The Séeberger Frères: Feminine Fashion and Canine Chic

Séeberger Frères, Jeune femme habillée par Jenny, Biarritz, septembre 1929, BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The ingenious opening scene of Disney’s 1961 “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”, in which Pongo the Dalmatian studies owners and dogs, shows that dogs frequently reflect their owner’s taste as much as someone’s dress choices. Rather than just being a pet, dogs have long been used as a fashion accessory, extension of their owner’s outfits or even the main inspiration for their looks. The Séeberger Frères were some of the earliest photographers of street style and for decades captured the most fashionable people frequently accompanied by their dog.

The Séeberger Frères consisted of French brothers Jules, Louis and Henri Séeberger, later joined by Louis’s sons, and first set up a photography business in 1906 capturing Parisian sights and landmarks for postcards. When approached by Madame de Broutelles, editor at “La Mode Pratique”, in 1909, the brothers refocused their business and would go on to produce one of the most important collections of fashion documentation of the 20th century. Their first business stationary summed up their motto: “High Fashion Snapshots. Photographic Accounts of Parisian Style.”

Séeberger Frères, Walking the dogs dressed to perfection in the height of 1920s fashion, 1920s. ©Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Séeberger Frères, Skirts and tunics from the 1920s, 1920s. ©Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Until 1940, when they temporarily closed due to World War II, the Séeberger Frères took exterior snapshots with a portable camera to capture socialites, celebrities and people of wealth and importance during society events. Such events, which often took place at racecourses and beaches, attracted many fashionable people and soon couturiers started sending in models advertising their latest designs. The brothers’s images were published in magazines, such as “Vogue”, “Harper’s Bazaar”, “Le Jardin des Modes”, “Femina”, “Les Elegance Parisiennes”, “La Femme Chic”, “Les Modes”, “Vu”, and “Good Housekeeping”. In double page spreads, these photos were accompanied by extensive information on the socialite and their fashion.

The Séeberger Frères did not only influence the fashion world, but Hollywood as well. Between 1923 to 1931, Hollywood cinema agency “International Kinema Research Corporation” commissioned the brothers to photograph Paris and Parisian life in the form of shops, hotels, theatres, cafés and street scenes. These images were then used by artistic and technical directors as inspiration for set designs.

After the war, the Séeberger Frères mainly photographed inside a studio for which models and outfits were carefully selected per assignment. The company continued operation until 1975, when they donated their collection of around 60,000 negatives and documents to the “Bibliothèque Nationale de France”.

Séeberger Frères, Long sleeved coat-dress designed by Jenny, Contrasting trim is accentuated with large buttons, 29th May 1923. © Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Séeberger Frères, A woman wearing a velvet suit, walking her dog, c. 1920s. © Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

During their career, they frequently photographed the rich and famous with their canine companions. After World War 1, dogs became even more essential as a fashion accessory and purebred dogs in particular became a sign of considerable wealth. During the depression, purebred Great Danes were bought for as much as $15,000 in the United States. Many of the socialites and celebrities documented by the Séeberger Frères would, therefore, buy a purebred dog as a sort of conspicuous consumption and display them during high society’s popular dog shows. In France, the poodle was considered to epitomise French chic.

The Séeberger Frères’s images are now owned by the “Bibliothèque Nationale de France” and “Getty Images”.

Séeberger Frères, Decorative pinafore covering a calf length dress, 20th May 1924. ©Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Séeberger Frères, Collarless coat worn with a silver fox fur and Rembrandt beret with large hat brooch, Design by Jenny, 1923. © Seeberger Freres/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Séeberger Frères, Mme Ulam-Krauss, Saint-Moritz Ffêtes du Nouvel An, 1939, BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie. ©Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Making a Scene at the Fashion and Textile Museum: Thoughts on the exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs

Mannequins welcome visitors to the film-inspired exhibition space. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The not so inconspicuously pink and yellow/orange painted Fashion and Textile Museum on London’s Bermondsey Street is just about to wrap up its current exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age- Fashion and Photographs. So, on a cold, rainy Saturday two of us Documenting Fashion MA students (that’s you Jamie!) set out to catch it before it was too late – as did many other Londoners, it seems. It was great to see the exhibition so busy, interest in fashion history bubbling about the place.

