Fig. 1 - Givenchy dress : front view Photo : Ingrid Mida

Fig. 1 – Givenchy dress : front view (FRC1989.01.001)
Photo : Ingrid Mida

‘Haute couture is art’ is a postmodernist debate that will surely not conclude anytime soon. Whether or not you agree, curator and fashion historian Olivier Saillard does regard it as a discipline, announcing that “Its components—the precious materials used and the meticulous attention to detail of the artisans who help to produce it—sometimes eclipse the finished work, which is both a unique creation and a collective effort” (12). No matter what experts claim, the world of haute couture is sub rosa. It guards its secrets well, wrapping them in an aura of exclusive mystery. It is not often one encounters a tangible artifact from the couture realm, an artifact which also symbolizes a vessel encoded with intangible meaning. Haute couture connotes wealth, privilege, and perhaps most importantly the luxurious cultural heritage of Parisian society. It is with this reverence for tradition and my curiosity about couture technique that I approach the study of an early 1970’s era Givenchy haute couture eveningwear dress in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (Fig. 1, 2).

Fig. 2 - Givenchy dress : back view Photo : Ingrid Mida

Fig. 2 – Givenchy dress : back view (FRC1989.01.001)
Photo : Ingrid Mida

This snake print Givenchy dress is almost sheath-like, with fullness gradually flaring out above the knee toward the hem. The circumferential measurements of the dress are 89cm (35”) at the bust, 75cm (29½”) at the waist, 86cm (34”) at the hip, and finishing with a hem sweep of 142cm (56”). In this analysis, all of the measurements will first be given in metric, the industry standard unit of measurement in Paris and throughout Europe. The vertical measurement from waist to hem is 96.5cm (38”), which helps to illustrate the cylindrical shape of the dress. At the finished hemline, the self fabric forms a soft roll, completely enclosed and held up inside by the lining, creating what is referred to as a bubble hem (note the absence of a crisp fold at the hem in Fig. 2). There are ten panels that comprise the skirt from waist to hem, though the skirt lining consists of only six panels. What is unique about the skirt is that while there is a center front seam and a center back seam, there are no side seams. However, the bodice has side seams, which I meet with some confusion. I will touch on this observation later. The bodice of the dress has centre front and centre back seams that align with the skirt, with a 56.5cm (22¼”) zipper at the centre back from the neck to 17.5cm (7”) below the waist. This is consistent with the zipper opening up to the widest part of the hips, allowing the smallest part of the dress (the waist) to fit over the bust and/or over the hips. In order to contour the bodice to the torso, there are waist darts at the front which extend just below the bust points, and the shoulder darts normally on the back of a bodice have been pivoted into the back neckline. Another peculiarity of this dress is that the back waist darts are non-existent, which are crucial to fit the fabric to the curvature of the body. Ignoring the back waist darts would be possible for a boxy fit, but this dress leaves me perplexed as to where the darts have vanished. However, I have come across similar trickery in an old pattern-drafting book from 1942 that may explain. An exercise in this book illustrates how to pivot the dart into the lower half of the back armscye, which consequently lowers and slightly alters the shape of the back armhole curve after the dart has been closed and the waist re-aligned (Pepin 76). Unlike the lining of the skirt compared to the self fabric, the lining of the bodice mirrors the seams and darts of the bodice self. The lining also has its own zipper. The dress has long sleeves that measure 57.75cm (22¾”) in length with an opening of 17cm (6¾”) at the wrist. Since the wrist measurement is small, there is a narrow placket with two metal snaps to accommodate the passage of the hand. The sleeves are the only parts of the dress that are not lined.

Fig. 4 - Fabric magnification

Fig. 4 – Fabric magnification
Photo : Author’s own

Fig. 3 - Labels

Fig. 3 – Labels
Photo : Author’s own

The labels present in this dress are extremely helpful with identification. There is the Givenchy brand label, the Made in France label, the care label (dry clean only), and the bonded model tag (Fig. 3). The bonded model tag lists the style as #527, size 10, and the content as 100% silk. The self fabric is a brown snake print silk georgette or crepe-finished pongee (Fig. 4), while the lining is composed of two different fabrics: silk organdy from the shoulders to below the bust points, and a beige silk pongee below the organdy to the hem (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 - Lining

