Early Fashions and the Evolution of the Mode

To many a reader it will come as a surprise to learn that fashion, as we know it to-day, came into being so recently in the world's history as the middle of the nineteenth century. How, one wonders, did womenkind of earlier days express their individuality, charm their friends, outrival their dearest enemies?

It is true, of course, that throughout the ages there has been an amazing and fascinating sequence of garments, associated in turn with the beauties of different countries and successive epochs — a bewildering series of creations, simple and complicated, graceful and grotesque, beautiful and (from to-day's viewpoint) disastrously ugly. But each was much more the expression of the communal taste of its day than of an individuality. To-day's triumphant modes, designed to express and emphasize a personality, strike a new note in the symphony.

The Greek chiton and himation were worn in a considerable variety of colours, and at times decorated with many patterns, but their forms were more or less stereotyped, and the choice of materials for their making limited to a very small range. The Roman tunic and dalmatica, similarly, had but little variation in their cut or trimming. The revolutionary changes which spread westward from Byzantium in succeeding centuries were confined to a number of garments which certainly influenced the mode of the times, but onlv in a general sense, quite different from to-day's breathless search for change and novelty. Even the entrancing new materials and outlandish garments brought home by returning Crusaders, as mementoes of their journeyings afar, and to placate and charm their fair ladies so long neglected, created changes which affected practically the whole fashionable world of the time. Similarly, the florid days of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as revealed to us in illuminated manuscripts of that period, are expressed in a series of garments, varied, indeed, but all bearing a strong family resemblance to each other.

In the sixteenth century, the farthingale and stomacher were worn by every lady with any pretensions to position or gentility; and, while a greater variety of materials and ornamentation came into use, the general style of garments had a great sameness over a period of many years, during which the same ideal of elaboration and richness was pursued. Towards the middle of the following century, an affectation of simplicity in ladies' costume came into vogue, in very marked contrast with the ostentatious display which it succeeded; and gradually, from this period of quasi simplicity, there was a return to great detail, under William III and Queen Anne, with the use of brocades, embroideries, laces and ruffles, and a recrudescence of the hooped petticoat and stomacher.

From this time onwards, a much greater degree of latitude is observable, although even then the varieties and variations of fabrics and costume could not compare with the richness of effect, and choice materials, introduced since the genius of Charles Frederick Worth arose on the horizon. This period, culminating in the early Georges, reached a sort of apogee, and, from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, clothes became progressively duller and uglier, and less inspired with the spirit of true elegance, with each decade.

The French Revolution in 1789 had a profound effect upon fashion all over Europe. The major part of that class which had been, hitherto, the exponents of fashion and the sartorial models for cultured society throughout civilization either ceased to exist or fled from France for their lives — for the most part finding refuge only in positions of such comparative obscurity that their taste and elegance no longer exercised any considerable influence in the beau monde. A very interesting side-light on the spirit of the aristocracy of France during these troublous times is revealed by their deliberate adoption, in certain details of their dress, of a kind of elegant parody of the slipshod habiliments of the revolutionary mob. In sardonic and scornful mockery of those who sought to destroy them, the gentlemen of France wore, for example, loose neckcloths, pantaloons left untied at the ankle, less formal hair-dressing (their own hair, unpowdered, instead of perukes), and a dozen other details which cumulatively derided the careless habits of the sansculottes. Their ladies, similarly, not infrequently wore a narrow throatlet of scarlet ribbon (a la guillotine), and a simpler type of easy-fitting hoopless gown, almost suggestive of peasant costume.

The lack of any very positive lead in fashion from France naturally had its influence on English costume; and, coupled with the quiet domesticity of George III and his homely queen, left the appearance of Society in England lamentably undistinguished. In spite of the large amount of fine needlework in embroidery and stitchery, the tout ensemble was on the whole characterless, and often dowdy — with a raised waist line, exaggerated width of shoulders, and clumsy sleeves. These characteristics became even more marked in the early days of Queen Victoria's reign; although an occasional individual here and there manifested an instinct towards elegance.

