Gustave Doré La Belle aux Bois Dormants

Gustave Doré's illustration for Charles Perrault's La Belle aux Bois Dormants, 1862.

The 'Sleeping Beauties' of Haute Couture: Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madeleine Vionnet

​​The doctoral thesis investigates the history of the so-called 'sleeping beauties' of haute couture, that is, Parisian haute couture brands that, once world-renowned but long dormant, have been rediscovered and reintroduced as brands in the contemporary market. It contributes to the knowledge of post-war French haute couture and the business history of fashion. Focusing on the houses of Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madeleine Vionnet, the study considers the following questions: How, if at all, is it possible to revive a long dormant brand? What have been the revival mechanisms of haute couture brands? How does a revived house re-appropriate its past? Pierre Bourdieu’s theorization of “cultural capital” is particularly relevant when explaining the sleeping beauty phenomenon. A sleeping beauty business embodies a new type of creative industry whose aim is to recover cultural assets out of a prestigious past in order to use them in the future. I used a wide range of sources to explore the history of the sleeping beauty firms, including business archives, legal archives and the press. The visual material that documents the collections, past and present, and was issued by the firms was particularly important. In addition, I have extensively used oral sources, notably interviews with entrepreneurs. The results of this study show, firstly, that the closing down of the couture activity prior to the revival stemmed from multiple factors, both endogenous and exogenous. It consisted of a series of events more often than of a clear-cut decision. The way in which a house closed its doors has not affected the brand’s revival. Secondly, sleeping beauty brands attracted various entrepreneurial profiles in terms of background and motivations. Entrepreneurs have used a variety of strategies to revive Patou, Schiaparelli, and Vionnet. There is no single path to success in haute couture revivals. Thirdly, sleeping beauties produced new designs that reinterpreted the original designs in order to meet the desires of contemporary consumers. The idea is to extract from the brand’s history that essence which can still be used without it looking outdated. In that sense, sleeping beauties produced anti-retro fashions. Fourthly, the storytelling of sleeping beauties has engaged with history in a variety of ways. More often than not, entrepreneurs have developed several attitudes towards the past at the same time, using both historical facts as well as their reinterpretation.

PhD thesis, University of Oslo, 2017, 2 vol.