British Couture vs. Paris Couture
It has always been accepted that Paris was and still is the centre of haute couture; and that Parisian couturiers were and still are the most artistic and innovative. This is largely true, but what is often not stressed enough is that during the Jazz Age many of the major couturiers active in Paris were British and that London has always been equally at the forefront of fashion, but was simply not as visible.
The Paris-centric view of fashion is irritating in its oversimplification and some fashion ‘experts’ from the 1920s tried to make this clear. The fashion editor in the smart society magazine The Queen, wrote ‘no woman need go further than London in search for good clothes’ and Corisande in the London Evening Standard observed ‘… the days have passed when Paris was the exclusive home of smart fashions.’ Although recognising the inventivess of London designers, Corisande added ‘every dress artist finds much to inspire her in the French capital. This means that every development in the dress situation is carefully followed, so that London marches in this matter with Paris and not infrequently gets behind.’ Which suggests that any shrewd designer kept a close eye on developments in Paris to keep abreast of ideas and style changes.
The fashion editor of The Era decreed ‘some day – at least, I hope so – the idea that only in Paris can dress ideas flourish or style be achieved will die a natural death – but not as long as the Paris dress designers have a flair for advertisement and don’t mind paying for it, and not as long as Paris remains still the most amusing place in the world – if you don’t stay too long! What would all the buyers for the big shops, the fashion writers, and the American ‘style experts’ do for a good time if they did not keep up the illusion that the French have the monopoly of dress ideas. I’ll tell you what started me on this train of thought. I went into a French dressmakers and heard a woman saying ‘why don’t we think of things like that?’ She was alluding to a feather muff…and I happened to know that it had been invented by an Englishman who supplies all sorts of feathered accessories to about twenty-five Parisian houses!’
Clearly, fashionable London society not only looked to Paris for its gowns but also encouraged and patronised the many local modiste’s that flourished both before and after the First World War. This duality can also be explained by the fact that there was also a major difference between the fashion expectations of women in London and women in Paris. In an article in The Era, M. deBan, who became Lucile’s new designer in late 1922 made the interesting point that there was a significant difference between London and Paris with regard to fashion taste. He explained that Englishwomen would not wear the skin-tight gowns of Paris and that each frock he designed for Paris had a modified version for London.
Snobbery about Parisian fashion was also noticeable when it came to acknowledging British designers who made such a huge success in Paris such as Worth, Lucile, Molyneaux and Hartnell. For example, even today, Lucile’s achievements are eclipsed by that of Poiret and yet she was setting equally important new styles and trends at the same time as her French competitor. One can only assume that this type of misinformation stems from an inability to acknowledge the encroachment of British talent into what was deemed a sacrosanct French enclave.
Despite the fact that London was clearly at the forefront of European fashion developments, it is not an easy task to unearth a balanced view of couture in London during the 1920s since no-one has ever written a definitive account of the subject and there are only few, general accounts of the main couture houses in the prolific number of books about couture in general. Luckily, there are several valuable sources of information from more direct accounts in contemporary magazines and newspapers that provide a more balanced glimpse of the thriving London couture industry.
It was only during the mid 1800s that Paris underwent a significant shift in its view of fashion. Until then “fashion” was largely the domain of female couturiers that because styles changed slowly were more responsive to fashions trends rather than being innovative and setting trends. Into this rather underdeveloped market stepped several men including Worth, Doucet and Pinget who began to set styles rather than adopt them gradually over time and set the trail blazing for the evolution of haute couture.
For our purposes it is useful to outline the most significant fashion events leading up to the 1920s which have been identified as Worth’s abolishment of the crinoline and adoption of the bustle silhouette, Poiret’s and Lucile’s banishment of the corset in favour of a more feminine look, Chanel’s campaign for a freer more casual look and the arrival of the little black dress and simple suits, Vionnet’s discovery of the bias-cut gown and Fortuny’s invention of the finely pleated Delphos dress inspired by the Ionic chiton, the secret of which still remains an unsolved mystery.
The end of First World War, was without a doubt a watershed and ushered in a startling revolution in the concept of fashion with the catchphrase “modernism”. The curvy flowing, feminine teens made way for a more masculine, angular and simpler 1920s. The general ‘look’ featured a slim, waistless and curveless model, with the bosom, hips and silhouette flattened out by plain straight lines by shorter skirts with a tendency toward androgyny. This new look was partly inspired by the growing interest various art forms including cubism, which prescribed a simplification of form, colour and outline. Also, the growing awareness of female emancipation, which encouraged the growing acceptance of physical and mental freedom, also dictated a freer and simpler style.
The understated elegance of this simplified line also eschewed decoration and detail but was supplemented by geometrically shaped accessories and jewellry. Many of the gowns of this era featured the heavy use of beading or embroidery that could be very weighty and as a result helped dresses to fall in the prescribed straight, tubular fashion.
Taking these ideas to the fore was a new generation of Parisian couturiers, many of them women such as Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Sonia Delauney and Madelaine Vionnet, although there were also a few men particularly Edward Molyneaux and Jean Patou. The intuition and vision of these women was vital to the acceleration of style trends in many directions since they knew what they wanted to wear and what other women needed and encouraged the growing acceptance of physical and mental freedom for women in general.