There was no recovery from the dull and uninteresting days upon which la mode had fallen until about the middle of the nineteenth century. In France, the effects of the Revolution and the solemnity of the Court of Louis Philippe discouraged anything in the nature of that lighthearted enthusiasm which expresses itself joyously in "frills and furbelows"; while on the English side of the Channel there was that drab period which has made "Early Victorian Days" a term of artistic reproach, and a synonym for all that is colourless and uninspired. Although for us there may be the charm of quaintness about Early Victorian dresses, is their sole virtue; and we should find them deplorably tiresome for regular wear nowadays.

The Second Empire, however, brought the beginnings of better things, reviewed briefly in the following chapters. Before passing on to their contemplation, it will be interesting to consider just what is meant by the elusive term "fashion" ; to think how the mode comes into being, the factors which contribute to its creation and to its success; and to discuss the causes which, all too rapidly, bring about the decline and death of man) a triumph — to be followed hot-foot by yet another manifestation of the amazing fecundity of la mode.


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Before attempting to explain how the mode comes into being, it is necessary to advance as a general principle the theory that fashion must be considered as a luxury. Numerous writers, moralists and economists who have studied the matter have demonstrated that luxury is indispensable to the life of peoples. Has it not had a very considerable influence on their power and prosperity, by reason of the creation of numerous industries of all kinds, designed and destined to satisfy its demands? Why must fashion be a luxury? Because if in its first manifestation it were not a luxury it would not be adopted by those in a position to utilize it; for these, being numerically a restricted body of individuals and desiring to distinguish themselves from the crowd by outward signs, would not adopt anything save that which by its price was inaccessible to the mob. Moved, indeed, by the desire (which is at the bottom of every individuall to appear better than they are, and to imitate the habits and manners of their social superiors, the crowd have insisted on the creation of a fashion industry within their means — result, the Magasins de Nouveautes. This very word, nouveaute, characterizes the impatience for changes in the mode with which we are all familiar.

One does not make the mode— one submits to it. Many unpremeditated circumstances may combine to start it — no one can say whence it came. There is no doubt that this or that individuality may give to it, by intelligence or taste, a new impulse. Were it possible to discover its origins, it would be found that different elements, having no connection with one another, had come together at its birth.

As an example — it was not only Lois Fuller, with her coloured lights, who first created the idea of multicoloured materials; but her art gave expression to other tendencies. A succession of facts had prepared the minds of the public for a novelty of which the originality would have seemed, a year previously, to be extraordinary and inadmissible. The work of painters of the then new Impressionist School, the illuminated fountains of the Paris Exposition of 1889, the shadowed stuffs of Chinese and Japanese manufacture, had each contributed their quota. Lois Fuller's achievement was to find a novel and clever method to illuminate her dancing by successive or simultaneous beams of light, either uniform or of a happy diversity harmoniously varied. Her grace as a dancer, and the novelty of her movements, very happily completed the idea which, without this plastic expression, would have had very probably negative results. These graceful nuances, these successions and juxtapositions of brilliant and shining colours, charmed the eyes; it was mentioned every-where as a new and original idea; so that when the manufacturers, themselves influenced by the earlier factors just referred to, put upon the market stuffs which were reminiscent of this seductive play of light they found a public already disposed to adopt them as a great novelty, although the Japanese had used similar materials for ages past.

The mode is a synthesis of ideas — floating and indefinite at first — and co-ordinates itself, when these arrive at maturity, under the influence of many impressions, of which the origin is mostly unknown. One finds again and again in the present-day mode some remnant of that which has immediately preceded it, and the question arises: How is it possible to-day, when the variety of materials is so great, when the possibility of fixing the mode is so uncertain, and when she is subject to the effect, of so numerous and so diverse inspirations — how is it possible to create therein something which shall be directly the opposite of that which continues to be followed by the majority? How, in spite of these difficulties, does the mode take form? That is what we attempt to explain.

