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Whenever I embark on a new project, the clothing historian in me can’t help but do a survey of all the available evidence. Even when I am making an exact replica of a particular garment, it is well to look at other gowns of similar type to get a good idea of the gown’s context. It is also a good idea to look at the styles that preceded and followed the style of the gown in question. You cannot analyze an object in a vacuum. Studying what came before it and after it helps put it in context and makes it easier to understand. This way we don’t just make slavish replicas of the gowns we study. We also learn a lot about the culture that produced the gown and the people who wore them.
I won’t lie to you. Next only to wearing the finished gown, this preliminary analysis is my favourite part of making a garment. I love getting my hands dirty with every tidbit I can find that relates to the garment in question.
So please indulge me.
The gown in question comes at the very end of the reign of Edward VII, called “The Edwardian Period”. But it is not indicative of Edwardian fashion. The Edwardian silhouette is typified by the right-most figure in the corset advertisement at right. The S-curve corset of the time pushed the bust forward and the backside out until women looked like they were perpetually falling forward. Interestingly, this type of corset was first introduced as a health corset, but it was in fact more harmful than previous corsets because it misaligned the lumbar spine.
Then along came Poiret.
Paul Poiret started his career in 1898 with Paris designer Jacques Doucet but quickly moved on to that bastion of Victorian and Edwardian fashion masterpieces, the House of Worth. Worth’s son, Gaston, called Poiret’s designs the “fried potatoes,” implying that they were mere simplistic foils to make his amazing “truffles” appear even more astounding. But the truth is the Poiret was an innovator and the fashion world was ready for a change.
Taking his inspiration from the Orientalist costumes of the Ballet Russes and Japanese kimono designs, Poiret “freed the bust but shackled the legs” by discarding the corset and reducing the skirt to a columnar sheath later known as the hobble skirt.
As with all things, fashion changes are rarely as radical as they first seem. And Poiret wasn’t so much an innovator than a master marketer who took credit for a fashion shift that was already happening. Put quite simply, the corset had progressed to its natural extreme and the pendulum was ready to swing back again. If one looks carefully at the gowns that preceded Poiret’s “revolutionary” designs, the movement away from the S-curve and umbrella skirt is already apparent.
A wonderful example of this style is shown in the photo at right (© The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama). It is accession number AC2388 79-20 at the Kyoto Costume Institute and can be seen on their website as well as in the book Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th century. This is a ivory silk satin gown with silk tulle embroidered and beaded overlay. It was made by Poiret in 1910. I chose this example because it bears a striking resemblance to the dress I’m making. It also shows very clearly a number of features that I am finding in all the gowns I surveyed for this project.
First of all, all of the gowns begin with a silk satin base. With shocking regularity, the colour is ivory, but other colours are also possible. This base consists of a smooth columnar skirt in three pieces (one front and two backs) with a center back closing. Some of the gowns are floor length and other have trains. The trained gowns simply extend the back panel, sometimes leaving the seam open a short distance from the floor. Others have additional pieces of the same size but longer than the back panel sewn on at the waist and left to flow loosely from the level of the thighs.
The bodice of this base often does not have sleeves of its own but only shoulder straps. Some have no shoulder strap. A typical number of bodice pieces is ten — two fronts, two side fronts, two sides, two side backs and two backs. There are 6″ long bones sewn to each seam at the level of the waist. The waist is elevated, but as often as not, the bottom of the bodice extends a couple of inches below the waist of the skirts, presumably to preserve an attractive line. The bodice hooks at center back and the gown could be worn without a corset.
Paul Poiret gets credit for throwing away the corset, but this truth is that many of his customers still wore corsets with his gowns. This new style of corset started at or below the bust, emphasizing control of the hips, not restriction of the waist. They were more like girdles than what we think of as corsets, their “work” being focused on maintaining a smooth hipline. In fact many of the gowns of this type that survive have waist measurements comparable to modern sizes demonstrating a step away from the obsession with waists in the teen measurements.
This pair of similar but different dresses shown at right were designed circa 1911 by Jeanne Lanvin (© The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Takashi Hatakeyama). They are both built on the same kind of base as the Poiret dress above and my inspiration dress from the London Museum. The other element that all these dresses have in common is their materials. The base is nearly always silk satin, as I’ve mentioned above. The overlay is equally invariably silk net, chiffon or lace — some diaphanous and fragile fabric — decorated with beads, jewels, embroidery, sequins, and other embellishments. Following the example of Poiret — who is credited with steering the fashion industry away from drafting and towards draping — the overdresses are arranged on the gown base and sewn into place.
It all boils down to the gown base forming a kind of canvas upon which the designer was more or less free to exert his or her creativity. The goal was to drape a tunic-length overlay of delicate material in an unusual way and then embellish it to taste. Lead weights were often sewn into the hems of these overlays to keep them from billowing. Tassels, asymmetry, drapery and swags all played their parts in these designs. The typical sleeve was kimono-style — seamless. And when the draping and decoration was finished, the overlay was sewn into the back opening of the gown so the separate layers would become one.
So this is where we begin — with a satin gown base consisting of boned bodice and simple skirt, over which I’ll drape organza and embellish it with silver paillettes.
Tomorrow… Getting down to work!
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction c1860-1940. 1977: Macmillian Publishers Ltd., London.
Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914. 1996: National Trust Enterprises Limited, London.
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion. 1987: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail 1730-1930. 1997: Costume and Fashion Press, New York.
Kirke, Betty. Madeleine Vionnet. 1998: Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, California.
Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton. “Paul Poiret (1879-1944)” — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Rothstein, Natalie, ed. Four Hundred Years of Fashion. 1999: V&A Productions, London.
Waugh, Norah. Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930. 1964: Routledge, New York.