Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Femina 1947-1948

We are just two weeks away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


 

Femina, December 1947-January 1948. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This illustrated fantasy world of fashion was published in the 1947 to 1948 Christmas issue of Femina magazine. Femina was founded in February 1901 by Pierre Lafitte in Paris and focussed on “the real woman, the French woman raised in the best tradition of elegance, bon ton and grace.” Published on a bimonthly basis, Femina was aimed at an affluent readership of modern, urban, French women, who were not only encouraged to shop and dress like the social elite, but to be interested in culture, literature and politics. Femina reached its peak readership with around 40,000 readers in 1934 to 1935, and, uniquely, was edited and staffed by women only. In addition to influencing its normal readership, Femina impacted Parisian fashion through dressmakers who often took Femina issues to their customers to show examples of the latest designs.

Femina’s higher price point is evident from the editorials, advertisements and design of this issue. Most of the editorials feature couture evening gowns rather than daywear, such as gowns to wear to the opera, and many of the illustrations and photographs are in colour. The large pages are luxuriously laid out with often considerable white space around the subject. Perfume, watch, jewellery and liquor advertisements express the celebratory nature of the issue. For instance, illustrated fireworks spell out the characteristics of a Lanvin Parfums wearer and a ‘dark Brilliance de Lenthéric’ perfume bottle replaces a regular Christmas tree ornament.

This double-page spread, called ‘VISIONS’, shows illustrator Baumgarter’s dream of fashion silhouettes traversing against an imagined background. His dream includes the latest designs by Lucien Lelong, Paquin, Maggy Rouff, Madeleine de Rauch, Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Piguet, Pierre Balmain, and Dior. The slight blurriness helps to show that the illustration is a fantasy, which is less apparent when the illustration is digitised or photographed. The smoothness of the magazine’s paper is decisive in the experience of looking at the illustration: not only does it convey a kind of refinement that mirrors the luxury of the gowns, but the moderate glossiness helps to bring the illustration to life. Rather than looking at a photograph on a screen, moving the somewhat shiny illustration helps to create a tactile link to the gowns depicted and encourages the reader to imagine the volume and fabric of the designs.

Further adding to the experience is the thickness of the paper, which seems almost reluctant to open fully. Indeed, the quality of the paper has resulted in near perfect preservation, with the exception of the cover, for almost seventy years. In 1947, it would not have required a lady to be familiar with Femina to recognise the quality and lavishness of the magazine. Moreover, it perfectly answered the needs of a society whose faith in the strength of its fashion industry had to be restored and which craved the comfort and joy of luxury after half a decade of restrictions and loss.

Maison Doucet

During the Belle Epoque period, at 21 Rue de la Paix in Paris, stood Maison Doucet, one of the most fashionable couture houses of the day. Under the tutelage of Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret got his start there, as did Madeleine Vionnet, before they went on to their own success as couturiers. The clients at Doucet, as with most top couture houses, ranged from social elites and nobles to courtesans and celebrity actresses such as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt (Figs. 1 and 2). Notably, Doucet was also patronized by younger American socialites such as Carrie Schermerhorn Astor, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Edith Wharton.

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Fig. 1: Actress Rejane wearing a Doucet at-home gown, cover of Les Modes, August 1902.

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Fig. 2: P. Nadar. Actress Rosa Bruck in Doucet, Les Modes, November, 1901.

To dispel the expenses of a trip to Paris, Doucet dresses were sold in New York at Arnold, Constable & Co. and Lord & Taylor’s and models were available at the exclusive dressmaking establishments of Madame Barnes and Madame Donovan. More than one woman who did return from Paris with a Doucet in her trunk reportedly tried to evade customs because of the excessive duties.

Turn-of-the-century fashions were characterized by exuberant surface decoration, where the materials, techniques, and styling of different decorative elements showed off one’s prosperity, indeed Doucet indulged heavily in such excess of beautification. One of the characteristic traits of the Doucet aesthetic is the use of fluid, unstructured fabrics such as lace, tulle, silk, fur, and satin (Figs. 3 and 4). From the turn of the century, with the body-skimming Directoire style and the taste for tea gowns, Maison Doucet’s expertise with fabrics put the couture house at the height of fashion. Doucet dresses were just a bit softer in their drape, delicate in their surfaces and the vision of beauty fit in with the more sensitive side of the time. That Doucet’s clients were daughters of great society matrons, wives of executives in the fashion retail industry, and popular actresses, confirms that the ultra-femininity of the Maison’s designs were fashion-forward and distinct from the stiffer prestige image of the House of Worth. Is it any wonder then that both Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust conjured up characters that answered to the siren call of Doucet frocks?