More often than not, the first idea, whatever it may be, is regarded in the first place, if not as ridiculous, at least as too daring or likely to attract too much attention. In order that this or that may be approved, it is essential that some well-known lady, whose reputation for elegance is well established, and whose position is such that she can permit herself no matter what innovation, should herself be sufiiciently taken by the idea to consent to express it in her toilette. Let us suppose that the innovation consists in making a robe more bouffante than those which are customary at the time: the position of the lady who agrees to initiate it permitting a certain degree of personal originality, the result, when she appears, is that she finds the grace before the critics — even those who are her friends. That which certainly would have been shocking coming from anyone else is acceptable coming from her. The persons who saw it last night, tomorrow order a similar toilette; but, desiring to go one better — and this is the danger — they force the note. Exaggerating the first idea, of which the proportions were happy, they insist (for example) on an even greater amplitude, and an even more bouffante line; arriving thus rapidly at a caricature of the mode, which in the first place was gracious and elegant. The new form is no longer acceptable to persons of taste, and they must pass on to something else.

Apart from the salons where the mode has its birth in the manner indicated, numerous causes may determine it. The theatre is one of Its most active agents of propagation. An actress of elegance can contribute to an ordinary idea something upon which its originator has not counted. By her personal charm, and above all if her talent is so attuned, she gives to the detail of her costume which constitutes the idea such emphasis that women who admire her seek immediately to imitate it — thinking that by this artifice of the toilette they will each gain her gracious allure!

Hazard plays also a great role in the production of the mode. The following examples support this assertion: Mile, de Fontanges, whose name survives in history to describe a particular form coiffure, was one day out hunting. In the heat of the chase she lost her hat; and, as her hair tumbUng over her face troubled her, she took a ribbon from her bodice and tied up her locks. Seeing her thus, Louis XIV declared that he found her prettier and more charming than ever. It goes without saying that the next day all the ladies of the Court had their hair dressed in the same manner. At the same time, this anecdote of Mile. de Fontanges will serve to demonstrate how a gracious idea may rapidlv lose its original character. We have seen that the idea of this young huntress consisted simply in a single ribbon tied round her head. The same persons who thought well to copy her considered it better to augment, little by little, the numbers of knots of ribbon, and the curls of the original coiffure. Before long, the coiffure a la Fontanges had developed into a high pyramid of hair and ribbons, far from pleasing, which imparted to the face an expression of hardness and stiffness, very different from the simple effect which had charmed Louis XIV.

Another example: It is said that the famous tragedienne, Rachel, received one day a visit from a woman who had experienced reverses of fortune, and came to beg her to buy a piece of yellow stuff. The material did not attract her in the least: her good heart overcame her judgment, however, and she bought the stuff, thinking that she would never be able to use it, at any rate for a dress. Rediscovering it by chance some time later, she thought she might perhaps use it in one of her roles, for which she was not disposed to go to very much expense. The success of this superb artist was once more so great that the admiration of the public extended itself even to her yellow dress. The next day all the women wanted a robe in this colour — naturally a difficult demand to satisfy.

Some years later a lady well known in Paris, passing through the city at the time of the races, was invited to attend them. She had not the time to order a new toilette for the occasion; but being at the same time anxious to appear creditably, her position obliging her to maintain a certain elegance, she had an old black dress remodelled. To enhance her toilette, a friend suggested that she should carry a red umbrella, such as had never been seen before. A lively success for the lady with many — criticisms more lively still from a greater number! Before long, one saw frequent red umbrellas, adopted not only by the dames du monde but by women of all conditions, who could get them in all the shops at a most modest price.

Actresses, as we have said, have always had a great influence on the mode — better than any, they are in a position to make the public attentive to new ideas. Engravings of the period show that, in the time of Louis XIV, women and even men of the corps de ballet wore costumes of an extreme richness; and of each the principal characteristic was that they widened abruptly immediately below the waist. Little by little this peculiarity was exaggerated, and it became necessary to support the skirt with steel hoops, to which was given the name of faniers. This usage remained for a long time limited to the theatre, until, during the reign of Louis XV, an actress, celebrated for her beauty and for the passions which she inspired, excited the jealousy of a grande dame, who, wishing to imitate her in all things, did not hesitate to present herself at Court in a robe a paniers. Its success was so considerable that this mode spread rapidly; and, what is more, it soon became the style which etiquette prescribed for royal receptions. This mode lasted a long time; and if, at the Trianon, for example, at intimate fetes given by Marie Antoinette, it was permitted to dispense with this ceremonial garment, it had to be resumed in all official circumstances.