Fig. 5 – Lining
Photo : Author’s own

Fig. 6 - Dress shield

Fig. 6 – Dress shield
Photo : Author’s own

The hem encloses a 2.5cm (1”) width of either nylon/polyester horsehair braid, or possibly cotton buckram. Around the waist of the lining is a 1.5cm (¾”) white grosgrain ribbon that attaches with a hook and eye at center back (Fig. 5). Attached to the shoulder seams of the lining are bra strap carriers with snaps, and installed at the underarms are dress shields to protect the fabric from perspiration (Fig. 6). Lastly, there is a separate self fabric covered belt measuring 1.25cm (½”) wide and 77.5cm (30½”) long (Fig. 7, 8). The belt has eyelets for three sizes, the tightest circumference measuring 64.75cm (25½”), and the loosest measuring 69.25cm (27¼”).

Fig. 7 - Belt

Fig. 7 – Belt
Photo : Author’s own

Fig. 8 - Belt buckle

Fig. 8 – Belt buckle
Photo : Author’s own









Fig. 9 - Lining armhole

Fig. 9 – Lining armhole
Photo : Author’s own

Fig. 10 - Zippers

Fig. 10 – Zippers
Photo : Author’s own

There are several construction details of this dress that differentiate it from a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) garment. The first noticeable difference upon looking inside the garment, is that the face of the lining is placed against the back side of the self (Fig. 5), as opposed to prêt-à-porter construction of back sides together in order to hide the seam allowances. The seam allowances are generous in this dress to accommodate future fittings for the client. In this case, the vertical seam allowances are 2cm (7/8”) wide. The seams and darts have been machine stitched, while the raw edges of the seam allowances are hand stitched with overcast stitching (Fig. 5, 9, 10). The dart intakes are slashed and pressed open, with the raw edges finished in the same manner. This method of slashing the dart intakes is consistent with couture construction in order to lessen bulk, which would otherwise create a ridge of fabric seen on the outside of the garment. Since the sleeves are not lined, the lining at the armholes is finished with selvedges cut from the silk organdy (Fig 9). To my amazement this dress utilizes regular zippers with metal teeth instead of invisible zippers with nylon coils. However, both of the zippers are still hidden: by kissing welt lips in the self, and by an overlap of fabric in the lining (Fig. 10). Both zippers are masterfully installed with pinprick hand stitches, and still open and close freely without snagging the delicate fabrics.

Fig. 11 - Belt underside

Fig. 11 – Belt underside
Photo : Author’s own

Overall, this dress is in good condition. Some weft yarns have been pulled out of their original alignment in the self fabric, though this is not immediately noticeable, and there is some abrasion near the zipper and waistline intersection of the lining that is eroding the fabric. The belt exhibits heavier wear as the fabric is frayed around the buckle, and the leather backing has lifted away from the substrate (Fig. 11). The dress has been altered, as evidenced by needle puncture holes in both the self and lining fabrics at the bodice side seams. This proves that the garment has been let out for the owner, but oddly enough there are no side seams or puncture holes in the skirt, which confounds my speculation. However, there are what appear to be uneven gathers in the waistline of the skirt that look like random puckers. Therefore, I deduce that the dress originally had more gathers in the waistline that were released upon letting out the side seams of the bodice. There are also no signs of letting out the underarm seams of the sleeves, so I suspect that ease in the sleeve caps was re-distributed to match the enlarged armscyes.

Fig. 13 – African rock python, Tsavo National Park, Kenya Photo: Bruce Davidson / NPL / Minden Pictures

Fig. 12 – Penneys Christmas catalogue
© 1970, J. C. Penney Co., Inc., p. 8
Scan :

When I first encounter this garment on a table in the university collection, the most striking characteristic is the python print, representative of animal prints used in 1970’s fashion (Fig. 12). Noting the couturier’s aesthetics in the arrangement of the design, it becomes apparent that the reason for the many panels in the skirt is to provide a snakelike illusion of elongation and slenderness through the repetition of the larger shapes running lengthwise in the print. This explains my confusion over the absence of side seams in the skirt. Although the dress is bisected by a waist seam, which usually divides the wearer in half, the couturier expertly camouflages this break in silhouette with a narrow self fabric covered belt. While the paneling in the skirt provides upward verticality, a different arrangement of the snake motif on the bodice creates a smaller pattern down center front and center back, reminiscent of a snake’s anterior and abdominal scales (Fig. 13). The visual power of the dress, whether lying limp and lifeless on the table like a dead, moulted skin (Fig. 14), or coming to life on a living body, is very symbolic in communicating confidence and a desire for attention in the wearer (Steele 60). “Animal motifs are also widely regarded as erotic and thus tend to be utilized on clothing designed to attract others,” such as lingerie (Steele 60). The provenance records indicate that this dress was donated with several other items under the name Sommer-Rotenberg, and I imagine the previous owner to possess an attractive and radiant personality. In my research, I learn that the donor has been both an academic, teaching Greek Civilization at York University, and a designer and proprietor of Sommer Fine Jewels during her lifetime (Cherry). Encompassing the ability to teach, inspire, and design, I am sure Ms. Sommer-Rotenberg possesses the kind of magnetism and charm that would enable a grieving mother to raise money from private donations to establish the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg Chair in Suicide Studies at the University of Toronto in memory of her son (Sommer-Rotenberg; Thompson).

