No consideration of the effects of Art Deco style would be complete without a look at Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946). She started out marrying and having a daughter, and then as a single mother, took to millinery and dressmaking to make her mark. She opened her couture house by selling mother and daughter outfits. Her “robes de style” developed in the 1910s, a waisted, full-skirted dress with panniers (a basket-like structure popular in the 18th century) on each hip. By the 1920s, she chose to devise chemise-style silhouettes typical of the flapper era. This influential woman soon created a fashion empire, and her brand, The House of Lanvin, is Paris’s oldest continuing couture business. Lanvin gave her approval to the avant-garde revamping of France’s post-World War I art industry, encouraging the eclectic design that developed at this time. This eclecticism appeared in her own designs, particularly in surface details and ornament that could range from Aztec embroidery to Breton folk art. Lanvin created “dinner pyjamas” that allowed her clients to wear trousers for casual dress. You can read about the development of Lanvin blue in one of two biographies of the couturier’s life in the Art Department;one of the books also chronicles her house’s later development, and the work of such creative successors as Claude Montana.
A fashion leader of the Art Deco era was Edward, Prince of Wales (1894-1972), the son of King George V. A handsome, eligible bachelor, he was a major figure in the London social scene. His penchant for golfing, cocktails, and setting the latest fashion trend meant that eyes were always trained on his doings.
Like many other Princes of Wales, he had a long tenure in that role. This gave him plenty of time to make subtle, but critical, dress alterations. He disliked the heavy Victorian and Edwardian clothing regulations that governed his father and grandfather, choosing instead more comfortable shirts and trousers that permitted greater freedom of movement.
Edward introduced the midnight blue evening suit in the 1920s, understanding instinctively that blue looked better than black for tailoring details when one was being photographed by the press. By the early 1930s, he wore unlined, unstructured jackets, abandoned trouser braces for belts, and had his trousers made with cuffs. He also championed the transition from button to zipper flies.
All in all, his fashion leadership presaged the greater social changes of the urban man. His tenure as King of England lasted barely a year, when he abdicated in December 1936 to marry the woman he loved: American divorcee Wallis Simpson (view a video clip). The hullaballoo over his romance with Simpson sounds odd to our modern ears, so jaded as we are with moral lapses from even those highly placed. Whether you read the official biography of his life, or examine the complexities and contradictions of what he became as Duke of Windsor (he and his wife hobnobbed with Hitler, among other questionable figures), you’d have to agree that his effect on masculine fashion was a positive one.
“Carelessness in dressing is moral suicide.”
---Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
The most significant social trend with implications for fashion in the Art Deco era, however, was the steady increase of women in the workplace. I remember my grandmother telling me how she was one of the first women to work in the 1930s in her upstate New York hometown, taking a secretarial job at Elmira College. She often recounted (with more than a little personal glee) how she was the object of envy and amazement. I also recall her saying one time that dressing properly for the job was a bit of a challenge. She wasn’t a natural seamstress (like her granddaughter), so she made a bus trip or two down to the Big City.
Fortunately, the growing retail clothing industry was hard at work in the 20s and 30s, building demand for readymade garments. The economic reality, however, for a vast number of women was that they needed to make their own clothes. Sewing patterns came into their own in this era, as the illustration above for Butterick shows. And these patterns and their ads in magazines are physical evidence of the recognition that women were taking jobs and needed to dress accordingly. The idea of clothing selection motives has come in for some recent study. Remember the subject heading Fashion—Psychological aspects when doing research. Women in that era were also drawing their own conclusions about the sociology of their dress. p.s. When I get back from D.C., I need to head over to The Museum at FIT for their exhibition which is just opening, entitled “Seduction.” Sounds good!
Well, Santa pulled into Herald Square at the conclusion of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is the popular culture signal for the traditional Christmas shopping season to begin. What will it be like this year, with all the media worries about shoppers keeping their wallets firmly closed?
