University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Fashion in the 20th century
Fashion is how you present yourself, once said a famous actress. As long as fashion has been in existence, what you wear is literally what you are. High society women wear thousand dollar fashions and one of a kind jewelry designs, while the average Jane wears jeans and a tee shirt. Fashion is a non-verbal communication with the rest of the world, through which you can express your personality, your social status, and your ideas. To choose clothes is to define and describe ourselves. [Lurie , The Language of Clothes, 1981] In all societies clothing is part of the culture. In current western society, pop culture reigns in fashion. All the way from couturiers like the Dior or de la Renta house in expensive boutiques, to designers like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, names we see in department stores like Nordstrom and Meier and Frank.
Clothing has evolved through the ages, and has made most of its artistic leaps in the last century. Women’s fashion has gone from the corset and button up boots to Jennifer Lopez’s infamous and revealing, low-cut Gucci dress. But why has this happened? What brought fashion from where it was in the nineteenth century to where it is now in the twenty-first? Did social changes produce these changes in fashion, or did fashion designers and couturiers change our society’s way of thinking about fashion? This question is almost as unanswerable as, Was it the chicken or the egg? To make a better-educated hypothesis on this question one must understand the history of fashion for the past century and a half. Through that time one must look at the social events and changes occurring and link them to all fashion advances, or retreats.
To begin with, what we now know as couture (literally meaning high quality sewing) has not always been around. Before the mid-19th century all dresses were made by dressmakers, who worked for families as full time staff or in a seamstress shop. They did not have the creative freedom that the couturiers and designers of today take so much for granted. Most of their creations came out of magazine cuttings, or were an idea of the employer. Couture was dull, being shaped to how society expected it to look. Women could not show their ankles, neck, shoulders, etc. By no means did fashion all of a sudden appear in the mid-19th century, in fact there were always trends that were in, but high fashion, like couture, was not put into practice.
This all changed when an English ex-fabric store clerk, named C.F. Worth opened his fashion house in Paris. His ideas of what a fashion house should work like have been the base of what all others that have come after him are like. Worth was the first modern day couturier for one reason; he made things to his liking with an artistic flair. His creations were worn by royalty as well as the rich and famous. By the early 20th century couturiers and designers were no longer thought of as lowly dress makers, but could be someone of high society and have international careers.
As the women’s rights movement was at its peak and women were starting to join the work force, they had less of a need for the occasional dress, which allowed the fashion world much more freedom in women’s fashion. This new freedom led to the flapper dress and other innovations of the first decades in the 20th century. Female couturiers were now appearing more often, like a new comer named Coco Chanel. These women, through out their careers, made clothes that truly gave society’s female population physical and mental freedom. [Milbank, Couture: The great designers, 1985] The thirties, though in turmoil, still produced fashion of creative substance and beauty, even though it was a bit more conservative.
Then, World War Two found couture coming to a screeching halt. Paris, center of the fashion universe was under siege by Nazi Germany.Many couture houses were forced to shut down, and the ones that didn’t have to, were restricted in their creativity by German guidelines. All communications between hostage Paris and the United States were halted. American designers had to make their fashions without the influence of Parisian designs. As well, the U.S. was under wartime restrictions and therefore had to deal with the rationing of cloth, meaning nothing could be overly extravagant. This material rationing, led to fashion that Christian Dior described as what resembled, women soldiers. The war also led to the buying of ready-to-wear products. These garments were not as beautiful as couture, but they were practical and cheaper in wartime. After the war, the new spirit of the people exploded into couture and design as The New Look. The Dior fashion house was known best for this design. Dior explained, We were emerging from a period of war, of uniforms . . . I drew women flowers, soft shoulders,
flowing busts . . . and wide skirts. [Steele, Fifty Years of Fashion, 1997] This fashion thread (no pun intended) continued through the fifties.
Then as the age of the Beatles and hippies was coming into the spotlight, couture began to suffer. What is known as the Youthquake began to envelop popular culture’s views of fashion. The term Youth quake refers to the ideas of wanting to be young looking, and not sophisticated or responsible.The mini skirt became the new fashion craze, and was thought to be the pinnacle of youthful fashions. Before this culture change, teens didn’t really have their own fashion, they just looked like younger versions of their parents, but now that the parents (mostly mothers) wanted to look young, the young looked their age in what they wore.
Then as the hippie movements came along and Vietnam got underway, the mini skirt craze and the young bubble gum look was thought to be too consumer driven. Much of the hippie movement was about anti-United States government, which obviously led to anti-consumerism movements. Many involved in these protests believed that, fashion was a system that Society (sic) imposes on (everyone) restricting our freedom. [Steele,Fifty Years of Fashion, 1997] So, hippies hand made their clothes and many of the popular culture icons and their youth following did the same.
