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AUTHENTIC FRENCH FASHIONS OF THE TWENTIES
By JoAnne Olian
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The glossy fashion magazines of today trace their origins to the costume books of the sixteenth century, when voyages of exploration and discovery created an avid curiosity about the constantly widening world. So popular was the subject that these books were published all over Europe, but principally in Venice and Germany. The first such volume appeared in 1562 in Paris. Unlike modern publications, these books did not predict fashion, but depicted foreign dress and described the customs and manners of both the Old and the New World.
In the second half of the seventeenth century the focus shifted to France, where Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister of Louis XIV, determined to build a strong economy, and, cognizant of the national predilection for fashion and luxury, based one aspect of this ambitious program on the manufacture of French textiles, instituting steep protective tariffs, prohibiting the wearing of foreign silks and establishing over 100 factories under crown patronage. The results of these measures were strikingly evident at the palace of Versailles, the showcase of the Sun King.
Court fashions appeared in Le Mercure Galant, but it was not until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, in response to the insatiable contemporary demand for novelty, that Galerie des Modes initiated new styles fresh from the dressmakers. Published from 1778 to 1787, it depicted the mercurial fashions of a society so obsessed with style and change that Abigail Adams, in a letter from Paris, wrote, "To be out of fashion is more criminal than to be seen in a state of nature—to which the Parisians are not averse."
In the nineteenth century, fashion periodicals, embraced by a growing middle class, proliferated rapidly. From 1840 to 1870 over 100 new magazines appeared in England, Germany and America as well as France. Adhering to a more or less uniform format, they covered social events, published new works of fiction and poetry, offered ideas for needlework projects and provided both color plates and black-and-white engravings of the latest fashions, which were invariably French.
The virtually simultaneous appearance on the fashion scene of Charles Frederick Worth and the Empress Eugénie assured permanent supremacy for French fashion. By her endorsement of Worth in the late 1850s, Eugénie was indirectly responsible for the creation of the haute-couture industry. Emperor Napoleon III, in the tradition of Louis XIV, limited the wearing of a gown at court to a single occasion, keeping mills and seamstresses busy producing a stream of novelties for a nouveau-riche society to wear to the palace of the Tuileries. As principal dressmaker to the glittering court of the Second Empire, Worth was responsible for the extravagant, hoop-skirted opulence of the Empress, who, by imperial command, dressed exclusively in Lyons silks. From 1867, when Harper's Bazar began publication, Worth became a household name in America, as he already was in France, through the fashion communiques from Paris-based correspondent Emmeline Raymond. Success enabled Worth to transform the time-honored craft of the humble dressmaker, who merely executed gowns to a client's taste, into a major industry. At the House of Worth 1400 employees translated each new collection into custom-made gowns for its wealthy and titled international clientele. In the late nineteenth century, American importers were making seasonal buying trips to Paris on behalf of their customers. By 1924 exports of women's clothing worldwide amounted to 500 million francs.
The format established by Worth remains the method practiced by the French couture. Each year a house presents two collections of original models by its designer, which are shown on live mannequins at openings attended by the press, private clients and buyers for specialty shops abroad. Samples and models chosen by clients are custom made individually in the firm's atelier. This system was employed by designers such as Callot Surs, Cheruit, Doucet, Martial & Armand, Molyneux, Patou, Poiret and others whose designs appeared frequently in L'Art et la Mode to launch their collections at shows for a select invited audience. Magazines such as L'Art et la Mode were read avidly not only by the rich who patronized the couture, but also by the woman who relied on her "little dressmaker" to copy the styles depicted in the periodicals. This practice was widespread in Europe, where a woman who aspired to be well-dressed eschewed ready-made apparel until the 1950s, when prêt-à-porter became an accepted alternative to custom-made clothing.
In the 1920s, fashion magazines remained the principal source for news of the latest Paris gowns; Vogue and Hamper's Bazaar continued to devote most of their fashion coverage to the French couture. L'Art et la Mode, sold on both sides of the Atlantic, provided bilingual captions as well as English synopses of its columnists' contributions. Enjoying remarkable longevity (1880 to 1967), it had the distinction of publishing the first halftone illustration ever printed in a fashion magazine. Appearing every Saturday, it managed to find sufficient style news to fill every issue. Twice a year the new collections were published, and two millinery issues also appeared annually. Garb worn at social events by well-known Parisiennes was described in detail, plays were discussed and opinions on manners, mores and fads were proffered by "Frivoline," while "Magda" covered style news. The fashion drawings are of several categories: dressmakers' advertisements, stage wardrobes (a favorite way for couturiers to expose their creations to the public), garments invented by L'Art et la Mode's illustrators and the latest fashions credited to a designer or available in pattern form, portrayed in settings of the chic events and watering places frequented by the haut monde.
