Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Effects on fashion...

I’ve researched roughly the period from 1908 - 1910 (when Paul Poiret unveiled his directoire line), to 1947, when Christian Dior launched the first major collection of his own house - ‘The New Look’.

Obviously, fashion underwent huge changes in that time, and many, many things influenced those changes.

Please note that this is a written blog post - no pics - normal service on that score to be resumed!!

Poiret’s work of the late Edwardian period, and 1910s was hugely influenced by the artistic vogue for Orientalism.  This was in part due to the formation, and the huge popularity of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, a Russian ballet troupe performing in Paris, and officially founded in 1909.  The Ballet Russes employed artists like Leon Bakst, Picasso, and Matisse to design sets and costumes, and many took their inspiration from the ‘exotic east’.  Often the costumes were shockingly erotic, or provocative, and some of them scandalised Parisian society.

This eastern influence led Poiret to design clothing that was much simpler than the completely over the top frou frou of the Belle Epoque.  His simple, pared down, empire waisted outfits look modern and fresh, even now, in comparison with the frills and flounces of high fashion at the time.

Many of Poiret’s earlier designs are extraordinarily similar to the dresses worn 100 years earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the Regency in England, and so the influence goes back again to classicism.  The designer shared this with the aesthetic and rational dress movements that had been growing in popularity since the early to mid nineteenth century, who were hugely interested in classical dress, and the freedom from what they saw as the tyranny of the corset, and heavy and cumbersome clothing.

Poiret is generally credited with freeing women from the corset, although he was no aesthete in fashion terms - he also introduced the ‘hobble’ skirt, which was cut tightly at the ankles, and which restricted movement so much that women often found it necessary to purchase a hobble garter - a strong strap that was attached to each ankle to prevent a woman from taking too wide a step, and ripping the skirt.  I think that the biggest contribution Poiret made to modern fashion was less about corsetry, and more about bifurcation.  Poiret introduced outfits that included harem trousers.  They were not enormously popular, were worn only by the most daring, and were a brief fashion novelty, along with the ‘lampshade’ skirts they were worn with, but this was the beginning of the acceptability of women in trousers in polite society.

Of course, there was a long way to go before the general acceptance of trousers on women, in the 1940s.

More influences on fashion in the 1910s included the sinking of the Titanic, the Suffragette movement, the unionisation of the working classes, the beginnings of man made fibres, and of course, the biggest influence, World War One.

The Titanic sank in 1912, and the great and the good of the day were on board.  The wealthy and the rich were the celebrities of the day - there were music hall stars, and the very earliest film stars, some of whom were also on board the ship, but many of the victims were the wealthy male passengers (thanks to the ‘women and children first’ rule).
While it is a myth that the poor, third class passengers were deliberately locked below decks (there were locked gates, due to a US immigration regulation, but the gates were unlocked when the order was given to abandon ship), there was a public outcry at the lack of proportionality of those saved.  By far the larger number of the survivors were first class passengers.  There was huge public sympathy for that, and massive public anger about it, that persists to this day.

The Suffrage movement was gaining pace fast.  By the 1910s, Suffragettes were involved in a full scale campaign of civil disobedience.  The campaign for suffrage that had begun more than a century earlier with Mary Wollstonecraft was reaching its zenith.  Women were unafraid, and refusing to give in to what the state and government were telling them.  The ‘cat and mouse act’ was seeing women on long term hunger strike, to be released when they became weak, and rearrested when they had recovered.  Force feeding had been introduced.   Many women faced brutality and violence when arrested, either from female prison guards, or from the police (cases of the police beating women during or after their arrest were not uncommon).
As far as fashion goes, this is important because it was the beginning of women insisting on thinking for themselves.  Once women were able to run their own lives, they were able to decide what they wore, and how they wore it - it was the precursor to the freedoms that we are the recipients of today.

The suffragettes were not the only people gaining politically - the labour movement, and unionisation was having a major effect.  Ordinary working people were beginning to get better pay, for better hours.  Although this would take a long time to relieve the poverty of the lower working classes, for the upper working classes, improvements were fast.

The first man-made fibre was rayon - also known as viscose - made from cellulose (often from wood pulp).  It was first produced in the 1890s, but the production method was unstable, and it was not until the 1910s that a rayon fabric was marketed by an American company.  Eventually, the use of man made fibres was to revolutionize ready to wear clothing production.

The biggest influence on fashion in the 1910s was World War One.  This should not be surprising, as it blew the world apart, and changed almost every aspect of life irrevocably.
Everybody knows that during the Second World War women took over the jobs of men - during the First War, the same thing happened.  There were women in munitions factories, on farms, driving ambulances close to enemy lines, taking fares as bus conductors - you name it, women did it.  Suddenly it became normal for women to wear trousers for purely practical reasons - just as the Pit Head Girls had been doing for decades.  Suddenly, women had to worry about the safety of having long hair and working closely with heavy machinery.  Women started to cut their hair (and many never went back to having long hair).