Fig. 14 - Givenchy dress on table Collection visit

Fig. 14 – Givenchy dress on table during collection visit
Photo : Author’s own


Referring to the magical qualities of clothing, Wilson claims “Garments, once they have been worn, come to have a residue. They take on qualities of the wearer and of the occasions on which they were worn. Their feel and smell come to represent memories, conscious and unconscious” (379). While there is physical proof that the dress was worn, evident in the fabric wear and residue on the dress shields, I estimate that this dress was only worn on a handful of occasions, though the memories and experiences the previous owner may associate with this dress are surely just as unique. It must be noted, however, that the aesthetics of this dress are by no means representative of the other garments in the collection that were supplied by Sommer-Rotenberg.


One last revelation I gain from this dress challenges my previously held assumptions of haute couture consumption. This challenge is by virtue of the bonded model, discussed previously in the section regarding the labels. Bonded models are couture garments legally purchased and brought to the United States or Canada from Paris for manufacturers to use as a template to copy or knock-off designs. In order to circumvent the issue of import duties, the garments were brought in for a limited time only, hence the term ‘bonded’. If these models remained in the United States, merchants would then be forced to pay duties (Palmer 138-39). According to Palmer, “Even though the models were theoretically rented, selling bonded merchandise (…) fulfilled the terms of the bond and enabled American buyers to recoup some capital on their original investment” (139). Palmer attests that bonded models can be determined by bond tags or often having “handwritten cotton tapes sewn into the interior with the customer’s name and other order information,” along with alterations to the garments (139). On the bonded label of this Givenchy dress is the name Orbach’s, a misspelling of the former New York discount store Ohrbach’s. Not coincidentally, this store is well documented in Palmer’s book as playing an important role in the proliferation of bonded models (142). A final discovery that situates this dress in the bonded system of commodification appears in the genetics that Sommer-Rotenberg seems to have inherited from her father. Along with a taste for design, he was “among the first in Canada to bring back Paris couture garments for copying here” (Livingstone).

In his treatise on object biographies, Kopytoff recognizes the existence of not one, but many personal biographies; the bits and pieces of which are either selected or discarded (68). The analysis of this Givenchy dress thus allows me to discover certain professional, familial, and aesthetic histories of Sommer-Rotenberg that I hope remain true to her personage, while simultaneously satisfies my fascination with haute couture secrecy, construction, and technique.

Cherry, Zena. “Jewelry Love Leads to Store.” The Globe and Mail 14 October 1982: 19. Web. 9 February 2016.

Livingstone, David. “Making Jewels with Warmth: She Taught Greek Classics Before Deciding to Apply Visual Literacy to Jewelry.” The Globe and Mail 22 July 1993: D4. Web. 9 February 2016.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 64-91. Web. 21 January 2016.

Palmer, Alexandra. Couture & Commerce: The Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001. Print.

Pepin, Harriet. Modern Pattern Design: The Complete Guide to the Creation of Patterns as a Means of Designing Smart Wearing Apparel. NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1942. Print.

Steele, Valerie. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Vol. 1. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005. Print.

Saillard, Olivier. “Paris Haute Couture.” Paris Haute Couture. Eds. Olivier Saillard and Anne Zazzo. Paris: Flammarion, 2012. Print.

Sommer-Rotenberg, Doris. “Suicide: Beyond the Razor’s Edge.” The Globe and Mail 29 September 1993: A26. Web. 9 February 2016.

Thompson, Clive. “A Mission to Study the Reasons for Suicide.” The New York Times 6 April 1997: 4A, 12. Web. 7 March 2016.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Magic Fashion.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 8.4 (2004): 375-85. Web. 6 March 2016.

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