Prêt-à-porter, Subjectivity and Filmic Visualisation in the 1961 French Fashion Press

“She likes to stroll in the Paris of the past and ‘browse’ the antiques.” This text captured the mood of “Paris Promenade,” its accompanying fashion spread in the 21 April 1961 issue of Elle photographed by William Connors. In contrast to the model pictured in the upper right section of the page, who peered at the antique glasses within a shop, the image at the bottom left depicted a woman with an outward gaze stepping into the street. This model walked away from the relics of French design, symbolised by porcelain tableware in the shop window; she looked to the present and not the past, to the freedom offered by the street and not the encapsulation of the interior. But she did not leave Paris; rather, her bright pink shantung shirtdress, or “robe chemisier parisienne” marked her as unquestionably Parisian. From the late 1950s, the fashion press abounded in images of shirtdresses, unfitted dresses typically with button closure to resemble a tailored blouse. Here, the author described the garment as “classique,” but made sure to point out its novelty, made to look like a separate blouse and skirt with the addition of a gilt chain. Likewise, the dress, woman, automobile and the blurred presence of a hurried passer-by in the photograph became expressions of urban modernity when pictured against the architecture of medieval Paris. Modernity was a sensitive topic in 1950s and 1960s France, which was undergoing changes in terms of the modernisation of its clothing industry, cityscapes and the uncertain place of women. Fashion imagery thus negotiated between old and new in its visualisation of models, city and readymade fashion.

Romano image

The image distinguished itself both from traditional full-page photographs in fashion magazines and those that showcased women posed against the backdrop of the iconic and beautiful city. Here, Connors was more concerned with exploring the interactions between the average woman and city spaces. Elements of the city—street, car, stranger—were presented to the viewer as though cropped from a larger picture, hurried moments of a longer period, Connors’ attempt at capturing ‘real’ life with a camera lens. The article drew on visual techniques of contemporary cinema such as Nouvelle Vague, at its height in the early 1960s, in its depiction of fragmentary moments and everyday reality. Readymade dress was appropriate in this spread, which showed the fashion of glamorous women in their daily life. The models were on display but not self-consciously ‘posed’, and brought to mind the way contemporary film directors, such as Godard and Truffaut sought ‘naturalism’ over ‘arranged’ visual compositions. This was the basic premise of this cinema, signalled earlier in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay that predicted the age of the “camera-stylo.” That is, Astruc envisaged a cinematic form that resembled a language rather than a spectacle, forgoing “the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Many French directors applied these notions, which included the use of non-professional actors and the scenario-dispositif over pre-established scripts. Fashion images that were cropped, fleeting snapshots of everyday life, also inadvertently applied Astruc’s concepts.

Like the cinema’s abstract plotlines, photographs such as those by Connors hinted at a narrative. The imagery, as Charlotte Cotton described cinematic photography, triggered readers’ collective unconscious and imaginary, so that “meaning is reliant on investing the image with our own trains of narrative and psychological thought.” Through the input of the reader in Connors’ photograph for instance, a narrative dared to unfold, one that questioned the psychological state of its female subject. This differed from 1950s narratives that offered whole pictures and totality, and often clearly depicted models’ activities. Albeit ambiguous, the narrative began by negotiating her access to the city, her step into the street made easier by the front inverted pleat of her readymade skirt, sold at Paris’ fashionable boutique Réal, “to walk easily.” Image construction, garment, city and reader thus worked together to depict an active, modern subject.

 

References

Anon. “Paris Promenade,” Elle, 21 April 1961, 92. 

Alexandre Astruc, “La Caméra-stylo,” L’Ecran français, 30 March 1948, cited in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed., Peter Graham (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1968), 20-22.

Peter Brunette, “But Nothing Happened: The Everyday in French Postwar Cinema,” in The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture (New York: New York University, 1997), 78-93.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014 [2004]), 49.

