LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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artists & participants
An array of costumes serves to examine how fluctuations in fashionable dress expressed the changing role of women in twentieth-century society. Organized by LACMA.
1900-1909: In the first decade of the twentieth century, women's dress changed radically. The encumbering clothing of the late Victorian era lingered on into the opening years of the century. Yet before the decade was over, the petticoats, quantities of fabric and trims, and heavily boned corsets were gone. The fashionable silhouette changed from a curved S-shape with trailing skirts to an upright, narrow column. This radical change happened so quickly, in part, because an alternative style of dress had developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Various cultural movements and groups - the Aesthetic movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, Rational Dress, Liberty Style, and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, for example - advocated a return to the natural form of the body, simple clothing based on classical dress, and the abolition of the corset. Between 1906 and 1911, Paul Poiret, a young Parisian designer, boldly discarded full skirts, petticoats, trim, and corsets (which he replaced with a lighter, flexible girdle). He dressed his young, avant-garde clients in garments that drew inspiration from the clothing of ancient Greece and Rome and from late eighteenth-century French Directoire. Narrow columns of cloth fell straight from the shoulders or from under the bust. By 1908 the narrow, high-waisted, upright silhouette of the alternative style of dressing had been adopted by other designers.
The Teens: Many forces converged in the early years of the century to produce a dramatic change in style in a short period of time. Elaborate costumes served the needs of an affluent matron who changed clothes several times daily. But many women now worked at jobs outside of the home, were educated, participated in sports, and lobbied for the right to vote. Another style of dress was required. Paris, the center for fashion, was also the gathering place for the avant-garde. In the 1905 Salon d' Automne, critics dubbed a new group of artists Les Fauves or "wild beasts" because of their slashing brushwork and vivid colors. In 1906 Serge Diaghilev brought an exhibition of Russian art to the Salon d' Automne; in 1909 he brought the Ballet Russes to Paris to perform Sheherezade with costumes by Leon Bakst. Paris society quickly embraced the bold colors of the Fauves and the perceived "Oriental" exoticism of the ballet. Home interiors integrated pillows and brightly patterned hangings. Paul Poiret altered his color palette from pastels to vivid colors. In 1913 he created harem trousers so his clients could lounge in their exotic new home environments. Other designers, such as Lucile and Callot Soeurs, embraced the new style. From 1908 on, hemlines cleared the floor, and fashions changed annually as designers experimented with the possibilities of the columnar silhouette: the hobble skirt, the long tunic with a raised waistline over a narrowed skirt or trousers, and hips swathed in fabric over a narrow skirt. During World War I, many women found jobs usually held by men away at the front. Clothing required easy movement. This demand was reflected in a looser dress with a fuller skirt, a loosened, lower waist-line, and a hemline that rose to between calf and knee length. At the end of the war, so many men had been lost that women could not plan on marrying, and many became independent. Clothes reflected newfound freedoms: Dresses became easy to wear, with slightly bloused bodices and hemlines that grazed the knee. As the second decade closed, the elements were in place for twentieth-century fashion.
The Twenties: The Jazz Age, as this decade is often called, was characterized by an intense modernity and a turning away from pre-World War I formality and constriction in dress. By the early '20s a new model of femininity appeared, the "sophisticated schoolgirl" or garçonne. She wore casual but impeccable clothing with short skirts and even shorter hair, had an easy athletic stride, sported a suntan, and showed off her legs in light-colored silk stockings. New, too, were the short dinner dress, the efficient coat-dress, and the cloche-a head-hugging hat worn low on the forehead, perfect with bobbed or shingled hair. The French designers Gabrielle Coco Chanel and Jean Patou were the most prominent exponents of wholesome simplicity and sporty comfort in fashion. In contrast, couturiers Paul Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, and Callot Soeurs were romantics in their approach to fashion. Lanvin, for example, introduced the robe de style, a low-waisted, full-skirted dress with wire hoops at the hips in the manner of eighteenth-century panniers. Poiret created the first dresses with low, bare backs (with which corsets could not be worn). Callot Soeurs and Jacques Doeuillet were noted for short beaded and sequined evening dresses worn by "bright young things" in jazz clubs where they danced the Charleston. In these clubs, respectable women could drink and smoke in public for the first time. Many designers were enchanted by romanticized notions of Asia and Africa. This interest was stimulated in part by the Orientalist performances of the Ballets Russes, popular exihibitions of African sculpture, and the extraordinary talents of the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker - the toast of Paris in the '20s. In the middle years of the decade, hemlines rose to the knee and waistlines fell to the hips or were eliminated entirely. Then, in 1927, Jean Patou showed dropped-waist dresses with hemlines at mid-calf. For the next few years hems were uneven, either just below the knees in front and ankle-length in back or dipping in points all around. By the end of the decade, the flat-chested and narrow-hipped boyish ideal was beginning to give way to a softer, more curvaceous femininity.