Designers were still in business, but were not as successful as they had been in the previous decades. This occurred because of the at home fashions that took attention away from the consumerism that drove designers money making empires. The designers of the 70s brought about the anti-mini skirt called the midi, which came down past the knee and half way to the ankle. This unflattering design and many of the designs around the beginning of the decade led to an anti-fashion rebellion called Rags which consisted of cheap blue jeans and raggedy shirts. Adding to these rag creations by personally altering them and taking on anti-consumerist hippie ideology [Howell, In Vogue: 75 years of Style, 1991] was making couture and high fashion less and less appealing to the everyday consumer.
Then as fashion entered the eighties, the fashion world began to make clothing to shock all that had come before it. The idea of dress to impress became a pop culture slogan.Businesswomen wanted to dress daringly, so designers and couturiers used striking and bold color, with sharp lines that made the wearer look impressive. The designer drove these fashions with a flourish of shoulder pads, straight lines, and pleated ankle long skirts.
The Nineties brought couture back with a bang. It began to truly flourish again for the simple reason that the famous designers and couturiers names were deeply desired by lovers of high fashion. To own a Prada purse was something to brag about and a Tommy Hilfiger sweater got only better if his name was printed in huge red and blue letters across your chest, screaming TOMMY!
The twenty-first century still has that need of the name but has produced a phenomenon in high fashion, the teenager. Though the high society teenager did occasionally wear couture in the past, they have never been out in such force before. Buying small wardrobes consisting of not only exclusive hand made ball gowns, but hundred dollar pants and blouses as well. High society teenagers and young adults have taken on the sophisticated look of Dior and Chanel. Throughout this turbulent history of the last century, we can see changes in both society and fashion. All of these changes, social and fashion, coincide with each other. For instance, the New Look was a direct effect of World War Two. It came about because of the war, because of the formality of clothing during the war. Another example would be the womens rights movement at the beginning of the century lead to new ideas in freedom, as far as clothing goes. As well, the hippie years were ones of making your own clothing, which was brought about by the non-consumer ideas of the time. The best and best example of this idea was the war time restrictions on cloth and the house arrest that was placed on Paris, brought about the fashion of women soldiers that had to look, work, and act more like men while the men were not at home.
There was however, the idea of the midi in the seventies, which though it didnt do well, was brought about by the designers of the time. Society was totally against the idea of the skirt and clothes like it, showing that the
designer was the only influence in its invention. The designers largely influenced the fashions of the eighties as well.
Modern couture and designer fashion has been a constantly evolving world of length changes, colors, lines, and materials. Each movement moves in and out of regular society and the fashion world. Movements have led to scandalous rising hemlines, which gave way to a depression and war that make dresses into uniforms. The war brought about a New Look with a material wasting falling hemline. Grace and beauty follow, and then the Youthquake shook fashion and society. This eagerness for young fashions brought on resentment for consumerism that led to home made or adjusted clothes. A push for something new, pushed pop culture into Rags and then into a get rich quick, success fashion that was all about consuming. Now the love of the name is what drives high fashion.
So how does one know whether it is fashion or society that changes the other? Honestly, we dont. Culture, especially youth culture, has driven fashion for many years now, or at least it seems that way. In the last few years a type of business called, cool hunting has taken off as the link to a feedback loop that goes from culture and society into fashion and consumer driven businesses. These cool hunters go out into our society and look for what is cool.
They use three main rules in finding these bearers of cool fashion. First rule: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight. This means that by discovering something cool, cool moves on and something new needs to be found. The second rule says: Cool cannot be manufactured out of thin air. So it must be found somewhere and then put into a mainstream market to be officially cool. And the third rule of cool hunting is: to be cool is to know who is cool. Cool, essentially, only knows cool. (Have I said cool enough?)
But where did these ideas for cool come from? They came directly from designers and couturiers. This may sound like it doesnt make any sense, but if one steps back and takes on a wider view of the situation it becomes
immediately evident. There is an ever-going circle between the world of the fashion consumer and the fashion maker. The fashion maker sees, through cool hunters, who therefore see from society, that a type of fashion is in. The fashion makers make the fashion and market it back to the society who sees it and believe it is cool and then the cool hunters see this in society, and on goes the constant feedback loop. Of course, both society and the designers bring new ideas into fashion all the time, but for the most part these two co-dependent worlds are feeding off each other.
I believe that there is no differentiating between the two, society and fashion, when it comes to which one influenced which. They are constantly changing each other, though there may be some instances where one randomly occurs without the other they are almost always equally changing each other. (PS- I don’t belong to this essay)