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To Label or Not to Label?

Elena Wang

For consumers today, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when clothes didn’t have labels. While the practice of flaunting labels has fallen out of vogue since the label mania of the 1980s, they continue to possess significant cultural cachet. Some labels prefer to announce themselves in more discreet ways, such as Lacoste and its iconic alligator patch. Others adopt an ironic stance, decorating sweaters and scarves with playfully distorted renditions of the label name. Not least, growing interest in slow fashion points to the instructive value of vintage labels like Pendleton.

So then, was there a time when clothes went incognito? How did a few letters sewn onto an extra slip of fabric come to acquire such importance, marking dramatic differences in quality and price, a shorthand for identifying a collector’s item from just another party dress?

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The earliest photograph of the interior of Worth

If this brings to mind the art auction market, then you’re exactly on track. A little over 150 years ago, a British salesman by the name of Charles Worth opened a dress shop in Paris and changed the course of fashion history. He sought to elevate dressmaking to an art form, and a crucial strategy involved affixing labels to his garments just as artists signed their artwork.

Founded in 1858, the Worth label became the premier emblem of luxury womenswear. Labels soon appeared all over the apparel industry but high fashion labels were, of course, the most ornate. The Paul Poiret label featured the couture house’s signature rose motif. Jeanne Lanvin chose an Art Nouveau-inflected depiction of a mother and daughter. Many labels simply displayed a designer’s name, however, set above the most important piece of information – Made in Paris.

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The World Label of France

Parisian high fashion ruled the Western world through the 1950s. Thereafter, British, Italian and American designs gained fashion currency with a younger, more international audience, making sumptuous taffeta gowns and proper boucle suits appear hopelessly outdated. Couture houses such as Dior and Balenciaga were bankrupt by the 1980s. A comeback had to be staged.

The luxury corporations that took over the Parisian couture houses updated looks, splashed label names across clothes and accessories alike and made enormous profits. The rest of the fashion industry followed suit, restoring Parisian supremacy in a new, exuberantly commercialized era.

A lone exception was the experimental Belgian label Maison Martin Margiela. Margiela refuted the concept of the designer label by leaving the label blank. While the plain white label became recognizable by virtue of its plainness, Margiela was nonetheless making a distinctly anti-commercial point.

Labels can tell us a great deal about the quality of our clothes, but learn to read the fabric, cut, stitching and seams as well. True quality lies in the details.

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