Ready-to-wear, rupture and continuity in the space of Elle magazine post 1968

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The student protests of May 1968 brought focus to Paris’ streets on national and global levels, and this was echoed in French fashion imagery. A ready-to-wear editorial in the 2 September 1968 issue of Elle by Claude Brouet and Marie-Thérèse des Cars set the tone for the straightforward representation of women and the city that would characterise those in magazines in the latter part of the decade and into the next. Here, Peter Knapp photographed women in the streets of Paris, walking or standing against city walls, sometimes looking beyond the camera or directly into its lens. In one image, a model traversed the picture plane in long, confident strides with one arm stretched upwards, as though to shield her face from the bright sunlight. This pose was repeated throughout the editorial; in some instances, the model’s smile was absent, turning the functional gesture into one of protest. In view of the student protests and strikes that engulfed the country three months earlier, contemporary readers might have interpreted the editorial in terms of solidarity.

Indeed, in this imagery, Knapp may have directly referenced the first day of the protest, in which many commentators later remarked on the still, sunny aspect of Paris’ streets before violence erupted. In the 17 June 1968 issue of Elle, for example, journalist Denise Dubois-Jallais contrasted what began as “a lovely Friday in May” with the image of “[…] enraged young people, cobblestones in hand, running towards a police car and, all of a sudden, the noise of shattered glass […].” And although those protests did not focus on women’s rights, they served as a symbolic call to arms, according to commentaries such as that by Michèle Perrein, in the 21 October 1968 issue of Elle. In an article on her personal experience of sexual inequality, Perrein wrote that: “the student revolt […] did me well, so much that I felt, deep down, it corresponded to my own.” Likewise, Knapp’s images represented the calm period that loomed before more vocalised feminist struggles in 1970, the year that saw the establishment of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes, as well as Elle’s Etat Généraux de la Femme debates.

Political concern was also held in tension within the text that accompanied Knapp’s images. It conceived of ready-made fashion in terms of action and choice. The author ranked the season’s clothing trends as secondary to the reader herself, who would deploy the clothing to feel comfortable and liberated in it: “But the essential, in all that, will be you. Your way of choosing clothing for its comfort and freedom […].” The text thus highlighted both continuity and rupture. Magazines had promoted ready-made clothing’s freeing attributes—achievable through the wearer’s skill and personality—since they began to feature ready-to-wear in the mid-1950s. However, given magazines’ constant representation of novelty, these attributes were repositioned in view of the May protests to signify the reader’s recognition of her control and capability.

The clothing produced in the mid to late-1960s also worked alongside Elle’s new discussion of wearer experience. From the mid 1960s, magazines characterised jersey and other knitted garments as second skins. And consumer testimonies were consistent, such as that of Monique Naudeix, who recounted how her prized knitted jackets by Sonia Rykiel from the late 1960s “hugged the body.” Peter Knapp’s photographs in the 8 September 1969 issue of Elle highlighted the ways in which fabric clung to and draped against models’ moving bodies. Several small images flanked central ones to depict subsequent steps in the act of walking. In one image, a model wore a knitted ensemble by Sonia Rykiel, a garment that allowed for her swiftness, evidenced by its blurred edges that also blurred the boundaries between body and fabric. These photographs showcased clothing for easy, confident feminine movement. Also central to the image, although secondary in importance to the monumental, active model, was the Paris street, which imbued it with urban capital. And after the events of May 1968, simple streets and pavements assumed an iconic status. As opposed to post-war imagery, in which models hesitatingly tested Paris’ new spaces, busy with street traffic, that symbolised modernity, in 1969 and 1970, magazines showcased women walking assertively on Paris’ pavements. In her June 1968 article, Denise Dubois-Jallais unknowingly set the stage for these visualisations in her description of the aftermath of the May barricades: “the people, curious, arrived with the sun. No cars. The streets [were] like pavements. No cars except for burned carcasses (what a symbol!).”