The war changed life in other ways too - the classes were suddenly thrown together - upper class women became nurses, and were thrown in with women from lower classes who had also volunteered.  Upper class officers at the Front had to censor the letters written by their men, and many realised for the first time, through reading the innermost thoughts and feelings of the apparently brutish and uneducated working men, that those thoughts and feelings were every bit as refined, and every bit as evolved as those of the officers themselves.

During the war years, clothing became more sombre.  Bright colours were a rarity, everything became drab and dull and grey.  There wasn’t a person in the country who hadn’t lost somebody in the war - nobody was unaffected, and there was a feeling that clothing no longer mattered - it was no longer important.  More than that - there was an idea that caring about such fripperies as clothing was unpatriotic - that it was contrary to the war effort.

This was reflected in art - many artists rejected the styles that they had taken before the war, in favour of simpler, more natural styles.  They seemed to feel that to use a complex style was to do an injustice to the things they saw around them.  The horror was best portrayed realistically.

The changes of the war years did not last.  The old order of the day returned, for the most part, after the armistice.  But there had been a huge change - peoples minds had been opened, and the crack had opened.

After the war, and into the 1920s there were two Britains.  There was the boom-time Britain of parties and bright young things and dance halls - and there was the ravaged Britain of unemployment, low wages, striking and economic collapse.

If things were good for you in the 20s, they were very good.  People - especially young people - wanted to have fun.  They wanted to throw off the misery of the war, and live life for the moment.  These are the people that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about as the ‘lost generation’.  They had seen the brutality of the war - many had grown up with it - and they knew that life is short, and can be taken away at any moment,  So they lived very much for the now.  The use of alcohol increased, there were parties everywhere, many of which lasted for days, there was increased drug use - especially cocaine.

If things were bad for you in the 20s, they were very bad.  Work was scarce in industrial areas.  The British Merchant Navy was so badly damaged during the war that it never fully recovered, meaning that heavy industry, like steel and shipbuilding, were less able to compete with other parts of the world.  We were beginning to become a nation of importers, rather than exporters.

Working men were beginning to  become more forceful in their demands for equality.  The upper classes were no longer an exalted breed apart - many working men had lived side by side with their ‘masters’ during the war, and the mystique was gone.  At the same time, revolution was in the air.  Revolution in Russia had created fear throughout Europe, and had caused the more militant in the labour movement to agitate for more rights and better conditions.  This reached its height in Britain in 1926, with the nine day long General Strike.
At the same time, fascism had begun its rise in Europe - in most of the Western European countries, but especially Italy and Germany.

The labour movement and unionisation had meant that leisure time was increased for ordinary workers, as the unions negotiated better deals, and the new ideal, paid holiday.

Technology was advancing through the 1920s - new fabrics were making ready to wear a real contender for the clothing of ordinary women , although roughly as many women still used small independent dressmakers.
There were new inventions, such as refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners (Hoover’s 1920s factory is completely Art Deco), freeing up time for those that could afford them.  This was especially relevant to the middle classes, who had begun to move out of the cities, to the new suburbs.

Cinema and photography were advancing.  Picture houses were being built (or converted from old Music Hall theatres) all over the place - at one point Bolton had more than 40 individual cinemas.  The celebrity age had begun, and ready to wear clothing companies, and pattern companies were cashing in.  Clothing labels were set up selling cheap copies of dresses worn by ‘the stars’, and it was possible to see the picture today, and go out and buy the pattern tomorrow to make your own version of the outfit.  The power of cinema was evidenced by the death in 1926 of Rudolph Valentino.  When he died, at 31, from complications to do with appendicitis, there was international hysteria.  His fans, in despair, attempted suicide (some succeeding).

As the 20s progressed, skirts became shorter and more daring - influenced by the scanty costumes of dancers and showgirls.  Women again cut their hair - this time for the sake of fashion, not safety.  At first the hair was cut to a long bob, but as the 20s went on, the hair became shorter and shorter, reaching the height that we’d know today as the ‘pixie’ cut.

Make up became not only respectable, but fashionable.  At one time only actresses and harlots wore make up (and many ‘decent’ people couldn’t see the difference).  Improvements in make up manufacture and ingredients, along with mass production, combined with the use of make up by film stars, had the effect of instituting a make up craze that still persists.  Movie stars had to wear make up, and by necessity, due to the camera and type of film used, it had to be heavily applied if it was going to show up at all.

And then in October 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index dropped.  Wall Street crashed.

I'm leaving it there for the time being (till Wednesday night).  It's late, and I'll add the 1930s and World War Two then!

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