Fashion and Modernity

Fashion and Modernity

Chanel’s collaboration with the Parisian artistic avant garde had been much more successful. As early as 1922 she worked with Jean Codeau, Picasso and the composer Arthur Honegger on a production of the classical Greek play Antigone; and from 1923 to 1927 she worked with Sergei Diaghilev and Codeau on ballet designs.

For the first of their joint works, Le Train Bleu, a fantasy about the Riviera, the dancers were costumed in bathing suits, pullovers and tennis or golf shoes, and the leading female role was a tennis player. So fashion, sport and the artistic avant-garde united to celebrate the modernity of modem life, and Chanel’s little black dress (American Vogue called it the “Ford of fashion”) became the epitome of modernist style.

The modernist movement in art transcended both national boundaries and those of artistic form, influencing all the arts from architecture to the novel. Visually, it was the embodiment of the ideal of speed, science and the machine. It was a love affair with a rationalist, utopian future, and in architecture and design this led to an ascetic functionalism that considered houses and flats as machines for living, fumiture and household artefacts as items for use, not ornament, and even human beings as machines.

More than almost any other aspect of mass culture, high fashion acted as a conduit for this esthetic, translating it into a popular language of pared-down design and understated chic. In architecture, the Bauhaus movement created buildings that used glass to reveal the inner workings of the design. They stripped away the superfluous ornament that had cluttered 19th-century architecture with what was now regarded as the sentimental idealization of a past recreated in pastiche.

In dress, too, the watchword was now functionalism; clothing was simply an envelope for the body, which it impeded as little as possible. If there was to be adornment of any kind, it was to be of the art deco variety. Art deco was so called after the Exhibition des Arts Decoratifs, held in Paris in 1925. This exhibition had in a sense inaugurated the idea of a lifestyle, though the expression was not then used. It included a Pavilion of Elegance, in which the fashion designs of Chanel and Poiret, among others, were displayed. They complemented the furniture, ceramics and architecture – throughout, the few ornamental motifs and bright colors permitted were definite, clean-cut and jazzy.

In literature and painting, part of the modernism of modem art had been that the work of art interrogated its own intentions and questioned its own form. Perhaps what Cecil Beaton was to describe as the “nihilism” of the Chanel look was modernist too: it not only mocked the vulgarity of conspicuous consumption but, in inventing a look that was universal, international and reduced to the minimum, it almost sought to abolish fashion itself, creating instead a classic look that defied the one essential of fashion – change. At the same time the geometric, angular design of women’s clothing imitated the clean, spare lines of modern abstract art and design. Woman was no longer treated as a voluptuous animal; she had become a futurist machine.

Fashion thus disseminated the new esthetic of the modernist avant garde across two continents, and radically altered the way in which erotic beauty was conceived. Fashion became, superfiicially at least, classIess, and the great thing for a woman was no longer to look grand, but simply to look modem.

For the first time the New World and the Old engaged in a mutual cultural exchange of style and imagery. Although Paris stillled the way, the vamps and innocents of Hollywood – Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks constructed new tastes in beauty, while the “lost generation” of American expatriates settled in Paris and the south of France. Some of these hoped to create a new art and a literature that would reflect the often excessive and even tragic pleasure-seeking of the postwar generation.

Emest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and many others tried to be as well as to describe a modern breed of sexually free beings, women and men whose minds, hearts and bodies were as untrammeled by traditional nations of morality as their bodies were by constricting clothes. Fitzgerald’s characters “discovered” the Riviera in summer until then it had been only a winter resort – and the suntan became another sign of working-class toil to migrate up the social scale. It became the status symbol of the globetrotter, who need never work and whose wealth permitted this inversion of established tastes. Society ladies took care to become brown as navvies, and Fitzgerald’ s heroine wore only pearls and a low-backed white bathing suit to set off her iodine-colored skin as she lay on the Mediterranean sands.

