It would be safe to say that everything women wore before the Great War ceased to be acceptable and that after the war all that was left as useful models for the future was men’s clothing. It is one of the ironies of women’s fashions and the redesigning of the modern woman that the template would be masculine, but one must start somewhere. The War itself introduced the possibility of trousers for women, presented the woman in something very close to a man’s outfits. Women wore uniforms, nurses hoisted their long skirts up, while other women in mines and in the fields worked in trousers. This war was responsible for a shortage in textiles and fabrics and in dyes, but not, ironically, a shortage of design creativity.
The woman who took advantage of an international conflict to redesign the New Woman and refashion the Modern female was Coco Chanel (1883-1971) whose stylish vision still shapes fashion today. When perusing photographs of Chanel in her early years, it is possible to conclude that she was the Modern Woman she designed for. Chanel was, indeed, a New Woman. An orphan, she was from the lower classes, aspiring in an era when there was no place for women in business, ambitious in an age when the game was rigged against women, and she was not above using wealthy men as stepping stones to her own success. Chanel was a canny opportunist who pushed her way through every somewhat open door.
To understand her work and her innovations, all one needs do is to ask what was expected of women in the early twentieth century and then realize that Coco Chanel destroyed each and every rule, and it was the war that made her creative destruction possible. Although there is a tendency to think of nineteenth century fashions for women as being socially and physically confining, in fact the actual garments were fitted around only small part of the female body: the waist and torso. The rest of the garment stood away from the body, driven outward by crinolines or layers of petticoats or bustles. These beautiful gowns, possibly designed by Charles Worth or Jacques Doucet, were handmade by hard working dressmakers and seamstresses. These exquisite gowns could never be washed, only spot cleaned. At their finest, such garments were fragile and delicate and artists, such as James Tissot, loved to paint these gorgeous and impractical concoctions of frothy ruffles with flourishes of ribbons and bows.
Like Dress Reform, the New Woman existed before the Great War. As the twentieth century opened, Vienna, a city attempting the establish itself as being as artistically important as Berlin, presented an alternative to corsets and heavy dresses with trailing skirts in a break-through exhibition in London in 1906. The star of the exhibition was the Wiener Werkstätte where modern textile designs attracted the attention of Paul Poiret who was actually planning to open a shop in London in collaboration with Xavier Marcel Boulestin, a French tastemaker. English travelers to Paris were willing to spend a great deal of money for fabrics designed by Koloman Moser and the now lost and erased women who also designed for the Werkstätte. These strong fabric designs, many of which were geometric, demanded a certain type of dress to show off the artists’ work. Moser and Josef Hoffmann, along with Gustav Klimt and his long time collaborator fashion designer Emile Flöge designed “reform” dresses before the Great War. However, there were two kinds of “reform dress,” both were dedicated to getting rid of the corset, but one arm of the movement was rather utilitarian, while the other was driven by artists. The shapes of dresses as created by these artists all showed off the striking fabric by drawing the dresses in straight lines, falling from shoulder to foot.
These designs by Flöge and her collaboration with Gustav Klimt came to the attention of Parisian designer, Paul Poiret in 1912. Poiret was probably at the peak of his fame and spread his gospel of fashion as art around American and the European capitals. But a trip to Rome caused him to pause and admire the work of someone else at an International Exhibition in Rome in 1911, where Gustav Klimt’s painting of 1910 Death and Life won first prize. While, due to its sheer size, this painting dominated its neighbors but what would have attracted the attention of Poiret was not necessarily The Kiss, which on exhibit, but the portraits of women wearing clothes designed in Vienna. As Alice Mackrell wrote of Poiret in Art and Fashion, “While in Rome he went to the International Exhibition and when he saw the Klimt room..he sensed a remarkable harmony between Parisian and Viennese designs. Vienna, which had emerged at the turn of the century as a great cultural center with international repercussions, was a major stop in Poiret’s tour..Poirte paid a visit to the Wiener Werkstätte, which had opened a fully fledged textile division in1909 and a fashion department in 1910 under the direction of Eduard-Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill.” Mackrell quoted Poiret as saying, “I went to all the exhibitions of the decorative arts. It was then that I made the acquaintance of the chiefs of the schools, such as Josef Hoffmann, the creator and director of the Wiener Werkstätte..and Gustav Klimt..” Mackrell continued, “What interested Poiret about the Wiener Werkstätte were hand-printed silk floral designs and, as someone committed to the idea of fashion as part of the artistic creation in general ,the emphasis on the environment, from furnishings to dress, as a total work of art..this was the beginning of a cross-fertilization in fashion design between Paris and Vienna, where pure lines and exceptional artistry of the Wiener Werkstätte began to affect international fashion. The development of textile design during this period is fundamental to subsequent changes in fashion and design.”