The fashionable Parisienne, following an undeviating annual schedule that resembled nothing so much as a royal progress, attended the Bal des Petits Lits Blancs (a children's benefit), went to the races at Auteuil and Longchamp and was seen at the opening of the Ballets Russes in June just before leaving for Deauville, "the smartest summer resort in Europe" according to Vogue, which enumerated its attributes including "above all gowns and gowns and gowns." September found tout Paris in Biarritz, then back to town after the hunting season for fashion shows, fittings, galas at the Cercle Interallié, subscription performances at the Opéra, theater and the Bal de la Couture sponsored by the Chambre Syndicale for the benefit of needy sewing workers, ending with Réveillon (Christmas Eve) suppers before beginning the annual round on the Cote d'Azur or St. Moritz.
L'Art et la Mode captures the glamour that was Paris in the twenties. Its pages evoke Art Deco, Sunday evening at the Ritz, the Casino de Paris, jazz at the Buf sur le Toit, the legendary Josephine Baker at the Folies-Bergère and Paul Poiret stepping off the Train Bleu at Cannes, where golf was de rigueur until 5 P.M. and the Casino the in spot until 5 A.M.
The streamlining of life dictated the streamlining of line, the hallmark of the decade. The contemporary aesthetic was manifested in the seemingly paradoxical union of utter simplicity of form with unlimited luxury of materials. Equally true in art, architecture, the decorative arts and fashion, this visual philosophy was epitomized in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925 on the banks of the Seine, where the Pavillon de l'Elégance occupied a central position among the buildings of the fair.
Reverberations of this paring down were felt far beyond art and fashion. As the cocoon of layers of cloth was discarded, years were shed and restrictions carried over from the nineteenth century were rejected. Youth emerged from this chrysalis to find nothing too daring, too dangerous or too unusual as long as it was new. The boyish figure, actually more like that of a soignée adolescent, was the visual manifestation of this attitude. The adaptation of men's fashions for women enjoyed considerable popularity. Gabrielle Chanel wore a man's sweater on the Riviera, creating a new fashion. In 1925, L'Art et la Mode wrote, "In all the new collections an important place is reserved for the 'masculine' type of tailored suit. The coat is cut on the lines of a man's overcoat." Some women even had their clothing made by men's tailors, and in chic circles it was considered amusing for a couple to appear together in "le smoking," masculine evening wear (p. 108). The fashion for the "tailleur strict," or man-tailored suit, emphasized the sharp demarcation between day and evening garb, and was embraced by the new woman who smoked in public, painted her lips and nails red and knew how to wield a cocktail shaker.
Above all, the twenties were young. The statuesque woman gave way to the asexual, lithe girl. The mysterious swathing and exotic draperies of prewar garments whose natural habitat was night, were suddenly passé. The splendor of Poiret looked old-fashioned next to the sportive look of Chanel and Patou, seen in its element out-of-doors.
Perhaps the most significant influence on fashion in the twenties was the growing popularity of sports among women. When Suzanne Lenglen appeared at Wimbledon in 1921 in a sleeveless sweater, a short pleated skirt by Patou and a yellow bandeau on her hair, she was the harbinger of a revolution. Even if one's most strenuous exercise was walking to the car, Patou's sportive look was rapidly pervading fashion. During the 1924 Olympics, L'Art et la Mode published an entire issue devoted solely to élégances sportives. While Chanel appealed to the rich woman who wanted to look understated and modern, Jean Patou, whose clientele was young and international, was considered by Poiret to be the greater threat. Asserting that the new woman appeared to be made of cardboard, Poiret expressed fear for the future of the couture. His voice was distinctly a minority one, as smart society flocked to the new Mediterranean resorts of St. Raphael and Menton, where they passed the time on the beach in pyjamas or bathing suits, acquiring a newly chic suntan as they anointed themselves with Patou's "Huile de Chaldée."
The automobile was the technological symbol of the twenties. To women, who had learned to drive ambulances and tractors during World War I, it represented the extension of their new-found freedom and status. By 1921 couturiers were even making a specialty of motoring apparel. This new mobility simplified the move from resort to resort, as Parisians motored down to Deauville, only 120 miles away, for the weekend, causing L'Art et la Mode to remark that Paris was fast becoming a town where "smart society women pass a few days in between seasons."
Equal in importance to sports and the automobile to an understanding of the radical change occurring in fashion, was the 1922 novel, La Garçonne, by Victor Margueritte, which caused such a scandal that its author was stripped of his Legion of Honor. The heroine, a student at the Sorbonne, embodied the movement toward sexual equality. Disillusioned by the hypocrisy of society, she broke with her parents and fiance, cut her hair, wore men's clothing, became a successful businesswoman, smoked opium and had many love affairs, including a lesbian relationship. La Garçonne was the model for a generation that found its physical expression in flattened breasts and hips, short hair and short skirts that allowed freedom of movement without the anachronistic encumbrances of extraneous layers of cloth or restrictive corsets.