 

Sources

Denise Dubois-Jallais, “Sous le balcon d’Albertine, cinq mois, une révolution éclate,” Elle, nos. 1171, 1172, 1173, 17 June 1968.

Michèle Perrein, “Le droit de renaitre,” Elle, no. 1192, 21 October 1968, 35.

Elle, no. 1185, 2 September 1968.

Author, Interview with Monique Naudeix, Paris, 1 December 2014.

 

We will be posting a sneak peak of our Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Makes Women conference on the blog later today, for those who missed it. Watch this space for this special unscheduled post!

‘Maroc: Land of Wonders’….French Elle visits Morocco, 20 April 1953.

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My colleague Alexis passed on an interesting Moroccan-themed photoshoot that was published in French Elle in 1953, 3 years before Morocco received independence from the French colonial administration that was in place from 1912 to 1956. It featured “3 women and 60 dresses” in Morocco, the “Land of Wonders”. An interesting double-page spread titled “SOUKS” comprised of one large photograph of a model, Suzy, on the right, which took up two-thirds of the spread, and six smaller numbered snapshots of all three models, Suzy, Taina and Françoise, presented in a grid-like formation on the left, above a block of text that detailed their elegant French fashions (Balmain, Lanvin-Castillo, M. de Rauch, Jacques Fath and Dior) and activities in the souk.

Suzy, Taina and Françoise try on djellabahs (a short or longer-sleeved outer garment with a hood and slits at the bottom), barter with Arab merchants, pose by the drinking trough (where “beasts and people meet”), take morning walks, stop by each stall to admire luxurious fabrics, get pursued by small children, and finger freshly dyed wool piles, all the time holding on tightly to their designer handbags. They are dressed in streamlined lightweight French fashions which, the caption tells us, enable them to spend all day in the souks whilst maintaining the ideal body temperature: neither “too hot, nor too cold”. The models are clearly delineated from the local population by dress, pose and stature; they point their toes, flick out their skirts, and assume an air of confidence and composure by placing, for example, one hand on the hips, whilst the other clasps the lapel of a blue, beige and white striped percale jacket. The local population, dressed mostly in djellabahs, cherbil slippers and the litham (the piece of fine, translucent cloth that Moroccan women use to cover the bottom part of their faces), are used more as authenticating background props than to provide any detailed information about their changing modes of dress. There is no mention, for instance, that Arab women’s increased adoption of the djellabah during this period, usually worn with the hood draped over the head and accompanied with the veil, was a symbol of modernity that accompanied their increased public mobility. Instead, the article insinuates an underlying sense of danger within the souk, in which Morocco as an extension of France is placed as an inferior culture in need of French (fashion) guidance.

Published in April 1953, only 4 months before Mohammed V of Morocco was deposed and forced into exile by France for giving tacit support to Istiqial (the Moroccan independence party, founded in 1944), French Elle’s article ‘Maroc: Land of Wonders’, although masquerading as a cultural appreciation of the country, might also be read as an insidious attempt to reassert French authority.

 

 

 

Ready-made Fashion and France’s Urban Fabric in Elle Magazine in 1963

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Bodies, dress and city space intersected in new ways in the 3rd May 1963 issue of Elle in an editorial that presented ready-made garments in toile, a linen textile. One photograph by Fouli Elia depicted a cross-legged model standing against the grid of the metal beams of a nondescript Modernist building that composed and dominated the photograph’s backdrop. She stared fixedly at something located off the page, and her look suggested that it was an open expanse of scenery, or an extension of her imposing architectural surroundings. Behind her, the building took on the greenish sheen of her shirt and skirt ensemble by the ready-made brand Stanley. Structure embodied the dressed model, both cast in the same hue, constructed from the same fabric. Likewise, the article’s text described clothing in spatial terms, and figure one was identified as “a large green space for this two-piece ensemble, comfortable and sweater style. In what? In toile fibranne.” This material, a rayon fabric similar to linen, was pictured alongside natural fibres in this spread. Yet the characteristics of this synthetic cloth, soft yet grainy, unstructured yet weighty, reflected paradoxes held within the fabric of the photograph. In contrast to the text, the image suggested a lack of space, through the subject’s close crop and the seemingly nonexistent distance between figure and building.