In the meantime, one of the best developments in the academic study of clothing and dress is the consideration given to the “culture of fashion.” One study, with the same title, addresses changes in clothing through the distinguishing social factors of the time period. The author sees the early twentieth century as a critical period for the transformation of everyday clothing. I’ve often wondered, however, why men chose to solidify the unity of their appearance through suits, while women did nothing equivalent? But, then, maybe I have the whole thing wrong. The 20s and 30s were responsible for a particular “look” to develop. Dresses and skirts did modify to occupy certain basic shapes. Pants came into the picture a little later. The Culture of Fashion makes one point that helps me see things a little more clearly: if you look past the decade approach to style changes, there is a growing democratization in women’s dress between 1920 and 1990.
The haute couture element can also be factored in. In The Golden Age of Style, changing silhouettes, hemlines, and decorative details are still subordinate to the growing uniformity of the feminine look. Sometimes, it takes a very basic picture book, aimed at young adults, to bring us back to reality. Fashions of a Decade: the 1920s, worth a trek down to SIBL, balances a portrait of the decade that shows how technological trends, increased manufacturing, and even fads (like those “talkies” introduced in 1927), influenced daily dress. Another recent reference book, Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry, can also be found at SIBL.
p.s. I’m posting early this week since I’m going to a conference in Washington D.C. The title of this event is “Images of the American Indian, 1600-2000.” More about this in the new year…
While trawling through the Digital Gallery’s large section on Thanksgiving, I found this great color postcard that was printed around 1908 or 1908. First of all, I love the word pun. For many years, I used to work out at my local gym in a tee shirt that read “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi” that I’d bought from an Indian arts shop on Second Mesa.
November is Native American Heritage Month. So we should take a moment to recall all the important contributions that our indigenous peoples have made to our society. And if you have forgotten any of them, there’s Jack Weatherford’s classic Indian Givers to remind you of their great number. Frankly, Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are not Native Americans’ favorite holidays. The story of the Pilgrims and their friendly Indian hosts sitting down for a happy meal has been roundly debunked. Yet Native cultures regularly employ their own versions of thanks giving around harvests and other gatherings.
Inevitably, our popular culture has established an “ideal” for this holiday. The image of the grateful family, with a full complement of multi-generational members, gathered around a table loaded with traditional fixings (all that starch, all those calories) often represents an unattainable or unrealistic portrait of American life. Nowadays, the most we really hear about the holiday is a media report on all the bad traffic to expect. Or how some celebrity took time to serve food at a soup kitchen. One book published in the same year as this postcard shows how the holiday became established the way we know it. And a more recent publication brings us up to date with Thanksgiving: an American holiday, an American history.
The Hopis in the postcard would be bemused by all this. They live in a beautiful and harsh environment where they’ve mastered a form of dry irrigation that allows them to grow crops. They’d always be grateful for the bounty their hard labor produced. Perhaps it’s the Native concept of “thanksgiving” we should celebrate, and not the artificial construct of gobbling down a huge, enforced meal...
Where am I going with this recent riff on women attaining modernity in dress? I’d like to know what other women think about the long road to dress reform. The issue of fashion is ours to discuss, and there are still some ambiguities in where we are heading. Feminine pleasure in dresses is still strong, and rightfully so. Women deserve all the clothing options they desire. What matters, however, is that their choices are healthy ones. I make no secret of my disdain for stiletto heels. It doesn’t matter how “sexy” a woman looks in them—they still can seriously maim the foot and harm one’s posture.
What does emerge from investigation of the 20s and 30s is how women enjoyed the freedoms they now possessed: to wear shorter skirts, shed a corset, bob their hair, and don a realistic swimsuit. The pursuit of women’s rights in Europe and America played a key role in shaping dress reform. A solid academic study, Reforming women’s fashion, 1850-1920: politics, health and art, gives supporting evidence for these social changes.
What do scholars say about current dress reform? Fashion designers now employ novel ways of using corsets. Liberating ourselves from imposed fashions, like the constricting corsets and girdles of earlier decades means we can reinvestigate those items as new fashion statements. Irony has become part of our fashion birthright, I guess.
p.s. Hail to Ralph Lauren for bankrolling the conservation and restoration of the original flag that hung over Fort McHenry in 1812 and prompted the creation of our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." He did this to the tune of $13 million!