It was only in the late nineteenth century that London couture began to make a significant presence, presumably following the example of Worth, Doucet and others in Paris. One of the first couture houses was Redfern quickly followed by Lucile (1896), Reville and Rossiter (1906) and the Parisian couture houses of Paquin and Worth who established London salons in 1896 and 1911 respectively. Most of these couture houses blossomed to perfection in Hanover Square mimicking the fashionable Rue de la Paix in Paris.
With the end of the First World War and as the 1920s dawned many new salons opened of which the most important were Elspeth Phelps (later amalgamated with Paquin), Idare et Cie, Paul Caret, Isobel, Ninette, Handley Seymour, Christabel Russell, Norman Hartnell and the London branch of Peron Couture.
There were other numerous other successful fashion houses that thrived in the 1920s including Maison Arthur based at 17-18 Dover Street, Cintra, otherwise known as the Hon Mrs John Fortescue, Miss Gray at 9-13 Brook Street, a well known court dressmaker who was in fact a Mrs Shingleton, Francois Duret (the two main directors were the Russian Princess Maria Galitzine and Baroness de Stoeekle), Mme Barri, 33 New Bond Street, Maison Ross (Mr Ross) 19 Grafton Street, Mde Machinka, 36 Dover Street, Josephine Earle, Saville Row, Miss Francis 78 Duke St, Grovesnor Square, Mme Henry, 36 New Bond Street, Mde Desiree (Mrs Hughes) a court dressmaker based at Hertford Street, off Park Lane, Mary Pickering, 16 Brompton Arcade, Knightsbridge, Mde Irette, Dubens, Marie Lightoler, Henry Middleman based at 61 Knightsbridge and Florence Henry at 41 New Bond Street.
London’s social season followed a set pattern with racing at Ascot in June, racing at Goodwood in July and the Cowes regatta in August. These events along with court functions, debutante balls, the craze for dancing, the growth of nightclubs and cabarets, the evolution of smart cocktail parties and the overwhelming desire for the bright young things to dress up for fancy dress balls spawned an ever increasing demand for luxurious garments, which gave rise to the growth of many new fashion houses in the 1920s. A set pattern emerged with each house giving two collections each year: spring and summer in March or April and autumn in September or October. But interspersed were other special events such as Peron’s St Mortiz, winter season collection unveiled in November 1923.
Redfern’s success with an outfit for Lily Langtry in 1879 and Lucile’s triumph with her costumes for The Merry Widow highlighted the growing importance of the theatre as a showcase for new fashions which became paramount during the 1920s, so much so that in 1924 The Queen magazine wrote ‘the stage has come in recent years to exercise an even greater influence on fashion than the mannequin parades.’ Virtually all the major modistes recognised that dressing actresses well, provided invaluable publicity and invaded the West End theatre with flourish, but none more so than Eileen Idare of Idare et Cie, who became the most sought after couturier in the field of contemporary stage gowns.
One trend was the appointment of stage costume designers as house designers. For example In the early 1920s Marcelle de Saint Martin was associated with Hockley, Val St Cyr worked for the court and theatrical dressmakers of Marie Blanche (a British film and stage actress) at 60 Chandos Street, Guy de Gerald was chief designer to the fashion house of Hoban and Jeanne, based at 4 Brook Street and later in 1936 became house designer for Redfern, Dolly Tree became house designer for Peron in 1923 and Gordon Conway was associated with Chez Beth from 1926-1928.
London was evidently brimming with new ideas and trends intensified in the 1920s particularly the move toward simplicity with severely tailored day suits and plain undecorated evening gowns. There were also numerous attempts to re-introduce the bustle, an emphasis on the undecorated black and white – or magpie – ensembles that relied on the contrast of shade for detail and various ‘new lines’ such as the slenderising effect of Peron’s new skirt in 1924.
One of the most significant style ideas was the concept of the backless evening gown, which was noticed at Paquin’s collection in 1920 ‘…most of the newest frocks are constructed with all the decorative effects at the back: the front being left severely alone.’ Later, other designers began to utilise this concept and one of the main features of all Lucile’s Spring 1924 fashions was that many of her gowns featured the decorated back, which looked ‘for all the world as if they were put on back to front.’ The emergence of this distinctive feature is seemingly in direct contradiction to the accepted view that the un-decorated back was introduced in the early 1930s. Clearly Paquin was rather ahead of the times.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Take a look at the page about Marcelle de Saint Martin
Take a look at the page about Peron Couture
Take a look at the page about Ninette
The Times, The Era, The Queen, The London Evening Standard and Pan Magazine
Couture: The Great Fashion Designers by Caroline Rennolds Milbank
Gordon Conway, Fashioning a New Woman by Raye Virginia Allen
The History of Haute Couture 1850-1950 by Diana de Marty
Colin McDowell’s, McDowell’s Directory of 20th Century Fashion
Silver & Gold by Norman Hartnell
The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk
Illustrations by ‘Fish’