The Thirties: Despite the Depression, fashion in the '30s maintained a beauty and glamor promoted to a large extent by Hollywood. In the first half of the decade, plunging backs, bias-cut draping, and clinging fabrics transformed the androgynous silhouette of the '20s into a new body-conscious, feminine line epitomized by the on- and off-screen clothing of international stars such as Jean Harlow, Carol Lombard, and Claudette Colbert. The Paris couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Mme. Alix Grès were known for their inventive use of diagonally cut jerseys and shiny satins, although the technique was popular with all designers of the period. As the decade progressed, however, clothing gradually became more tailored. As early as 1931, Elsa Schiaparelli extended the shoulder line to give a "masculine" narrowness to the hips and waist. Other designers, particularly in film, eventually followed. Padded shoulders (sometimes with the addition of military-style epaulets) increased in popularity in the latter part of the decade to become the hallmark of the next. New styles included the dinner suit, consisting of a long dress and short jacket for the theater, dinner, or dancing. The "little black dress" was fashionable from the afternoon to the coctail hour for the latter worn with a small feather or a beaded hat. At the end of the '30s, in an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future, many fashion designers ransacked the past for ideas: the bustle of the 1880s, the leg-o-mutton sleeve of the 1890s, and the high-waisted neoclassicism of the early nineteenth century. Yet, overall, perhaps in response to current events - the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism in Europe, and Hitler's invasion of Poland - sobriety and restraint characterized late-'30s fashion. As the threat of war loomed, the sensuous curves of the early part of the decade were replaced by a structured masculinity.
The Forties: The decade had hardly begun when the United States had to face the hard reality of war. Factories changed their concentration from consumer to military goods, and women were required to fill jobs relinquished by men needed for the service. The line between "women's work" and "men's work" blurred; women assumed a significant and vital role in the workforce. Function became the focus of fashion. The prevailing silhouette of the '40s, influenced by menswear and military dress, was streamlined, lean, and understated, with broad, padded shoulders and narrow waist and hips. In 1942 the War Production Board issued General Limitation Order L-85, which codified specific regulations for the production of textiles and apparel. The effect of such comprehensive restrictions was dramatic - the spare and tailored silhouette was essentially frozen for the duration of World War II. Another aspect of the '40s fashion story was the development of practical yet stylish and sophisticated sportswear in the major textile centers of New York and Los Angeles. Slacks, a necessity in factory work, became a component of fashionable dress. In Los Angeles, readily available fabrics such as cotton and rayon were used to manufacture separates or coordinated outfits to accomodate the various activities of working women in a year-round indoor/outdoor lifestyle. "Playclothes" from the California sportswear designers became extremely popular and were marketed on a national scale. By 1947 Paris had regained its prewar prominence as a fashion center, and Christian Dior had introduced the New Look, with unpadded shoulders, corseted "wasp" waists, and long, full skirts- paving the way for the hourglass silhouette of the following decade.
The Fifties: The ravages of war shaped the '40s, but the '50s were shaped by the pleasres and possibilities of peace - and the woman of the '50s was shaped with padding and corsetry. Weary of the straight and functonal menswear fashion of the previous decade, women and men welcomed the return of what was considered the "female" figure - the hourglass or figre eight. Following the model of Dior's New Look, garments were designed as architectutal structures, supported by built-in armatures of corsets and petticoats. Rationing ended in the United States right after the war (although it continued in Britain and Europe for several years), and restrictions on silks and other luxurious fabrics were lifted. Opulence in evening wear, seen in the extravagant creations of designers such as Charles James, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Norman Norell, became the standard. The image of woman as a dressed-up doll and exponent of conspicuous consumption was cemented. Postwar prosperity also provided more disposable income and more leisure time to enjoy it. American designers such as Claire McCardell in New York and a large group working in California continued to develop fashionable, innovative sportswear for the demands of a casual lifesstyle and the active pursuit of leisure. The consumer society was born n the '50s; because of mass-production techniques developed during the war, ready-to-wear triumphed over custom tailoring, allowing more people to have more clothes. As a result, copies or "knock-offs" of high-fashion couture forced designers to change their lines every six months. By the mid-'50s, Balenciaga, Rudi Gernreich, and Hubert de Givenchy were modifying the hourglass shape with a longer, looser, more fluid drape in daywear, and by the end of the decade, sac and trapeze dresses were challenging the supremacy of the wasp-waist silhouette.
