Written By: Bill Syken

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.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Models showed off five fabulous ball gowns designed by Jacques Fath at a Paris fashion show, 1951.

Gordon Parks / The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Two French models showed off evening dresses while surrounded by eager crowd of buyers at Dior fashion show, Paris, 1951.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Buyers and press packed the halls at this Dior showing, Paris 1951.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A spring fashion show, Paris, 1951.

N.R. Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Prepping dresses for the spring fashion show in Paris, February 1951.

Photo by N R Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

These two Dior dresses illustrated his theory of “oval of face, oval of bust, oval of hips,” Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The new spring fashion line, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A young woman modelled a green and white striped rain coat designed by Maggy Rouff, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A fashion shoot in the Louvre, Paris, 1951.

N R Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A new raincoat from designer Pierre Balmain, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A Beige wool wrap-around jacket designed by Jacques Fath, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

An evening dress designed by Maggy Rouff, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

These fiive spring hats by Schiaparelli were expected to be hits in the U.S.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

An evening dress designed by Lafaurie, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A yellow wool coat designed by Alex Gres, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Designer Elsa Schiaparelli (left) tested out a hat at the 1951 spring fashion shows in Paris.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Designer Marcel Rochas in between his two fashion shows, Paris, 1951.

Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A polka dotted smock top over black skirt by Balenciaga, Paris, 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A waistcoat with box-jacket outfit by designer Christian Dior, Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A black cocktail dress featuring a deep V neck, which almost went to the waist, by designer Jacques Griffe, Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

This evening dress featured American plaid cotton apron over pleated organza dress by designer Jean Desses, Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A French model showed a small print dress with triple-flounced skirt and long sleeves by designer Jacques Fath, Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A French model showed off new spring hat design, Paris 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

These silly sunglasses featuring long blue eyelashes and small lenses were dreamed up by designer Schiaparelli, and brought a lighter note to the generally conservative spring showings in Paris, 1951.

Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

More Like This

arts & entertainment

Bob Dylan: America’s Greatest Songwriter

arts & entertainment

Godzilla, King of the Monsters

arts & entertainment

LIFE’s Greatest Concert Photos

arts & entertainment

A Father-Son Moment on the Set of ‘The Ten Commandments’

arts & entertainment

When Movie Popcorn Was the Hot New Thing

arts & entertainment

Spring Training in Havana: Brooklyn Dodgers, 1942