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Women in Fashion Between the Wars

By Emily Arbuckle

The years between the two world wars may have been the most prolific era for women fashion designers in the whole of the 20th century. Names like Jeanne Lanvin and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel rose to prominence in the Art Deco years and 100 years later are still regarded with recognition and admiration. While many of the most sought-after fashion houses in previous eras had been run by men, throughout the 1920s and 30s women grabbed the reins, and the history of fashion in this period can be readily viewed through the lens of their work.


The women’s fashion that defines this period resulted from a less confining silhouette popularized in the decades leading up to the 1920s. Designers deeply influenced by the Ballets Russes and “orientalism” frequently used sumptuous fabrics and rich colors, but the new shapes are where we truly begin to see a more modern woman take form. Although male designer Paul Poiret often gets credit for freeing women from the corset, women designers such as Lady Duff Gordon, Madeleine Vionnet, and Jeanne Paquin were also on the forefront of this more unconfined fashion movement of the 1910s.

During these years, straighter lines and light, romantic, flowing fabrics ended the reign of the exaggerated S-curve look popularized by the Gibson girl aesthetic. Waistlines rose to just below the bust, a silhouette known as the Empire waist, and hemlines rose to the ankles. These changes in aesthetic laid the groundwork for the trends we associate with the 1920s and 30s, and many women were leading the charge. 


One such designer was Lady Duff Gordon, whose fashion house, Lucile, was based in London. At the start of the 1910s Lucile had already adopted the high waistline for her designs and would use draped fabric for a romantic silhouette.

Gordon also gave names to many of her dresses and was not afraid of infusing a little sexuality, going so far as naming one of her designs “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied.” The designer herself was no stranger to scandal; Lady Duff Gordon, a survivor of the Titanic, found herself seated in the infamous first lifeboat, which left with only twelve passengers even though it was built for forty. 


George Barbier (Artist). The Fountain of shells. Evening gown by Paquin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 3. March 1914. Plate 27. TT500.G35.1914.3.27.


George Barbier. In the garden of Hesperides. Tailored suit for autumn by Paquin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 11. September 1913. Plate IV. TT500.G35.1913.09.4.


George Barbier. Vichy (II) or The Puppet Game. Creations by (left to right): Callot, Jenny, Paquin, Martial et Armand, Callot, Doeuillet, Lanvin, Lanvin, Paquin, Lanvin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 8-9. Summer 1915. Plate 3. TT500.G35.1915.8-9.3.

Much like Lucile, Madeleine Vionnet’s designs relied on draping fabric directly onto a model, a technique she mastered during her time at another woman-led fashion house, Callot Soeurs. In 1912, after years of working for other designers, Vionnet opened her own atelier, which unfortunately had to close in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. While Lady Duff Gordon left Lucile Ltd. by the mid-20s, Madeleine Vionnet reopened in 1919 and became a mainstay of the fashion industry through the 20s and 30s. Vionnet was known for her technical skill and craftsmanship in construction. While many designers would work more off the concept rather than the construction, Madeleine Vionnet spent years working in a variety of couture houses honing her skills. She is best remembered for the advent of the bias-cut dress. This technique cuts fabric diagonally, allowing it to drape in a manner that follows the body's contours without the need for other fitting techniques, such as darts. The bias-cut would be used heavily throughout the Art Deco years and beyond. 


Many other female woman designers of previous decades continued to set trends after the war. In 1913 Jeanne Paquin became the first woman to receive the Legion d’Honneur in recognition of her contributions to the economy of France. Paquin had a practical element to her work, promoting comfort alongside beauty, which allowed her to push fashion toward modernity, and to remain relevant well into the 20s.


Charles Martin. The Garden Rose. Dresses by Jeanne Lanvin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 7. Year 1922. Plate 55. TT500.G35.1922.1.55. 


Madeleine Rueg. The closed door. Evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 3. Year 1924-1925. Plate 18. TT500.G35.19241925.18. 

Besides her status as the first major couturière, Paquin was also known as a fashion icon in her own right. Her success and celebrity set the stage for other designers, like Gabrielle Chanel, to make a name for themselves as both couturières and style icons. Chanel started out designing hats after receiving requests from women who coveted the styles she had made for herself. In 1913 she opened a new shop selling her fashion designs, proving that she could do more than millinery. The utility and understated style of her pieces made them especially attractive to clients during wartime, and her popularity continued to grow into the 1920s. Chanel’s simpler designs, which look classic in today’s context, were quite modern for the time. 

One of the most notable fashion trends in the 1920s was la garçonne, known to many as the flapper look. This aesthetic favored youth and comfort over more ostentatious designs of the past. La garçonne (which loosely translates as “the boyish woman”) often dressed in androgynous styles or looks suggesting sportswear, displaying the more active lifestyle women led in the years following the war.

Chanel, who at the helm of this movement often wore and designed menswear-inspired looks, was fond of using jersey fabric in her designs, and for years wore the short hairdo associated with the 1920s. Though Chanel's is the most common name to arise when discussing la garçonne, she certainly was not the only woman fashion designer promoting this style. 


