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

Dress and Movement in the work of Sonia Delaunay

Cover SD

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.

M.P. Verneuil, Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers (1925)

Book

Summary

Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.

The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.

Book 2

Response

The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’

It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.

While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.

The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips

IMG_2477IMG_2475IMG_2469-copyIMG_2472

“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”

Source:

Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.