Chanel Creations: Fashion for the Wealthy

Chanel Creations: Fashion for the Wealthy

At this period Chanel’s designs were for the leisured rich, the new international set who traveled Europe and the United States in a restless search for seasonal diversions; and the irony of her fashions was that she gave the richest women in the world a look that was indistinguishable from that of a shop girl or office worker.

Dressed in this ultra-chic “poor look” – in a sirnple black dress either with a demure white Peter Pan collar, or, more likely, completely unadomed – the society women who affected it paid everything for a fashion that looked like nothing and reduced women’ s dress to a minimalist uniform of understatement. Chanel even designed necklaces of uncut diamonds and emeralds that looked as though they were made of common glass.

This, then, was an inversion of values in the so-called democratic century. Dress was no longer a matter of direct display; instead, fashion adopted the language of the streets and of the common man (man, not woman, for both sexes). Chanel flung a trenchcoat around her shoulders and it became the latest thing; jersey, corduroy and tweed, once used to make only workmen’s or country clothes, were transformed into high fashion. The concept of casual wear was born.

By this time high fashion was an international movement. Paul Poiret had already toured the United States, where he had been horrified to find his exclusive designs pirated everywhere. By 1930 Seventh Avenue (the New York City garment district) was adapting Chanel’s designs for the mass market – and their sirnpIicity meant that they were highly suitable for mass production.

In the following year Chanel was invited to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn. The “poor girI” look that Chanel had made her own was similar to that popularized by Louise Brooks on the screen, where she played ordinary city girls, “good sorts” and tomboys. Goldwyn invited Chanel to dress his stars because she was the most prestigious of all dress designers, but as it turned out her designs were too understated for Hollywood. After designing Gloria Swanson’ s wardrobe for Tonight or Neuer (1931) she retumed to Paris, unenthralled by the celluloid capital, which in tum had no use for her Iittle-or-nothing clothes.

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The New Woman and the Twenties

The New Woman and the Twenties

The twenties likewise saw a form of art, music–that Britain for two centuries had chiefly regarded as an alien importation from the Continent–at length achieving a new status, as major native composers awakened the interest of an alert and educated public. Although the fashions gaining ground before World War I prefigured the “modernism” of the 1920s, it was only in the hedonism and boom atmosphere of the Jazz Age that the revolution in women’ s dothing begun before 1914 was finally accomplished.

In England, the decade of the 1920’s was characterized by an extraordinary deprovincializing of cultural life. No longer did Britain seem so separated from the Continent as it had once been; no longer were the British themselves so satisfied with their traditional island ways. Now they were much more ready to learn from the French and the Germans, the Russians and the Austrians.

The wartime experience of young European women from the middle and upper classes in situations where they could no longer constantly be chaperoned, and the casualty toll that devastated a whole generation of young men, meant that with the dawn of the 1920s a new kind of single woman – independent, self-sufficient, adventurous – stepped on to the social stage.

About the time of the World War I, Fifth Avenue became the country’s leading fashion center: the Fifth Avenue label represented the best in American taste. World War I had also expanded employment opportunities for women in the affected nations. Women munitions workers, better paid than working-class women had ever been, appeared on the streets wearing makeup and dressed in seal and musquash fur coats. The mutilations caused by the war itself advanced plastic surgery, and indirectly promoted makeup as well.

In the 19th century painters had arranged their female sitters in static poses in gorgeously elaborate plumage; the wives and daughters of rich men almost became luxury objects to be looked at. By the 1920s a more typical fashion image was the photograph, which captured the model as she sprang across a puddle in the street, or disported herself in a bathing suit or at the races.

The fashionable woman of the 1920s was associated with speed, daring and travel. Movement was the key to the new fashions. In a few short years, from being enveloped in yards of material that was buttoned, laced and hooked to swaddle and constrain, women’s bodies were set free in the simplest of shifts that left arms, legs and necks shockingly bare, while hair was cropped and brilliantined. Faces, by contrast, were openly and brightly painted. Women smoked, drank, swore and made love in a manner that would have ruined their reputations 30 years earlier.