The style we think of as twenties did not emerge fully formed with the advent of the decade. The years 1920 through 1927 were marked by enormous changes, from the windblown naïveté of the early twenties to the androgynous, shingle-coiffed sophisticate of 1927. Stylistic changes can be clearly seen in the attitudes delineated in fashion illustrations. While the early figures seem at the mercy of each passing breeze, the later ones convey an air of assurance and ease. In much the same way, clothing exemplifies the change from fussy ruffles to controlled and defined pleats.
The sharp contrast between the fashions of 1920 and 1927 did not develop in an ordered sequence. Fashion emerged after World War I in a state of confusion. Some designers looked backward for inspiration, while others, sensitive to the changes in women's lives and requirements, searched for a new vocabulary, resulting in a cacophony of eclecticism that did not fuse into a harmonious style until almost the mid-twenties.
In 1920 hemlines were at mid-calf, and waistlines were normal. Skirts began to drop in 1921, dipping almost to the ankles by 1922, followed by the waistline, which settled on the hips. This attenuated silhouette was emphasized by vertical pleats and embroidered panels. The winter collections of 1923 marked the beginning of a slowly rising hemline that paused below the calf in fall 1924, a season also characterized by an increasing simplicity, accentuated by tailored belts with buckles. The trend toward shorter skirts continued until 1927 when they reached unprecedented heights—actually only to just below the knee in the most extreme cases. Some couturiers raised hems only to mid-calf and many dresses were longer in back or on the sides, a portent of longer skirts to come. Matching coat and dress ensembles were very fashionable. Skirts were flared, pleated and full of motion. The waistline was almost back to normal and bloused effects or draped panels created a new softness foreshadowing the clinging bias cut of the 1930s.
As clothing evolved, millinery and hairstyles followed. The wide skirts of the immediate postwar years were balanced by large hats that rested on long hair pulled back into a bun or knot. By 1922 the long, narrow silhouette demanded smaller brims requiring less hair, which, by 1924, was generally bobbed. As the cloche hat became smaller and deeper, the shingled coiffure, so much a part of the garçonne look, became a necessity. Even chic little girls had their hair cut in this fashion (p. 125).
While the dominant trend was the tailored look, minor chords were also sounded, seemingly in all the collections at the same time. A perennial favorite of many couturiers was the robe de style, a full-skirted dress with stiffened panniers in the manner of the eighteenth century or the crinoline of Eugénie. A Second Empire ball held in Paris in 1922 and an exhibition the following September in Biarritz helped to account for the continuing popularity of this romantic style. While the excesses of Poiret were démodé for daytime, the opulence of the East remained the inspiration for much of the evening fashion. Lames and lavishly beaded metallic brocades were the guise under which the Orient flourished.
Simplification of cut gave rise to surface ornamentation in the form of fringe, beading or embroidery. Ethnic influences of all kinds were fashionable, especially the Romanian embroidered blouses so popular with women and their daughters. "Russian" collars and, most important, "Spanish" shawls were seen frequently in L'Art et la Mode, while the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 inspired the couture in new realms of exotica (p. 57).
F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that "Part of the enchantment of Paris in the Twenties was that everything that happened there seemed to have something to do with art." The influence of Cubism on fashion is undeniable, both in the style of illustration and the clothes themselves. Flattened, impossibly elongated figures attest to Cubist influence as well as that of Marie Laurencin and Modigliani. The asymmetry, geometrically precise pleats and tubular forms of dresses and figures relate directly to painting.
Art and couture enjoyed a close relationship throughout this period. Poiret's sister, Nicole Groult, on intimate terms with the renowned painters of the day, was said by Picasso to capture the spirit of modern art in dress. Groult was a close friend of Laurencin, with whom she shared a palette of grayed pastels, emphasized by strokes of black. Poiret, whose wit and theatricality were natural attributes for the stage, designed numerous ballets and revues, notably Vogue in 1921, in which actors were artfully costumed as chess pieces, dominoes and Venetian glass. Chanel designed costumes inspired by Attic pottery for Cocteau's 1921 production of Antigone, for which Picasso painted sets and masks. If a single dramatic event could be said to encompass the aesthetic mood of the twenties, it might well be Le Train Bleu, which had its premiere at the Ballets Russes in 1924 during the Olympic games in Paris. It was set on the Riviera, and dancers costumed by Chanel portrayed bathers and golf champions, while the role of tennis star Suzanne Lenglen was danced by the ballet's choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska.
Textile design was intimately related to painting. Raoul Dufy designed silks and shawls for Bianchini (p. 58) and Sonia Delaunay created both Cubist clothing and fabrics, which were clearly the inspiration for many of the patterned materials of the decade.
Excerpted from AUTHENTIC FRENCH FASHIONS OF THE TWENTIES by JoAnne Olian. Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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