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Fig. 3: Doucet. Reception or ball gown. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Fig. 4: Doucet. Afternoon or tea gown. 1900-1903. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

High society dressing was very much a public consideration, a performance of wealth, class belonging and taste in the age of crass overnight millionaires and dollar princesses. In the highly codified world of social elites, elaborate surface decoration gave expression to the complexity and power of social wealth, presenting ornate femininity as an index of masculine financial prowess in the new business order.

The Maison Doucet sensibilities dovetail with the eighteenth-century revival fashion trend to which he contributed and executed at the highest level, informed by his own art collecting and connoisseurship. The sinuous lines of a peach embroidered ball gown in the art nouveau style have their clear precedent and inspiration in the eighteenth-century meandering lines of Rococo design, found particularly in textiles (Fig. 5).

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Fig. 5: Doucet. Ball gown, 1898-1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Nouveau tiger lily design reminiscent of the Rococo period. Worn by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson.

Of all the dress styles in a lady’s wardrobe, it was the tea gown, or at-home gown, that most embodied and fulfilled the sensual femininity of the Doucet aesthetic. Due to its light and clingy materials that skimmed a woman’s uncorseted body, it had a naturally suggestive quality to it. The abundance of airy lace over fluid, unstructured silk of a 1907 tea gown conveys the romantic and delicate aesthetic of the early century under the lofty eye of Doucet (Fig. 6). The tea gown’s softness underscores the traditional relationship between femininity and the private sphere while also promoting modern modes of dressing for comfort. The secret to the successful Doucet aesthetic seems to lie in the unabashed sensuality of the clothes no matter what the occasion.

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Fig. 6: Doucet. Tea gown, 1907. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Further Reading

Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Diehl. The History of Modern Fashion. London:Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet and Pingat. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1989.

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.

Alumni Interview: Katerina Pantelides and Alexis Romano – Part 1

On a rainy day in The Courtauld student café, Alexis Romano and Katerina Pantelides, both of whom have recently completed their PhDs in dress history at The Courtauld, generously agreed to tell me a bit about their work. Due to the length of the interview the second half will be posted next Tuesday.

What made you both decide to do a PhD in dress history at the Courtauld?

Alexis: I was living in New York, studying design history with a focus on fashion and textiles. When I finished the degree I didn’t have a concrete plan, but I was still writing and researching so it just seemed like the next logical step. My research, which is based on national fashion and post-war dress, really connected with Rebecca Arnold’s work, which I always admired. So it seemed like a good fit!

Katerina: I did an MA at The Courtauld, and it was interesting because during the time of my MA I always thought that I wanted to be a curator. I was always really interested in theatre and dress and performance, and so I did an internship at the V&A at the Theatre and Performance archive. It was a round the time of the big [Sergei] Diaghilev exhibition and I remember there was all this stuff about émigrés and Russian ballet. I was so interested in all the stories. At that time, I thought I wanted to do a book on Russian émigrés and the ballet in connection with dress and costume, but then I applied for the PhD and I got it and I got the funding, so I worked on that for three years. I ended up working with Rebecca because I met her on the MA and I really liked her and her approach.

What were the topics of your theses?

Alexis: I wrote about the French ready-to-wear industry and its development between 1945 and the late 1960s. I explored this in relation to what was happening in terms of various aspects of the post-war reconstruction of the country and women’s history, and the shift in constructions of fashion, modernity and the representation of women. I looked at how women connected to wider cultural issues through their experience of [ready-made] fashion.

Katerina: My title was ‘Russian Émigré Ballet and the Body: Paris and New York c.1920-50’. I looked at how Russians who emigrated after the Russian revolution in 1917 brought over their dance practice and how they influenced body, dress and exercise culture in the west. I also looked at how dress and exercise culture in the west, specifically in New York, influenced the Russian émigrés. So it was this two-way relationship that I examined.