And then there was the idealization of woman at the hands of the artist. Women had some discretion over their choice of dress in earlier centuries, following fashion when they could. But masculine expectations would intervene from time to time, especially when artists got involved. Fashion as art became a means of turning a woman into yet another decorative object, as seen with the Pre-Raphaelites and the men of the Aesthetic Movement.
The perspective of scholarship allows one a look at the larger social context. Radu Stern’s Against fashion: clothing as art, 1850-1930, illuminates the couturier’s artistic impulse in dressmaking as a means of following the changing modern world. Voluptuous femininity was a comforting ideal until the Art Deco age. Perhaps the early modern couturiers understood that artful dressing—independent of the male artist, or in spite of him—could allow the woman in be in control. By the end of the twentieth century, fashion as art permitted women to grasp that control. Just look at the images in Artwear: fashion and anti-fashion to see the progress that was eventually made.
On the day-to-day level, we enjoy purchasing artfully-made clothing, garments that proclaim fashion as art, to make our own personal statements. I notice that holiday markets and major crafts fairs usually have booths with such garments. Yet we don’t really see this kind of clothing worn all the time by individuals, however. Is that because it would be just a little too much? What do you think?
Here’s evidence that sex was used to sell fashions back as early as 1915. In spending so much research time on the clothing of the Art Deco era, I did take notice of what was transpiring in the preceding decades. Voluminous garments were cut to suggest a very feminine shape. The Victorian and Edwardian fashion aesthetic favored the full figured, voluptuous woman, yet while her body was draped in layers of cloth, that innate eroticism was muted. Yet ready to blaze forth at the right command of the canny couturier or dressmaker. The best study on the psychological aspect of women’s dress to date is still Valerie Steele’s Fashion and eroticism: ideals of feminine beauty from the Victorian era to the Jazz Age. To better understand the weight of historical repression that the modern woman had to shed, look in CATNYP under the subject heading Sex Symbolism.
Is it any wonder that today’s women prize their individual dress rights? After acquiring metal knees, I decided to make pants my preferred fashion choice. Thank heavens that the right to wear pants had ceased to be an issue long ago.
These hosiery ads take a slightly different approach. Here, the modish subject is still involved with a mischievous small animal, but now she is engaged in braving the elements. What does this say about the product being advertised? Yes, their stockings are reliable; they’ll hold up in the most difficult of conditions! Selling intimate apparel in early twentieth century America required practical social imperatives. In a time when stockings had to be moved from luxury to necessary goods, consumers needed to be convinced. 1921 is still a long way from the time of Victoria’s Secret.
But the story of women’s liberation could never have happened without the development of undergarments, including stockings, which allowed the wearer more physical freedom. The 1920s woman is the start of the march towards the feminine cigarette slogan coined in the 1970s: “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Fashion as a social force is the subject of an excellent study, An intimate affair: women, lingerie, and sexuality. And the turn away from the McCallum Company’s type of fashion merchandising to newer imperatives is best documented in Fashion brands: branding style from Armani to Zara.
My colleague Susan Waide put me onto the illustrations you see here and in my next post. They’re all advertising illustrations by M.C. Woodbury, executed between 1920 and 1922, for the McCallum Hosiery Company in Northhampton, Massachusetts. I love them for their period feel, and for what they say about fashion advertising in the U.S. at that time.
We’ve grown so used to lingerie ads that are filled with sexual angst, or at least that’s what I remember from fashion magazines since I was young, and still see today. What strikes me about these two ads is the sweetness portrayed in the imagery. A modish, obviously style-conscious young woman is featured, while one of her stockings is in peril from a precocious bird or kitten. A boudoir setting is implied, but the overall effect is one of whimsy. Such illustrations say a lot about the marketing outlook of advertising and manufacturing companies.
In this case, there’s a charm and an innocence that will eventually get lost in the process of product selling. The advertising staff for McCallum are counting on the feminine delight in a luxury such as a silk stocking. Their slogan appears as a caption, “You just know she wears them.” And so the process begins of linking desire with need.