordered an entire private wardrobe with “beautiful and practical” garments from NK’s French Atelier.
When NK’s French Atelier closes in 1966, handmade haute couture no longer set the tone. Fashion was influenced by the first adventures into space. Short and futuristic dresses were easily produced in standard sizes. Tailored clothes were too time-consuming and costly. NK’s French Atelier was replaced by exclusive boutiques with prêt-à-porter collections of a new era.