I am always really interested in how research develops. People start off with having one thing in mind, and then they work on it and it sort of transforms into something completely different. Did you find that your research developed over the course of your study? And if so how?

Alexis: I think research is a personal thing, and connects to who you are. My research evolved a lot, for instance, I ended up studying an earlier period than when I started out. But on a more personal level I became much more interested in women’s personal, everyday experience of dress, focusing on women in their 30s. I turned 30 over the course of my research, and that apparently was a defining moment that I came to terms with through exploring women of a similar age, and their hurdles, in history.

Katerina: That’s so interesting because I do think that you grow up with your PhD in some ways. I started out being very young and idealistic, interested in the ethereal aspects of the ballet and the whole idea of Russian Émigré ballet as a ghostly nation that travels, and then as I got further into the research and started to look at things in archives, I became more interested in the dusty, dirty things. I became much more interested in the realities of travel and what people took with them, what they archived, what they lost, how they talked about things they lost. I think I started out being very interested in the illusions that were taking place and then I became much more interested in the women themselves, the gritty realities.

 Alexis: I wonder why we both became interested in the personal rather than looking at things from a scholar’s lens?

Katerina: I think it’s because with fashion images, for example, you always want to know what’s beneath them, and what’s the reality of the people who consume them and things like that. You always look for depth I think.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

A look at Katerina’s research; drawing by Edward Degas, c. late 19th century, from the archive of New York City Ballet dancer, Melissa Hayden.

Elle c’est Vous: Some Comments on French Fashion and Art in the 1960s

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In the first issue of Paris-based art journal Opus International, published in April 1967, editors declared they would not recognise boundaries between forms of creation, and instead encouraged exchanges of methods and materials between practitioners from varied fields. They took painting as an example, which they argued could no longer be conceived “without reference to cinema, to publicity, to novels, to photography, to language.” This fluid approach resonated with artistic production and theory of the period. One vociferous commentator was art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003), who encouraged artistic engagement with quotidian life and consumer society when he founded Nouveau Réalisme in 1960. He proposed that this movement act as an extension of Dada, and more particularly, build on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. He theorised that the appropriation of everyday objects and visual culture could be the only valid means of artistic expression, in a society newly marked as it was by an urban, industrialised consumer landscape. “In the current context,” as Restany wrote in the group’s 1961 manifesto, “Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades […] take on new sense.” Through this appropriation or “artistic baptism of the everyday object,” the object or material would assume a second, symbolic meaning. Moreover, Restany argued that it would give voice to “an entire organic sector of modern activity, that of the city, the street, the factory, serial production.” As Jill Carrick has recently written, Nouveau Réaliste artists, such as Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Arman, engaged with everyday imagery and often “restag[ed] commodity spectacle” in their direct presentations of commercial objects or representations of shop windows. Fashion production and consumption, with its ties to the “modern activity” described above, was thus directly implicated in these artistic inquiries.

These developments paralleled perceptible changes in French fashion, in terms of a continuously expanding ready-to-wear industry, following large-scale industry efforts to improve production and increase dissemination from the post-war period. In turn, there were many more opportunities for designers and brands in the 1960s, such as Daniel Hechter (b. 1938) and Pierre d’Alby, respectively, who were diffused into the public sphere in magazine editorials and retail spaces. From the late 1950s and increasingly into the 1960s, fashion consultants, including Maïmé Arnodin (1916-2003), established agencies, bureaux de style, and acted as intermediaries between different industrial players, such as manufacturers, designers and retailers, to implement design trends. They also played the role of design reformer, and their comments connected fashion to wider social currents. In 1967, for example, Arnodin claimed that good design “is a manner of being, living, thinking that translates into clothing.”