In 1867 the general custom was still to wear dresses of which the skirts touched the ground. Several tentative attempts had been made to popularize a shorter skirt, but without success. But it was found that the Palace of the Exposition, very much a place of resort for fashionable Society, was very dusty. The trouble of holding up a skirt added considerably to the fatigue of promenade, to which les elegantes were by no means accustomed. Convenience, therefore, soon achieved what fashion had been unable to do; and before long skirts were shortened to about fifteen centimetres from the ground, uncovering the feet of the wearers in a manner which at the time was not considered graceful.

It must not be concluded from these references to chance in the creation of the mode that hazard is the sovereign lord. The changes which occur, on the contrary, are the results of profound study, and frequently of long gropings. The spirit of those who undertake the difficult task of deciding what shall be worn has been directed always towards one end — to find something new. It is this constant preoccupation which keeps alive their intelligence and enables them to evolve, from a detail which might pass unperceived by others, the idea which decides a transformation of costume. To give but one example of the constant attention to the smallest things of ordinary life, which characterizes the alert watch kept by those whose profession it is to determine the new models — it is very interesting to remember that the robe a tunique, which revolutionized the mode under the Empire, was inspired by the sight of a woman of the country busily at work. This good woman, while washing her linen in the river, had turned up her skirt above her petticoat, in order not to get it wet. The silhouette of this peasant was not particularly enthralling; but the superposition of two materials, one of which was tucked up above the other, furnished the first germ of the idea for the graceful form in which this arrangement was adopted, and initiated the simultaneous employment of two tissues, of which the texture and the design, the colouring, and even the trimming could be varied endlessly.

In the latter days of the nineteenth century, woollen costumes were very much in favour. Their popularity was due to a number of causes, among which we may mention the following: First, the fact that a certain depreciation had crept into the quality of silk materials available for the use of devotees of fashion; secondly, the vulgarization of silk by the big stores, who had introduced in great profusion cheapened versions of the stuffs hitherto regarded as wearable exclusively by ladies of distinction. A certain almost universal diminution of incomes also had its influence in bringing about the change, and this coincided with a newly awakened interest in sports, naturally leading to the adoption of costume in the English style, better suited to the new way of life. It is quite clear that when elegant women saw these cheap reproductions of many of the materials which up to then had seemed to be reserved for themselves, and found them worn by people of all classes, they turned the more readily from those things which had thus lost all attraction — the sporting taste in clothes which developed as a welcome alternative was the more acceptable since it offered an opportunity of complying with the necessity for economy. At the same time in England, a country where the mode appeared still to receive its inspiration from royal personages, the aristocracy, led by the Princess of Wales, had decided to wear woollen dresses, with the object of coming to the assistance of the Bradford manufacturers, who suffered at the time (and their workpeople with them) from the effects of excess of production and of lack of export markets for their wares. Yet another factor which had its bearing on the change was the gradual lengthening of the period spent in the country, increasing with every year, by people in easy circumstances — a habit contracted by those ladies who led in the South — and the increasingly short duration of the time spent in Paris by the individuals who ordinarily would have had an influence on the mode.

It is impossible to lay down fixed rules as to the way in which the mode is evolved. The foregoing notes will have made it clear that many factors and circumstances have their share in the creation of fashion, in the exclusive sense here contemplated. We can be more precise, however, as regards the manner in which even the most exclusive styles and personal models are all too readily and rapidly copied and over-popularized, through the medium of the infinity of fashion journals which have sprung into existence of late years. Apart from the numerous magazines devoted entirely to fashion and its vagaries, almost every newspaper has its regular column of fashion notes. Theatrical "first nights," and many other social functions, play their part in disseminating knowledge of the "very latest thing"; and this is passed on to an ever increasing circle by press accounts published the next morning.

Exclusiveness thus becomes the very soul and essence of dressing as a fine art, and the labours of the artist creator more and more indispensable to a woman of real taste. Who shall say that the works of the inspired dress artist are not perhaps even more vital to expression of the spirit of the age in which he lives than those of another creative craftsman, be he painter or sculptor?

A History of Feminine Fashion.
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