The influence of sportswear on fashion was even more obvious at this period than before World War I, Suzanne Lenglen, the dynamic French tennis star of the twenties, was dressed both on and off the court by Jean Patou, and her ordinary dothes looked hardly different from her on-court outfits. Brief pleated skirts, thin stockings, simple strap or laced shoes, a long straight cardigan and plain shirt was one version of the new unifonn for women.

Among the fashion designers, more influential even than Patou or Mmes. Vionnet and Lanvin, who revolutionized the cut of clothing (Madame Vionnet invented the bias cut) was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Her designs dominated the fashion esthetic of the decade, but her work also bridged the prewar and postwar epochs, for she had already been experimenting with sports designs and materials before 1914.

She, like Redfems, had sensed the possibilities of women’s riding wear, but she went much farther. She seized upon materials previously used only for male sporting garb and underwear – locknit, jersey and grey flannel – as a revolutionary new medium for her designs. By 1913 she was devising cardigans and sweaters (until then wom only by fishermen and agricultural laborers) as fashion garments, and by the 1920s she had created an entirely new mode: she replaced the gorgeous colors and yards of silk with beige cashmere, black wool crepe and men’s suitings.

Next Page: Chanel Creations: Simple Fashions for the Wealthy

The Jazz Age

The Jazz Age

Paul Whiteman Enters American Scene

As the war overtook the United States, a significant economic struggle surfaced in musical entertainment. In the 1920s appropriation and assirnilation of black culture continued; the blandness of Whiteman’s music seemed more comfortable, staking out a neutral ground amid the furore. We have seen Whiteman deliver the music of his day from the ignominious rôle of obsequious hanger-on of the fashionable world and make it a universal thing.

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Prohibition and the Jazz Age

When threats from these quarters were added to a storm of disapproval aroused by the revelation of a number of scandals at Hollywood, the motion-picture industry in some trepidation summoned to the rescue Will H. Hays, a politician high in the councils of the Republican party.

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Jazz: I Was Born with Music Inside Me

Jazz owes much to the district where George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin started their careers. The wise-cracking brand of humor, and much language which has become part of popular speech, have roots in the Lower East Side. Such expressions as gabfest, plunderbund, it listens well, bum, dumb (in the sense of stupid), come from the Germans; the Jews have given words like kibitzer, kosher, mazuma, phooey; and the Irish, shillelagh, smithereens, ballyhoo, and shehang.

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Jazz, Blues and Black Audience

Black blues singers emerged in the early twentieth century as popular and powerful celebrities. They were urban, secular singers who turned their rich experiences into social lessons for their audiences. They were usually bolder than white women singers. Performing before exclusively black audiences, they discussed sexual disappointments and the failures of love with great candor.

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White Popular Music

The opening of the Metropolitan, for all its importance in the world of music and drama, illustrated even more vividly than any formal dinner or fancy-dress ball society’s irresistible impulse to make its amusements an occasion to flaunt its wealth. For true music-lovers of the 1880’s the operas currently being given at the Academy of Music fully met all artistic standards.

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The New Woman and the Twenties

The twenties likewise saw a form of art, music–that Britain for two centuries had chiefly regarded as an alien importation from the Continent–at length achieving a new status, as major native composers awakened the interest of an alert and educated public. Although the fashions gaining ground before World War I prefigured the “modernism” of the 1920s, it was only in the hedonism and boom atmosphere of the Jazz Age that the revolution in women’ s dothing begun before 1914 was finally accomplished.

Read the Article

Chanel Creations

At this period Chanel’ s designs were for the leisured rich, the new international set who traveled Europe and the United States in a restless search for seasonal diversions; and the irony of her fashions was that she gave the richest women in the world a look that was indistinguishable from that of a shop girl or office worker. Dressed in this ultra-chic “poor look” – in a sirnple black dress either with a demure white Peter Pan collar, or, more likely, completely unadomed – the society women who affected it paid everything for a fashion that looked like…

Read the Article

Fashion and Modernity

Chanel’s collaboration with the Parisian artistic avant garde had been much more successful. As early as 1922 she worked with Jean Codeau, Picasso and the composer Arthur Honegger on a production of the classical Greek play Antigone; and from 1923 to 1927 she worked with Sergei Diaghilev and Codeau on ballet designs.