The editorial, with its images of models with outlined bodies superimposed onto buildings, appeared during a period of rapid urbanisation in France. From the 1950s and increasingly into the 1960s and 1970s, low-income housing estates, or Habitations à Loyer Moderé (HLM) were erected in cities’ suburbs to accommodate factory workers, immigrants, and Paris’ growing population. By 1964, there were at least 1,000 of these buildings in the three departments of the Parisian region. In direct contrast to deteriorating and crowded housing in Paris, the government promoted these cités, usually comprised of towers and high-rise blocks (grands ensembles) with park space, schools and other facilities, as symbols of France’s economic modernism and ‘progress.’ This language resembled that used to describe the developing French ready-to-wear, pictured increasingly in the fashion press during the 1950s and early 1960s. Articles in Elle also regularly discussed the housing transition; in 1961 for example, editor Anne-Marie Raimond surveyed women who lived in suburbs and sought to depict the vastness of these spaces and the new way of life they offered:

It is the most formidable exodus of modern time, causing the upheaval of landscapes as well as man’s customs and spirit. […] A new style is born, that of ‘garden cities,’ ‘ensembles,’ ‘residences,’ where sun and greenery come with the deed or lease. Inhabitants (almost) remain Parisian, Lyonnais, Lillois, but have changed rhythm and character. They blossom like plants uprooted from undersized pots, put into the wide earth.

As in the 1950s, descriptions such as this instilled the modernity and progress of the vast, new spaces in their female inhabitants. Elle’s 1963 article likewise conflated clothing, bodies and wide spaces, portraying garments as “very sunny dream ensemble[s],” and “To live in right away.” Yet, the incongruity between idealising text and subtly dark imagery hinted at growing criticism of these estates, and a heightened awareness of their realities.

These outer spaces likewise became normalised in magazine imagery. Pages in Elia’s editorial that displayed a fashion photograph beneath a landscape illustrated how magazines’ new definition of fashion city and urban space stretched to Paris’ suburbs and airport. One such image was cited as “Modern Paris. View from the southern highway between Paris and Orly.” Similarly, in light of Paris’ expansion, Henri Lefebvre wrote in 1970: “The urban fabric proliferates, extends itself, corrodes the residues of agrarian life.” In contrast to photographs of old, iconic, and static Paris (which traditionally upheld the symbolic construction of haute couture), these images visualised modern Paris in perpetual construction and expansion. Below this image, which stressed the vastness of suburban space and sky, a photograph pictured a model in front of a building. Like her above counterpart, the model seemed superimposed, and the frame could not contain her body. The caption identified her location as boulevard Lannes in Paris’ 16th arrondissement, the appropriate well-to-do setting for her expensive suit, in raw silk with and jersey blouse designed by Chloé, which was sold for 700 francs at the fashionable boutique Henry à la Pensée. Financial access to ready-to-wear was a constant promotional factor, which did not always correspond to reality. In this instance, readers were offered, yet barred from purchase of toile, and the ambiguous all-encompassing urban fabric of Paris.

Sources

“Faites vos plans sur la toile,” Elle, no. 906, 3 May 1963, 96, 99, 100, 102. Author’s translations.

Anne-Marie Raimond, “Une enquête une revelation une revolution: le visage et la vie des nouvelles banlieusardes,” Elle, no. 826, 20 October 1961, 84. Author’s translations.

Paul Clerc, Grands ensembles banlieues nouvelles: enquête démographique et psycho-sociologique. Paris: PUF, 1967.

Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota, 2003 [1970], 3.