Elements of the visual culture of fashion are perceptible in Martial Raysse’ (b. 1936) painted photograph “Snack” from 1964. Here, Raysse applied paper flowers, plastic birds and a neon sign to a photographic image of three fashion mannequins or models. The addition of these elements into a traditional, bucolic landscape called to mind Restany’s vision of a symbolic urban, industrial environment. This “nature,” relied on artifice and, according to Restany, “deploy[ed] sumptuous riches, his pearls of neon, luxury of his cities, the radiance of his sun, the domesticated blue of his sky and sea.” Saturated and fluorescent colour, according to Restany, was part of Raysse’s construction of “an organised reality, created by men for their use and in their image.” Monumental, artificial women who inhabited space suggested that vision and experience were intertwined. And perhaps female viewers of the painting, thus, recognised prevalent imagery as well as a new means of viewing themselves in a boundary-less tableau.

Sources:

Opus International, no. 1, April 1967, 5.

“Maïmé Arnodin: Le style et l’industrie française,” Dépêche Mode, October 1967, 20.

Jill Carrick, Nouveau Réalisme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010, 68.

Pierre Restany, “A quarante degrés au-dessus de dada,” in Le nouveau réalisme. Paris: Transédition, 2007 [May 1961], 59-60, 172.

Image of painting also available here.

Barbette

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Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.

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He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’

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His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.

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Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sources:

http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/06/02/the-surreal-sex-of-beauty-jean-cocteau-and-man-ray%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cle-numero-barbette%E2%80%9D/

Shaping Prêt-à-Porter in the Fourth Republic (1946-58): The Paris/New York Dialogue

The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented last month at Fashion: the 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, held at London’s Institute of Historical Research. It was included in a panel on “Collaborations, Conversations and Peer Relationships in Fashion,” which featured individual papers by the four co-founders of the Fashion Research Network that drew on their doctoral research. Each pair of papers fell under one sub-theme, and was followed by a conversation between the authors, in both cases, a researcher in historical dress and a researcher  in contemporary fashion practice, around the evolution of collaboration in that topic. My paper, which explored the dialogue between the Paris and New York fashion industries during the Fourth Republic, preceded one that discussed contemporary global fashion capitals. The ensuing conversation, an interdisciplinary collaboration itself, demonstrated the methodology behind the session.

The autumn 1953 issue of the trade publication Cahiers de l’industrie du vêtement féminin reported on an important fashion industry event: the presentation of the winter collections of Les Trois Hirondelles to American buyers at New York’s lavish Waldorf Astoria hotel. This was a shared label of the French ready-made clothing brands in the Association of Maisons de Couture en Gros, which, from its establishment in the 1940s, was the focus of trade and government efforts to shape the national industry. The occasion attested to the growing dialogue between the French and American ready-made clothing industries since the end of the Second World War and, as the journal sought to indicate, marked an achievement for the French. Indeed, the country had been striving to modernise and compete on the international market, following the examples of their American and other foreign counterparts, since before the war. After the Liberation these goals were heightened in view of France’s weakened couture and ready-made clothing trades, as well as its newfound competition from the American sportswear industry. It was not surprising that the Cahiers, voice of the main trade organisation for ready-made clothing, recounted the events in New York. That a high fashion magazine should document this industrial happening was, however, exceptional: the brands’ New York visit was the focus of an editorial in the September 1953 issue of French Vogue.

The editorial, which featured photographs by Henry Clarke, made a new crucial connection that accompanied the commercial success of the French brands: that of French ready-to-wear to New York’s modernity. Clarke photographed American models, dressed in Trois Hirdondelles clothing, against New York’s iconic spaces such as Times Square and, according to the text, “in view of the Statue of Liberty, in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers” or “in the shade of newly-built buildings: the ‘Lever building,’ the ‘United Nations’ currently being finished.” Marshall Berman has written that much of New York’s construction in the twentieth century served as performative symbols of modernity, “to demonstrate to the whole world what modern men can build and how modern life can be imagined and lived.” Over time, these structures transformed New York into a “forest of symbols.” The New York City of the 1950s was one of perpetual, large-scale construction, the result of Robert Moses’ ambitious plan for the city’s reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in Berman’s “forest,” “axes and bulldozers are always at work, and great works constantly crashing down […] where new meanings are forever springing up with, and falling down from, the constructed trees.” Text and imagery gave magazine readers the impression of constant and modern construction, bolstering Europeans’ widespread characterisation of New York as a powerful political and economic force. Vogue’s imagery was the ideal means to temper fears of Americanisation, and, through fashion, include France in a modern, progressive narrative. Readers could insert themselves into the symbolism of modern life, as Berman described, as it was filtered through to the magazine.

