April 5, 2013
Have a look at the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and other Cubist painters whose work included hard, geometric forms and visible lines. As these artists were working in their studios, fashion designers, particularly those in France, were taking cues from their paintings. With la garçonne (the flapper, in French) in mind, the designers created fashions with the clean lines and angular forms we now associate with the 1920s-and with Cubism.
The styles we’ve come to connect with Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and other American actresses on the silver screen in the Jazz Age can be traced back to Europe, and more specifically, a few important designers.
- Jean Patou, known for inventing knit swimwear and women’s tennis clothes, and for promoting sportswear in general (as well as creating the first suntan oil), helped shape the 1920s silhouette. Later in the decade, he revolutionized hemlines once again by dropping them from the knee to the ankle.
- Elsa Schiaparelli’s career built momentum in the ’20s with a focus mostly on knitwear and sportswear (her Surrealism-influenced garments like the lobster dress and shoe hat came later, in the 1930s).
- Coco Chanel and her jersey knits, little back dress and smart suits, all with clean, no-nonsense lines, arrived stateside along with Chanel No. 5 perfume and a desire for a sun-kissed complexion in the early 1920s.
- Madeleine Vionnet made an impression with the bias-cut garment, or a garment made using fabric cut against the grain so that it skimmed the wearer’s body in a way that showed her shape more naturally. Vionnet’s asymmetrical handkerchief dress also became a classic look from that time.
- Jeanne Lanvin, who started off making children’s clothing, made a name for herself when her wealthy patrons began requesting their own versions. Detailed beading and intricate trim became signatures of her designs.
As these designers were breaking new ground (and for some, that began in the 1910s), their looks slowly permeated mainstream culture and made their way across the pond. One of the best ways to see how these couturiers’ pieces translated into clothing with mass appeal is to look at a Sears catalog from the 1920s, which was distributed to millions of families across the United States. As Stella Blum explained in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties:
. . . mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
Ordinary Parisians were almost completely over wearing the knee-length, dropped-waisted dresses by the mid- to late 1920s, but in the United States, the style was increasing in popularity. In Flapper Jane, an article in the September 9, 1925, issue of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven wrote:
These [styles] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.
The flapper look was ubiquitous enough to make its way into illustrations and comics. The comic strip “Flapper Fanny Says” tracked the trials and tribulations of the eternally young and somewhat androgynously stylish Fanny. The invention of cartoonist Ethel Hays in 1924, the strip remained in print into the 1940s under different artists.
Around that time, John Held Jr.’s drawings of long-legged, slim-necked, bobbed-haired, cigarette-smoking flappers were making the covers of Life and the New Yorker. His vibrant illustrations, along with those of Russell Patterson and Ralph Barton, captured the exuberant lifestyle–and clothing style–of the time.
Looking back, we can now see how art inspired the decade’s fashion trends and how those fashions fueled a lifestyle. That, in turn, came just about full circle to be reflected in yet another form of visual representation—illustrated depictions of the freewheeling flapper culture—that kept the momentum of the decade going.
October 23, 2012
This weekend, I saw the documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, a portrait of the legendary fashion editor and larger-than-life eccentric Diana Vreeland. Just like her friend Coco Chanel, who was well-known for her quips, or Chanelisms as they were often called, Vreeland also had her own one-liners on life and style.
Frequently during the film Vreeland tossed around the word “vulgar.” “Never fear being vulgar, just boring,” was one of her familiar sayings. Another was “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
Vulgar. I don’t hear the word that often. It doesn’t appear much in the lexicon of fashion writing these days. But I have been more attuned to it since I’ve been reading excerpts of Etiquette by Emily Post for the series on dress codes and etiquette. The lady of manners uses the descriptor repeatedly and relentlessly in the chapter “The Clothes of a Lady.”
The Oxford dictionary defines vulgar as: “1) Lacking sophistication or good taste: a vulgar check suit, 2) making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude: a vulgar joke, 3) dated characteristic of or belonging to ordinary people.”
I’ve excerpted a few (amusing) quotes from the 1945 edition of Post’s Etiquette from the chapter, “The Clothes of a Lady.” (Italics are my own.)
“The Clothes of the Lady” chapter introduction:
Not even the most beautiful background could in itself suggest a brilliant gathering if the majority of those present were frumps—or vulgarians! Rather be frumpy than vulgar! Much. Frumps are often celebrities in disguise—but a person of vulgar appearance is pretty sure to be vulgar all through.
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion. . . . A woman may be stared at because she is ill-behaved, or because she looks like a freak of the circus or because she is enchanting to behold. If you are much stared at, what sort of stare do you usually meet?
Frumps are not very typical of America; vulgarians are somewhat more numerous; but most numerous of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city.
On the Woman Who is Chic
’Chic’ (pronounced sheek) is a borrowed adjective, but unfortunately no word in our language expresses its meaning. Our adjective ‘elegant’—which before it was vulgarized, most nearly approached it—rather suggested the mother of the young woman who is chic.
On Principles of Taste Apart From Fashion
A lady in a ball dress with nothing added to the head looks a little like being hatless in the street. This sounds like a contradiction of the criticism of the vulgarian. But because a diadem or a jeweled filet or other ornament is beautiful at a ball, it does not follow that all these should be put on together and worn in a restaurant—which is just what the vulgarian would do.
Emily Post, obviously an anti-vulgarian, and Diana Vreeland, an advocate for that trait over dullness, would have had a heated debate about its merits or lack thereof. I’d stand on the sidelines, enthralled and entertained, as both of their maxims feel so far removed from my life, and, in my opinion, the way we describe—and clothe—ourselves today. Though I would side with Vreeland.
August 20, 2012
Yesterday would have been the 129th birthday of Coco Chanel, one of the most stylish Leos in history (if fashion were, for some reason, arranged by the Zodiac). Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, to very humble beginnings, Coco, as she became known in her 20s—either because she was 1) a poseur, or performer, who danced to a similarly named song or 2) because of her cocaine-related proclivities—was determined to change her destiny. Not only did she succeed in pulling herself up from her well-designed, perfectly tailored bootstraps (or preferably, low-heeled pumps), but her contributions forever influenced the way we think about fashion even down to this summer’s Olympics.
Think Chanel and a few things come to mind immediately: The classic wool jersey suit with its boxy jacket and gold buttons. The quilted bag. Pearls. The little black dress. No. 5 fragrance. Steamy love affairs. (And a few more obscure details I didn’t know: She popularized the suntan. Marilyn Monroe, who loved No. 5, became the perfume’s first spokeswoman. And, by the way, it seems likely that Chanel was a Nazi spy. We know she was a person of strong convictions, and her beliefs became more radicalized throughout her relationship with German aristocrat Baron von Dincklage during World War II.) With her bluntness and polarizing views, she had a way of telling it like it is. Those maxims have become known as Chanelisms.
In honor of her birth, here are ten favorite Chanelisms. Some I appreciate because decades later, they still resonate. Others sounds strangely similar to my mother’s own opining. And then there are those that are amusingly dated, but full of timeless melodrama.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
“I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”
“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.”
“I wanted to give a woman comfortable clothes that would flow with her body. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.”
“Fashion is architecture: It is a matter of proportions.”
“There are people who have money and people who are rich.”
“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”
“Great loves too must be endured.”
“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”