Sunday, 20 July 2014

Fashion as Empowerment

One of the many blogs I follow is that of the Smithsonian for its updates on natural wonders, medical marvels and historical discoveries through archaeology and research. Recently though I was pleasantly surprised to find that my own personal area of interest was under the limelight.

The article was 'Artwork Culled From the Collections Proves That No One Will Ever Be As Fashionable As the French: This collection of early 20th-century fashion plates reveal how women used their wardrobe for empowerment' and while it wasn't Napoleonic fashion, it was still historical fashion looking at fashion plates as a primary source.

The article looks at a series of elegant  fashion plates sketched by George Barbier and published in the Parisian magazine 'Journal des Dames et des Modes' between 1912 and 1914. They are beautiful plates, for their bright bold colours and styles depicting the change away from the S-silhouette and pastels of the Edwardian era, to a more streamlined fashion with a higher waistline, situated just under the bust, however it feels as though the author has missed a connection which would serve to add another dimension to the story of these plates.

Journal des Dames et des Modes was a Parisian magazine that ran between 1912 and 1914 but the early 20th century was not the time of the advent of the Parisian fashion magazine and particularly not the advent of this journal. What Amy Henderson does not mention was that the early 20th century just saw the revival of Journal des Dames et des Modes and the incorporated Costumes Parisiens, the fashion plates published therein.

The original Journal des Dames et des Modes was published between 1790 and 1839 with a small hiatus during the Reign of Terror, with each edition containing the coloured fashion plates that would be mimicked so exactly 100 years later.

Each plate contains the date in the top left corner, Costume Parisien top centre, and the plate number in the top right corner. Beneath the illustration is a small caption describing the chief fashion article within.

The reason for this mimicking may have been that the fashions in the prewar years resembled those of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era more closely that they did any other period in recent history; in the intermin, fashion had adopted the leg of mutton sleeves, the crinoline, the bustle and the S-silhouette to mention a few, while the years before the French Revolution had seen the paniers, all constructions that dramatically altered the shape of a woman's figure. 

Aside from the bright colours and suggestive poses of the women depicted, one of the chief differences between the original plates and the revivals may be that the original plates did not depict idealised or extreme fashions from haute couture designers who hoped to see their creations worn by the elite of Paris. The original Costume Parisien plates depicted fashions that were already being worn on the street: wardrobes that women were using to gain empowerment. 

Unfortunately, although Henderson mentioned it in the byline of her article, she fails to elucidate on what she defines as empowerment, and just how these revival "fashion plates reveal how women used their wardrobe for empowerment". Subsequently, though the title promised so much, the article becomes in some ways just an advert for an exhibition at the Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library, and replicas of the revival fashion plates on sale through the Smithsonian.

While I was disappointed at the omission, I was pleased that although it was not mentioned, Henderson's statement was actually entirely accurate, even if she was referring to the wrong set of plates. In the early days of the French Revolution when the social and political structures were ripped out from beneath their feet and French women could no longer use their social position or ties with men of note to define their place in the hierarchy of the French people, they turned to their clothes to reclaim the power they still expected to wield.

While the revival Costume Parisien plates "depict opulent fabrics, bold patterns and rich embroidery in crepes, and silks, and exotic plumage", in the early years of the French Revolution these were regarded as a sign of one's wealth and associations with the old aristocracy and were more likely to result in the loss of one's head than in the gaining of any form of power. Instead women had to resort to other elements of fashion to achieve their desired empowerment.

One of the reasons why the original Costume Parisien plates are so dull in comparison to the brighter revival ones is that the use of white linens and cottons was one of the ways women achieved this empowerment. White is a hard colour to maintain, even today, and white trains even more so, particularly in the days before proper sewerage and when the main mode of transport involved horses and unsealed roads. As a result, a woman's ability to remain in diaphanous white trains indicated a wealth that enabled her to be driven everywhere as opposed to walking through the dirty streets (owning and maintaining a carriage and stables), have her clothes washed properly (by servants), and having the wealth to be able to replace these white dresses with newer whiter dresses when desired. 

White empire-line gowns also replicated the clean sinuous lines of the classical statuary that had undergone a revival and represented the Roman Republic that was an inspiration for the new emerging France.

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