Women designers continued to dominate the fashion industry throughout the 1920s. At the 1925 Paris Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, the namesake of Art Deco, a number of the exhibitors in the fashion pavilion were woman-led houses. Lanvin, Paquin, Cheruit, Callot Soeurs, and Jenny, to name a few, exhibited there to much acclaim. One of the exhibitors who had a large impact was the artist Sonia Delaunay. 

Delaunay was a designer and painter who, along with her husband, Robert Delaunay, pioneered the art movement called Orphism, a term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire—the poet, art critic, and friend to the Delaunays—to describe the couple’s version of Cubism. Delaunay’s textiles, much like her paintings, featured bold colors and geometric patterns referring to her Ukrainian and Russian upbringing as well as the Cubist movement then revolutionizing modern painting. Delaunay titled her display at the 1925 Exposition “Boutique Simultané.” She had often described her paintings as “simultaneous contrasts” to describe her use of color and would come to describe her fashion similarly. Photographic evidence suggests that Delaunay’s dresses also had some of the shortest hemlines on display at the Exposition. Her clothing was popular not only because of her painterly perspective but also because of her designs' modern silhouettes. Her clothing was popular not only because of her painterly perspective but also because of her designs' modern silhouettes.


Delaunay’s work shows how closely tied fine arts and fashion had become, a union further evidenced in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian designer who rose to fame in the second half of the 1920s. In 1927 Schiaparelli debuted her Trompe L'Oeil sweater, which featured a bow design woven into the sweater to appear like a collar. This design became one of her most famous, along with her collaborations with artist Salvador Dalí, who often worked with Schiaparelli to bring surrealist elements to her garments.


 J. Dory. Creation by Jenny. Les Idees Nouvelles de la Mode. Number 5. Plate 14. 1925. TT500.I3.1925.5.14. 

Schiaparelli’s playful designs contrasted starkly with her rival Coco Chanel’s little black dresses and boyish cuts. In a 1931 New Yorker article, Janet Flanner wrote about Chanel, “She says the only fabrics which take color perfectly are wool and cotton, especially cheap cotton—one of the many professional views held by her which have pained her rivals.” While Chanel’s practicality is what set her apart, Schiaparelli’s eccentricity was her calling card. Besides partnering with Dalí, Schiaparelli hired many surrealist artists, including Méret Oppenheim and Jean Cocteau, to design accessories for her. Schiaparelli truly considered fashion an art form; witness her witty and colorful designs.

Many designers saw their ateliers close with the onset of World War II. Chanel closed her doors in 1939 and wouldn’t reopen until 1954. Vionnet also closed in 1939. Schiaparelli, while not shuttering her business, was forced to flee France and move to New York temporarily. 


Artist unknown. Creation by Chéruit. In the countryside. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Number 5. 1925. TT500.T7.1925.5.9.


Artist unknown. Creation by Lucile. TOP: Amethyst. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Number 11. 1923. TT500.T7.1923.11.9.


Artist unknown. Creations by Schiaparelli. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Plate 12. May 1933. TT500.T7.1933.05.12.


Artist unknown. Creations by Chanel. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Plate 7. May 1933. TT500.T7.1933.05.7.

When it came to successful and innovative woman fashion designers, it might seem the baton was passed from Paris to New York in the 1940s. But even during the Great Depression American women had made names for themselves in fashion designs. 


Muriel King began her career as an illustrator for fashion magazines and department stores. When she began designing her own clothes, King used her skill not as a dressmaker but as an illustrator. At the urging of friends she began her own business and by 1932 had opened her couture salon in New York, which would thrive even during the depths of the Depression. Thanks to her career as an illustrator, the detail in her sketches allowed the dressmakers she employed to understand the intention in her designs. In 1935 King began designing for Hollywood films, as did many American and European designers of the time. Thanks to the international reach of Hollywood, the film industry would significantly bolster the attention paid to Americans in the realm of fashion.


While there were successful American woman designers before World War II, attention turned to them even more when women in the United States could no longer obtain French fashions because of the German occupation of Paris. The American designer Claire McCardell found success in the late 1930s and gained in popularity throughout the war, much as Chanel had during World War I. McCardell will be forever associated with the pioneering of American sportswear. Bonnie Cashin and Tina Leser earned their acclaim after the war and remained successful well into the middle of the twentieth century. Although many of the most idolized designers of the post-World War II years were men like Christian Dior and Jacques Fath, the American fashion industry and its women designers had finally gained some well-deserved recognition.


The years leading up to and between the World Wars—a golden age for women fashion designers—brought some of the most iconic styles in the history of fashion, along with some of the most outrageous personalities. While many well-regarded men also worked in fashion, during this period it is the women who captivated audiences and gained celebrity. Women will always have an important place at the table in any era of fashion history, but there was something truly special about the reign of women during the Art Deco period that remains unrivaled. 

About the Author:

Emily Arbuckle serves as the Curator of Rare Books and Journals at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Library’s Unit of Special Collections and College Archives. She has been a Special Collections Associate with FIT since 2016 and previously worked in a number of fashion- and arts- related archives. She holds a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from Pratt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Art and Architecture from DePaul University.


All Photos: Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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