According to Heather Hess in her article, “The Wiener Werkstätte and the Reform Impulse,” “French couturier Paul Poiret played a key role in spreading news about the Wiener Werkstätte abroad in the 1910s. Thanks to Poiret’s interest, fashions and fabrics produced by the Wiener Werkstätte did not suffer the fate of reform dress, remaining a marginal style worn on by bohemians seeking alternatives to Parisian fashion. Instead, Viennese design became associated with the most fashionable advanced Parisian styles..The Wiener Werkstätte’s successes abroad–with Poiret in Paris, the exhibits in London and Berlin, and in American fashion magazines like Vogue–made it the best bet for the future of German fashion..” What attracted Poiret to Viennese fashion was its melding of art and fashion. In fact the way in which the dresses were styled, falling in stiff shapes from the shoulders, highlighted the design of the fabrics. These designs were of particular interest to Poiret because the geometry tamed to excesses of Art Nouveau, giving the gowns the very modern look of something new. Poiret returned to Paris, inspired to combine art with fashion and began working with artists, and sought out Raoul Dufy. The two established a workshop for printing textiles, La Petite Usine–a rather unhappy name. The flat linear designs of Dufy were reproduced as printed textiles which, in turn, were used for elegant silk dresses. Of course, “German fashion,” whether Viennese or not, would not be relevant if it remained a local phenomenon. What made Austria and the Wiener Werkstätte matter in pre-war fashion was its strong presence in Paris through its highly colored and uniquely designed fabrics was that Paul Poiret purchased, as Hess said, “large quantities to used in his own designs. Poiret even dressed his wife Denise in a Weimmer-designed silk during a visit to Vienna in November 1911..” In other words, if fashion didn’t happen in Paris, it didn’t happen.
The first step away from the large and stultifying garments that caged the wearer, holding her in place, was taken by Paris designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944). It does not seem that Poiret was a proto-feminist but was a canny entrepreneur looking for the next “new look” in fashion. For years, artists and political activists had been attempting to reform clothing for women. Not all women, of course. Lower class women did not wear dresses that impeded their movements because the upper class needed the serving class to be mobile so that these working women could actually work. For the upper-class woman and the middle-class women who copied them, respectable clothing had the effect of turning the wearer into a slowly moving billboard, which was an announcement of their class and status in life, both of which came from her husband or father. In other words, the dress wore the woman, proclaiming her relationship to a man.
Before the Great War, women–no matter where they lived–dressed according to a proscribed set of rules, undergirded by a concept of “respectability,” which, in turn, was mirrored by what was not considered “respectable” in clothing. The latter topic seems to have been understood or may have existed only by implication, but the regulations concerning women were many and clear. In 1914, a woman named Florence Hull Winterburn wrote Principles of Correct Dress. Winterburn was a prolific author who instructed Americans, mostly women, on how to live, as if they needed a guide. She wrote Nursery Ethics, Southern Hearts, Children’s Health, The Mother in Education, and Novel Ways of Entertaining. Winterburn is largely forgotten today and little is written about her. She seems to have written little after the Great War, but in 1909, the writer became the editor of Americana magazine. The spare accounts that exist of this woman, who was apparently very prominent in her time, locate her either in New York or Washington D.C., with most accounts mentioning New York. Born in 1858, she studied psychology and literature in Paris and was married to a doctor with whom she produced a magazine, Childhood, which was “the pioneer” in the field of child study. Unfortunately, the research trail goes cold and there is no word of her during the Jazz Age in America and it is possible that the culture had simply passed her by, leaving her with little to say. In her day, however, Winterburn was an important molder of women, telling them how to think, how to live, how to raise their children and her words had great import in America before the Great War.
In her book on “correct dress,” this prolific writer thoughtfully included Chapters by Jean Worth and Paul Poiret. Other chapters included, “The Costume of the Thin Women” and “What the Stout Woman Should Wear,” and “Appropriate Colors for Blondes and Brunettes,” not to mention “Dress in Relation to One’s Years.” And then there was the tempting lecture on “The Difference Between Pleasing and Attracting Attention,” followed by “Clinging Gowns.” Towards the end of the book, there were wisdom from Paul Poiret, the inventor of the hobble skirt and the grand couturier of his time, the fashion designer for the wealthy. For Poiret, there was an art, not just to designing clothes but to wearing outfits. As he said,
“This art has little in common with money. The woman whose resources are limited has no more cause for being dowdily dressed than the woman who is rich has reason to believe that she is beautifully gowned..the woman of average means, simply because she is actually forced to think about her wardrobe, is more apt to realize what is suitable to her and what is not. She learns how to choose and what to select. She learns the art of dressing well..Taste is by no means developed by riches; on the contrary, the increasing demands of luxury are killing the art of dressing. Luxury and taste are in inverse proportion to each other..curiously enough, women fear being called original or individual, but never hesitate to make fools of themselves in following the latest fashion. A woman will submit to any torture, any ridicule, if she believes she is worshiping the absurd goddess Fashion..Choose whatever is most in harmony with your character. A dress can be the expression of a state of mind of you try to make it so..”
Poiret closed by giving his female reader a list of rules to follow, emphasizing “decorum,” what was his final word. In 1914, it is hard to imagine what decorum meant, especially when one considers the immense changes that happened less than ten years later. Poiret, who would be irrelevant by 1924, was writing to an audience unusual to him: the middle class woman who shopped in department stores, but the time would come when these women would be listening to a different voice.