What happens during Paris fashion week definitely does not stay in Paris. When designers present their new fashions to retailers and taste-makers, the hope is that what happens there will reshape closets around the world.
The event was influential enough that LIFE sent three photographers to Paris for the 1951 edition and give readers a first look at what might be headed their way. Until the models hit the runways, no one really knew what the designers had been planning. “A new hemline was as carefully guarded in Paris as a barrel of plutonium in the U.S,” LIFE wrote in its cover story for the March 5, 1951 issue.
Some years, the new looks were so different that they pushed last year’s frocks to the back of the closet. The looks in 1951 were more of an evolution. “To the disappointment of an adventuresome few, but to the relief of most of the trade which did not want to cope with anything revolutionary, this showing would not, like the “new look” explosion of 1947, tend to make present wardrobes obsolete,” LIFE wrote. “The new trend, if anything, was conservative.”
The new designs may not have been radical, but they were popular. LIFE reported gangbuster sales, which may have been the real point, as the designers achieved the goal of broadening the type of stores that carried their clothes: “The stately houses, which once preferred to cater to exclusive stores and private clients, were taking increasing interest in the buyers for lower-priced stores.”
LIFE’s photographs, taken by aces Gordon Parks, Nina Leen and N.R. Farbman, capture the excitement of being there. Some pictures highlight the clothes, of course, but others show the frenzy of the business and media folks as they gathered for seven days that could change their world.
Vogue editor Bettina Ballard prepared models for a spring fashion shoot, Paris, February 1951
Photo by N R Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
This gown was the big finish for a show by Paris newcomer Castillo of Lanvin.