For the first of their joint works, Le Train Bleu, a fantasy about the Riviera, the dancers were costumed in bathing suits, pullovers and tennis or golf shoes, and the leading female role was a tennis player. So fashion, sport and the artistic avant-garde united to celebrate the modernity of modem life, and Chanel’s little black dress (American Vogue called it the “Ford of fashion”) became the epitome of modernist style.

Read the Article

White Popular Music

Nancy Cunard - White Popular Music

The opening of the Metropolitan, for all its importance in the world of music and drama, illustrated even more vividly than any formal dinner or fancy-dress ball society’s irresistible impulse to make its amusements an occasion to flaunt its wealth. For true music-lovers of the 1880’s the operas currently being given at the Academy of Music fully met all artistic standards.

The sole difficulty was that while there was plenty of available room at these performances in orchestra and galleries, every box at the Academy was taken for the season. And society had made an opera box one of the hall-marks of social success. The Metropolitan was built not in response to a demand for music, but to meet this need for fashionable display.

This did not mean that the Metropolitan did not uphold the highest standards of operatic art. It did. Italian operas were staged during its first season, and musical history was made when German music and the Wagnerian operas were given the Metropolitan’s formal approval in 1884. The company made an annual post-season tour, visiting Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington.. The world of society in these cities had its opportunity to emulate that of New York. Grand opera took its place, despite a sprinkling of more humble musiclovers in the upper galleries, as one of the most exclusive and fashionable of all diversions.

The white audience was also far from homogeneous. “Hillbilly” music began to be recorded in 1923, and again surprised the record industry by showing that there was a market for the distinctive regional styles of white America. The music of non-English language groups also began to be recorded. The social effects of these developments were complex, but the hostility of the poorer, often fundamentalist rural communities to urban culture was to some extent deflected by this opportunity to become consumers of their own vernacular culture in mass-produced form.

It was through recordings that each social group acquired a public voice, which was both used within the group and also formed part of alarger pattern of cultural communication, of a type not known before. Marketing policies aimed particular products at particular audiences, so wider familiarity with the different musical styles would never have taken place if records had been the only means of communication. It was through radio, broadcasting “music in the night, every night, everywhere” and recognizing few barriers, that music of different kinds reached new audiences. The staple fare of radio was provided by the dance orchestras of Vincent Lapez, Guy Lombardo and others who could be relied on to behave respectably in the nation’ s homes.

The studio band system on which radio depended in effect excluded black musicians, but the practice gradually grew of plaeing “radio wires” in certain New York nightspots. in this way a few black bands were provided with a much wider exposure and areas of America were given their first taste of a black jazz band, and something of the accompanying thrill. In areas where “hillbilly” music was popular, radio stations began to broadcast non-networked “barn dance” programs featuring fiddlers and string bands.

The safer experience s offered by the white dance bands and vocalists remained popular. However, before the end of the decade outright opposition to new styles of popular music had modified considerably, principally because bands such as Paul Whiteman’ s succeeded in convincing the public – if not the various custodians – that with its mare “offensive” and “raucous” elements removed the music was no longer a threat.

Whiteman had been as irritated as anyone by traditionalist opposition, but his response had been to seek a compromise. By blending techniques derived from classical music (especially in scoring), he sought to show that same of the wellknown morally uplifting qualities of that music had been absorbed. He wanted his music to be thought of as “art”.

It was to be an art that depended on the successful incarporation of “native” American elements, but the effect, at least superficially, was rather different. Greater rhythmic freedom, individualistic sound, the hint of bodily emancipation – these qualities were still controlled by pre-regulated harmony and rhythm. The question that lurked beneath the surface, however, was whether these new elements could ever be truly assimilated or whether they would refuse to shed their identity or their power to challenge.

Next Page: The New Woman and the Twenties