A collection of Gordon Conway illustrations begins the exhibition. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Film room from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Presented over two floors, the show, which was curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Dennis Nothdruft and guest curated by Cleo and Mark Butterfield and Terence Pepper, covers a variety of aspects of 1920’s fashion, including fashion for different occasions, its representation in cinema, magazines and photography and as illustration. Furthermore, accessories are included on the second floor including make-up, stockings, and jewellery. In addition, an entire room dedicated to the photography of James Abbe, who photographed show-girls and film stars, also formed part of the exhibit. Every bit of space in the museum has been utilised for 1920’s material, films and wall decals, providing a range of objects to be discovered and lusted over.

Window display of accessories in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Magazines featured in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The predominant layout chosen for the presentation of fashion in the main exhibition hall are “scenes” reminiscent of movie sets. These consist of a collection of mannequins in different poses situated on set-like areas corresponding to a theme. In “In the Boudoir” for example, mannequins wear corresponding clothing and the set’s back wall depicts an elaborate bed with curtains, as well as candlesticks and ornate pillars. To reinforce this notion of a quasi-movie set, artefacts such as stage lighting, a typewriter and a director’s chair are placed in between the first two “scenes.” As an idea, the scenes work well as an exhibition display, not only grouping clothing with a particular purpose together, but also, letting the viewer imagine how a room full of women might have looked in the 1920’s. Seen from the angle of our MA, the chosen layout raised some questions: How do the colours, patterns and designs compare and contrast and how would the women have perceived each other? What sense of identity did they take on depending on the cut, style and purpose of their clothing? How was fashion presented and disseminated through the media, show-girls and celebrities? How much did this influence the wearer in their own perception of fashion and lifestyles? The exhibition supports such questions, justifying the inclusion of photographs and illustrators in the show as highlighting “…the role of photographs and magazines in promoting the 1920s look”.

‘In the Boudoir’ scene from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Props in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

1920’s Jazz Age was, to be frank, really great fun and seemingly lovingly created. It is an excellent show for an introductory glance at the changing fashions, photographs, illustrations and magazines of the period. It could be faulted for trying to incorporate too many items and mediums at once or for being too busy with various films, magazine cases, wall decals and hangings. However, this is precisely what makes it accessible. The viewer can dip in and out of any area as they please. They can take as much or as little information from it as they like. Essentially, the show reflects how the 1920’s themselves are often perceived; it is busy, hectic, full and enjoyable to the brim due to its light and playful presentation.

Further Reading

https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-photographs

http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/the-fashion-and-textile-museum-jazz-age-fashion-photographs-exhibition-3779

http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-and-photographs

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

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Somewhat embarrassingly, I only managed to make it to the Tate’s Sonia Delaunay exhibition in its last week, but I was so glad that I did. I went not knowing much about Delaunay prior to stepping through the door, and because it was held in the Tate Modern, I was expecting it to focus mainly on paintings. However, it was her textiles, fashion designs and illustrations that underpinned the whole exhibition. It was immediately apparent that textiles and dress were hugely important to her during her career.

The earliest example of her work in textiles appears in the second room – a cradle cover made in 1911 for her newborn son. Interestingly, the Tate labels it as her ‘first abstract work,’ highlighting the fact that they conflate her work in textile and paint. This is, to an extent, completely understandable as there are numerous similarities between the aesthetic she employs in both. The way blocks of colour are juxtaposed is identical in both mediums. However, to consider the cradle cover, and her later fashion and textile designs, purely as decorative art is to ignore the practical, and indeed emotional, role that these objects played.

Cradle SD

Movement is by far the most persistent theme underlying all the work in the exhibition. Delaunay was fascinated by dance, particularly tango, and many of her works reflect the rapid movement and blurring of shapes that one expects to see in a packed dance hall. In this way, her work bears some resemblance to that of the Italian futurists, who in their obsession with the speed of modern life, painted the rapid movement of cars and people through the city as swirling blocks of colour. In her scenes of dance, ‘light and movement are confounded, [and] the planes blurred’ (Delaunay, c 1913). However, there is also a sense that these colours represent the sound of music in the dances. Bodies, dress and music are all reduced to contrasting colours on the canvas.

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

Simultaneous Dresses (the Three Women), 1925

As in her paintings, movement is a central theme of her fashion designs. In 1918 she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a shop selling accessories, furniture and fabrics that bore her signature swirling lines and blocks of colour. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, as well as designing costumes for ballets and cover illustrations for Vogue. In these, as in her paintings, the body is abstracted, leaving the viewer with the representation of dress in motion. The straight, 1920s silhouette lent itself well to her geometric, graphic designs and bright colours. However, it was not just her clothing that bore this aesthetic, she also designed furniture, and the interior of her Parisian home became something of a manifesto of her style, and a hub for artists and writers.