In one photograph a model wore a beige corduroy dress and jacket by Lempereur at the very forefront of the composition. At once towering over the reader, and in the shadow of a modern skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, the image made a statement of epic proportion. The statuesque model mirrored the structure in the background and, with map in hand, surveyed her domain. The image visualised Berman’s notion of cyclical modernity; the newness of the building was reinforced by older structures in other photographs, the surrounding debris evoked destruction, and the empty space foretold the next, more modern construction. Likewise, Les Trois Hirondelles stood for a type of ready-made dress that would disappear at the end of the decade in view of the emergence of new labels, economic systems and political regimes.

Further, the United Nations building, built between 1948 and 1952, could be seen to symbolise international harmony and renewed ties between France and the United States. Founded in 1945 following the Second World War, the United Nations replaced the failed League of Nations, in order to provide a platform for international dialogue. And, perhaps to France’s chagrin, the building represented, not only the new inclusion of the United States in international politics, but its physical leadership. Still, Les Trois Hirondelles provided a means for manufacturers to participate in a sort of cross-cultural exchange. Through this trip to New York, they could confirm the continued dominance of French fashion, which, in turn, bolstered the government’s own projects of reconstruction and modernisation.

Sources:

“Les ‘Hirondelles’ visitent New York,” Vogue, September 1953, 128.

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin, 1988 [1982], 288-9.

‘”Chic” Was To Art The Same As Sex Appeal Is To Love’: Four Things I Learnt While Reading Cecil Beaton’s Memoirs of the 40s

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One of the many delights – and distractions – of research is the things you read along the way to your real goal.  While my focus is on Beaton’s wartime photography, for a forthcoming paper at the Museum of London, delving into his diaries and memoirs reveals far wider dress gems.  Since these probably won’t make the final edit, I thought I’d share some of my favourite insights with you here – skimmed from the pages of his 1940s memoirs, and, in these examples, from his time spent in post-occupation Paris between 1944 and 1945.

No. 1 – Parisian style during the war was about resistance – to German torment, restrictions and morality, and to imposed ideas of respectability and beauty:  

The British Embassy’s Guests, Sunday, October 29th – Paris, 1944 

‘The women were a curiously dressed bunch in a fashion that struck the unaccustomed eye a strangely ugly – wide, baseball player’s shoulders, Dureresque headgear, suspiciously like domestic plumbing, made of felt and velvet, and heavy sandal-clogs which gave the wearers an added six inches in height but an ungainly, plodding walk.  Unlike their austerity-abiding counterparts in England these women moved in an aura of perfume.’

No. 2 – Necessity breeds innovation, hybridity and style: 

Stocking the Cellar 

‘Diana [Lady Diana Cooper] wearing trousers, yachting cap, and biscuit-colored fox coat…’

 Churchill’s arrival, November 10th 

‘Diana, in pants and bandanna…’

 No.3 – Never be too quick to judge who is best-dressed:  

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas 

‘During the years of cold and shortages, Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbour at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, who had a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women’s clothes.  In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice to wear during the hard winters.  Now he has opened a shop in Paris.  At first showing to the press Gertrude and Alice arrived with their huge dog, Basket.  Gertrude in a tweed skirt, an old cinnamon-colored sack, and Panama hat, looked like Corot’s self-portrait.  Alice, in a long Chinese Garment of bright colors with a funny flowered toque, had overtones of the “Widow Twankey,” a comic transvestite from the vaudeville stage.  Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered: “Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it’s just as well for him that they don’t!’

No. 4 – Fashion and Art = Sex and Love 

Bébé Bérard and the Jackals, British Embassy, Paris 

‘Bébé inspired, proceeded to illustrate with his pencil the fashions of the new dressmaker Dior.  These, he says, have the same sense of sex appeal as Chanel created after the First World War.  A theory was put forward that fashion was anti-art, that “chic” was to art the same as sex appeal is to love.’

Perhaps later I’ll share what I learnt about New York … But for now, I must get on with what I supposed to be researching …

Source:  Cecil Beaton, Memoirs of the 40s, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972

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!