The Sixties: The emergence of the '60s "youth culture" was a critical phenomenon that changed the course of history as well as the history of style. For the first time, fashion cut across classes, streetwear influenced haute couture, and designers took their cues from the tastes and demands of teenagers. British designer Mary Quant's miniskirt, made for the youthful body, largely affected the traditional look of the fashion model. Gaunt, leggy, wraithlike Twiggy became the icon that challenged the supremely elegant, perfectly posed and groomed mannequin of high style. The '60s saw a number of divergent trends and styles in all the arts, which seemed to fluctuate with the erratic rhythmn of dailt life. Historical events such as the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movements, assassinations, technological miniaturization, and the landing on the moon were as turbulent and momentous as concurrent cultural phenomena: the pop-music explosion, multimedia artworks, unisex, Carnaby Street, and experimentation with drugs. In fashion, the architectural formal elegance of designs by Valentino Garavani, Norman Norell, and Cristóbal Balenciaga diverged from the visionary work of Rudi Gernreich, Yves Saint-Laurent, Geoffrey Beene, and Emilio Pucci. Paco Rabanne and André Courrèges explored the use of nontraditional, "space-age" materials in their minimalist outfits. The versatile aesthetic of the hippie movement, with all its emphasis on brilliant color, layering, and mixing of textures, caught the imagination of a number of designers whi made a virtue of eclecticism - a trend further enriched by the effects of expanded tourism and a newly generated interest in world cultures. The syle mix of the '60s mat have been best illustrated by the collections in the last year of the decade that featured hemlines at various levels - micro, mini, midi, and maxi - all together.
The Seventies: The '70s emerged from the tumultuous social and political changes of the middle to late '60s as the decade of individual expresson or the Me Decade. Dress as a symbol of that self-expression became the most important factor in fashion, as women found inspiration in a wider variety of sources than in any other period in the century. Politics, gender, ethnic cultures, inflation, the environment, crafts, nostalgia, sex, and music all played important roles in defining the many and varied looks of the decade. "Anything goes" was the motto of the day, and anyhting did. The women's movement inspired two disparate fashion trends: the very feminine "granny" or "prarie" look, and the masculine style epitomized by Dianne Keaton in the film Annie Hall. The ethnic trend that had begun in the late '60s continued to be popular in both street fashion and haute couture; designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent, James Galanos, and Issey Miyake were inspired by traditional costume from worldwide sources. The crafts revival created demand for one-of-a-kind clothing that was filled by Zandra Rhodes, originally a textile designer, and Mary McFadden, who both experimented with silk-screening and hand-applied wax-resist techniques. The fitness craze and glamour of the California ideal that made stars out of Jane Fonda and Farah Fawcett inspired sporty and body-conscious clothing epitomized by the designs of Halston. By the end of the '70s, couturiers had created an atmosphere of eclecticism and postmodernism that revolutionized fashion for the remainder of the century.
The Eighties: If the '70s were about the self, then the '80s were about self-assurance. Conspicuous consumption was in, and bigger was better. Fashion bacame a way for women to show off the new power they held at work, at home, and in the gym. By 1980 a new model of femininity had emerged: The "superwoman" was a highly paid executive, mother of two, and weekend aerobics instructor. Her look was assertive. For day she wore bold suits by Thierry Mugler with narrow waists, broad padded shoulders, and short, slim-fitting skirts, with high-heeled pumps In the late '80s Patrick Kelly took the "power suit" to its whimsical extremes. For evening, women wore glamorous, skin-baring ensembles by Bob Mackie and Christian Lacroix that showed off their physically fit bodies. Designers emphasized slim waists and long legs with gowns of brightly colored taffetas and chiffons or beads and sequins. In stark contrast to this look, designers from Japan, most particularly Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake, brought a distinctly Asian sensibility to Western fashion. They challenged traditional ideas of femininity not by emphasizing the body, but by de-emphasizing it with layers of cloth and asymmetrical, innovative cuts. "Deconstruction," as the style became known, began in the late '70s but reached its peak by the middle '80s, influencing both street fashion and couture with its slashed fabrics and echoes of kimono and traditional rural Japanese dress.
The Nineties: The last decade of the twentieth century stood at the edge of the millennium, with one eye looking into the future and the other glancing back into the past. Both views played an important role in shaping the fashion identity of the '90s. Style in this decade seemed to continually undergo a confused transformation. In reacton to the overconsumption of the '80s and the recession of the early '90s, clothes first took a turn toward a more pared-down simplicity. That look, however, was replaced in 1993 by grunge, which was quickly succeeded first by the "monastic" look of 1994 and then, later that same year, by a '70s-inspired retro look. The '90s essentially presented a montage of fashion history, with trends coming and going sometimes within a single season. Clothes by ready-to-wear retailers such as The Gap, Banana Republic, and Eddie Bauer came to the forefront of fashion. They managed to tap into the needs of women who wanted comfortable, wearable clothes. Because women were buying mass-produced goods, design houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci branched out into ready-to-wear lines. This change of focus left designers the room to experiment with blurring the lines between art and fashion as never before in their couture collections. Thierry Mugler and Issey Miyake played with neoprene, plastics, and never-before seen "techno-fabrics." Rei Kawakubo and Azzedine Alaïa manipulated the natural shape of the body by incorporating sculptural elements in their designs. In an era of globalization, the high-fashion universe no longer revolved only around Paris, but expanded to include London, Milan, New York, and Tokyo.
A Century of Fashion, 1900 - 2000