Two fashion models in Delaunay's bathing suits

Two fashion models in Delaunay’s bathing suits

Movement was also at the heart of her textile designs, so much so that, when she displayed her textiles at the 1924 Salon d’Autumne, they were presented on a ‘Vitrine Simultane.’ This vitrine, created by her husband Robert Delaunay, presented eight swaths of fabric continuously moving upwards on large rollers. Movement was quite literally injected into these otherwise static objects.

It would be easy to look at Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs as a by-product of her painting; the same circular shapes and bold colours that feature in her canvases also appear in the textiles. However, I would argue that her paintings are just as influenced by work in dress – her paintings of dance, convey the movement of dresses swirling in different directions, abstracting the body and giving the canvases their characteristic dynamism.

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Fashion Institute of Technology Archive

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The MA class admiring a beaded dress from the 1920s.

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Muslin copy of a 1920s Chanel dress.

On one of our museum visits in New York, we were lucky enough to be shown a selection of objects from the Fashion Institute of Technology Archives. On arrival, we were greeted by an alumnus of our course, Emma McClendon, now an assistant curator at the museum at FIT, with whom we discussed our similar academic and Courtauld experiences, and then our not so academic love of Percy Pigs that we had brought over as a souvenir from the UK.

Her colleague, Liz Wei, then brought us to a study room in which we came face-to-face with the garments, fashions and trends that have graced our books, seminars and imaginations. On a packed, non-descript clothing rail were some of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of dress from America and Europe ranging from the 1920s to the late 60s. We were shown couture, eveningwear, daywear, sportswear, and everything-in-between-wear from European designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Paul Poiret. We were also shown examples of ready-to-wear and couture by American designers such as Adrian, Charles James, Phil Macdonald and Claire McCardell.

We were able to get familiar with the objects (without actually touching them) and see the minute details of stitching, beading and construction, and really gain an understanding of the craftsmanship of these beautiful garments. Having discussed these objects in an abstract manner in seminars and readings, we were able to finally see the objects themselves and fully appreciate the properties and themes that encapsulated fashion in the interwar period in a tangible way.

Unlike other fashion archives, FIT also functions as an educational institute, and so has a unique set of muslin copies of select objects. This allows design students to physically interact with garments that would otherwise be too delicate to handle. This allowed us, as dress historians, to grasp an understanding of dressmaking techniques, and see the innovative and diverse methods of construction employed by couture designers, tailors and home dressmakers in these historical garments.

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Fortuny tea dress curled up in its storage box.

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Detail of pleats on the Fortuny dress.

Despite the feeling of deep reverence for all of the objects introduced to us, for me, there was one standout object. Unlike the other garments hanging on the clothing rail, this garment was curled up inside a square white box. Furled up in a whirl of finely pleated silk, was a stunning, peach-coloured, Mariano Fortuny dress and belt from the 1930s. When the dress was unravelled, the intricate tight pleats sprung forth to reveal the long, elegant sheath and the Venetian glass beads that decorated the seams. The pleating, loose-fit and columnar style of the dress reflected its original intent as a Tea Gown, to be worn without a corset, and on more relaxed social occasions, entertaining at home. This garment encompassed concepts of modernity, machinery and the changing activities of women in the 1930s, despite its classical inspirations. Remarkably, this notion of modernity still survives within the garment today, with the endurance of its tight pleating that would rival Issey Miyake’s authority of the technique. Indeed, the gown is as fresh as a Pleats Please garment available for purchase today. Much like Miyake’s technological textile research, Fortuny experimented with machinery and techniques to create his unique pleating system, a process that is still a mystery to this day. Only a few pieces of archival information on his pleating process remain. This method used a pulley system and included heated ceramic rollers through which the silk was passed to create the tight folds. Though this is still speculative, as Fortuny kept the process a well-guarded secret and it seems never recorded it. Women would have to resend their dresses to Fortuny to be re-pleated, if they had been flattened from sitting, or been dampened.

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Detail of the top of the Fortuny dress.

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Detail of the bottom of the Fortuny dress.

The technological innovation of Fortuny’s pleating, the modernity of the garment, its classical sources and its relatively intact condition, seem almost anachronistic and belie its era. It was this clash of temporalities, the captivating mystery surrounding Fortuny, and its resonances in contemporary fashion that provoked a visceral response in me.