Monica D. Murgia

Art, creativity, and fashion
November 14th, 2013

Find of the Week: Castillo for Elizabeth Arden Coat

Sometimes, good things find you.  That certainly was the case last week.  Every step forward bought surprise and delight.  Good news just poured in like bright yellow sunlight on the morning that you want to sleep in.  It just kept inching its way toward me, making me pay attention.  So things only got better when I was able to purchase this coat:



If you’re new to my site, you may not be aware of my complete adoration of  the work of Antonio Castillo.  The Spanish designer took up couture after the Spanish Civil War, designing for major couture houses including Paquin and Lanvin.  He did design for a 5 year period in New York in the 1940s.


Jody of Couture Allure contacted me about the coat a few weeks ago.  She had read my previous post on Castillo’s time designing here in America for Elizabeth Arden.  (New to my site?  Start with this post.) I had posted a Vogue editorial containing the exact coat! It appeared in the November 1st, 1947 run of Vogue, page 142.


I had to wait a bit to purchase it, but it’s finally mine!  Don’t you think it will look stunning with the Castillo for Elizabeth Arden dress I snagged a few months ago?  Not that wearing them has ever crossed my mind . . .
Many thanks to Jody of Couture Allure!  Please visit her site.


October 12th, 2012

Marcel Vertès

The only limits we have are the ones we place on ourselves.  This is something I am continually reminded  of.  My fascination with fashion history only leads me to discover more and more incredible people that realized their full potential.  One of those people is Marcel Vertès.

Marcel Vertès illustration for Elsa Schiaparelli’s perfume, Shocking.  Illustration completed c. 1937.  Image courtesy of McCormick Interiors.
Marcel Vertès (1895 – 1961) was a Hungarian-born artist, fashion illustrator, costume designer, and textile designer.  He was most prolific from 1933 to 1952, during which he divided his time between New York and Paris.

 Marcel Vertès illustration of a Lilly Dachè hat, 1943.  Image courtesy of HPrints.


Vertès was a real renaissance man.  His creativity seems boundless to me – he created sets for theater, illustrated for major fashion magazines, painted, and even ventured into the fashion world.  He illustrated advertisements throughout his career, most notably for Elsa Schiaparelli.  He also worked for major magazines, like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.  (Illustration was so prevalent during the 1940s because of rationing of supplies needed for photography.  Illustrations continued to be popular in the 1950s.  I really recommend looking at the work of Rene Gruau if you enjoy fashion illustrations!)

Marcel Vertès illustration for The Ballet Theatre Souvenir Program, c. 1943.  Image courtesy of Meteorology.

In 1952, Vertès won two Academy Awards for his work on the film Moulin Rogue.  This film was set in late 19th century Paris, and followed the career of artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.  Toulouse-Lautrec explored the nightlife in Paris, including the burlesque clubs.  His Academy Awards were for Best Artistic Direction and Best Costume Design.
Later, in 1956, Vertès designed the costumes and props for the Ringling Brothers’ Circus.  The costumes were wildly sexy.  Critics said that Vertès had turned a family event into a “night time circus”.  I’ll let you be the judge . . .

ringling 56 rock dancer

Costume design by Marcel Vertès for the John Ringling North circus, c. 1956.  Image courtesy of Showbiz David.

Prior to all this erotica, Vertès had designed textiles for Wesley Simpson. Last week, I wrote a little bit about the collaboration between textile designers and artist.  These collaborations were not only beautiful and interesting, but they stimulated the Postwar economy.  The Metropoltian Museum of Art has several examples of Vertès’ textile designs:

Marcel Vertès textile design for for Wesley Simpson, 1944.  Used for dress design by Adele Simpson. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Marcel Vertès textile design for for Wesley Simpson, 1944.  Used for dress design by Hattie Carnegie.  Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Marcel Vertès textile design for for Wesley Simpson, 1944.  Used for dress design by Adele Simpson. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Seeing that one person could do all of this inspires me beyond words.  And I hope it inspires you!


August 17th, 2012

Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor: Antonio Castillo

Last week, you read about Elizabeth Arden’s theatrical dismissal of Charles James. Now, the cosmetics mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer.   Arden attempted designing and styling the next season’s collection, but failed miserably.  It was a failure because there was little interest from the press and minimal sales.

Arden needed talent to continue, and she needed it quickly to compete with Hattie Carnegie. The nation was intrigued by this competition.  Life Magazine covered a story on Carnegie noting:

“Also at 711 Fifth is the wholesale headquarters for Hattie’s line of cosmetics, with which she quite frankly hopes to challenge Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein.  To add interest to this contest, there is the fact that Arden has turned couturiere.” (Source: Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, November 12, 1945, 63.)

Eager to continue with the made-to-measure Fashion Floor, Arden had been putting feelers out for new talent.  Arden’s sister Gladys had been running the Paris salon during the war.  After the liberation, Gladys suggested hiring a Paris based designer.

Paquin advertisment around the time of the Occupation.


Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1908-1984) came with many recommendations, so Arden dispatched Gladys to find and hire him.  During the war, Castillo had gained considerable recognition designing for the House of Paquin, a prominent couture salon.  Castillo had been, quite literally, the talk of chi-chi Paris, designing for women that needed to be well dressed despite the war. He was Spanish, and relocated to Paris after the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Gladys was successful in approaching and hiring Castillo and reported:

“You may find him a handful from the point of view of management, but he has been conspicuously successful there are difficulties in getting his permits from the US Consulate, complicated by the fact he is Spanish, interestingly, in Spain he was a qualified lawyer before he took up fashion bear this in mind when he asks for a contract!” (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)

Castillo received his contract and arrived in New York the week of October 15, 1945.  Hiring Castillo was a strategic move for Arden, as America had been disconnected from the fashions of Paris for six years during World War II.  By hiring Castillo, she brought Parisian haute couture to America at a time when news of Paris fashion was still scarce.  Thus, she could capitalize on renewed interest in Paris.

Antonio Canovas del Castillo.


Initially, there was no date set for the debut of his first collection. Castillo wanted to get acclimated and accustomed to American women before he created garments.  His arrival was met with enthusiasm.  The New York Times covered his arrival on October 18, 1945, explaining his background and experience in couture.  He boldly began making fashion decrees:

M. Castillo approves of the slim silhouette and small hats. (Source:Paris Designer Here.  New York Times.  Oct. 18, 1945, 16)


His first collection on February 20, 1946 was an immediate hit.  The New York Times headline for Castillo’s first collection was “Simple Elegance Marks New Styles”.  Fashion journalist Virginia Pope went on to praise Castillo’s simple elegance, his elimination of the unnecessary, the excellence of his tailoring and variety of his designs.  The collection included evening gowns, suits, coats, resort wear and sportswear.  His designs had an ethereal sense of movement, as the fabrics effortlessly floated as the models walked.

The new collection also presented Castillo’s new silhouette, the bat wing,or a:

full sleeve which has an overdrape springing from behind the shoulder and terminating in a close cuff at the wrist. (Source: Virginia Pope. Simple Elegance Marks New Styles. New York Times (Feb 21, 1946)


Microsoft Word - Castillo at Elizabeth Arden Chapter.doc
Image courtesy of Vogue.


An example was also shown in Vogue, where the silhouette shows the fullness in the back. The construction does, indeed, give the perception that wear has wings. Pope spent equal time commenting on Castillo’s belts and hats:

Before proceeding any further with a general description of the Castillo fashions, mention must be made of the donkey bags that were shown with many of the daytime costumes, whether for sport or street wear. They are a kind of saddle bag that are thrown over the shoulder to hang well below the waistline. He made them of leather or silk, according to the requirements of the costume. (Source: Ibid)

Vogue also featured Castillo’s collection in the March 1, 1946 issue. Castillo is pictured in front of his inspiration board, with a mannequin to his right. She is wearing a coat that:

“takes a fresh and original line [and] moves beautifully.”

She is also wearing the fringed chamois donkey bag that was mentioned in the New York Times.

Microsoft Word - Castillo at Elizabeth Arden Chapter.doc

 Image courtesy of Vogue.


Castillo next collection debuted in September 1946.  Again, Virginia Pope reviewed Castillo’s show, admiring his strength and originality.   He was praised for his detail and daring in handling materials and fabrics.  He was able to develop new, elegant forms that hadn’t been seen in America, without being overdone.

Castillo’s collection was praised for inventiveness in his coats, interesting color combinations, and discreet use of fur. Each silhouette was slim, even when he indulged in considerable use of fabrics, he never lost sight of the fashion importance of the feminine figure. The materials accentuated curves and draped around the body.

Microsoft Word - Castillo at Elizabeth Arden Chapter.doc



During this time, Castillo also focused on producing hats that complemented the coiffures women received at Elizabeth Arden’s salon.  Arden and Castillo also began promoting an American lifestyle brand, introducing a new lipstick and perfume with every collection.  Offering couture clothing, luxury cosmetics, beauty treatments and exercise classes at her Red Door Salon, Elizabeth Arden’s brand was a one-stop shop infused with Castillo’s Parisian elegance.


Microsoft Word - Castillo at Elizabeth Arden Chapter.doc


Example of the hair and makeup styles that coordinated with each collection.  Image courtesy of the New York Times Historical.

Castillo’s third collection on February 26, 1947 was by invitation only, at the Fashion Floor. Genuine couture elegance was showcased, with emphasis on fluidity and the slender silhouette, now becoming characteristics of Castillo’s designs. Inspired by Picasso, the collection prevailed in many shades of blue, after which he affectionately named the collection.

Large bicorn hats with manipulated brims, further supporting the Picasso theme, accompanied both day and evening wear.  Ankle length evening dresses were noted for their creativity, and were the only garments to depart from the slim line:

Here his innovation was draping diaphanous chiffon in palest pastel over pyramid hoopskirts.  A pleasing conceit was Castillo’s way of adding a long draped panel to his chiffon gowns that the wearer could at her pleasure wrap about her shoulders. (Source: Castillo Shows Third Collection. New York Times (Feb 27, 1947) 24.)




Images of gown courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.


A holding at the Smithsonian Institution best showcases this design. This floor length pastel blue chiffon gown is timeless, using a Grecian aesthetic. The bodice is draped and tucked to enhance the bust.  The straps are executed in self-fabric, lending softness to the shoulders. The waistline is gathered to make it appear smaller. It also lends movement and fullness to the skirt. The left side has a long flowing drape that is used to cover the shoulders, making it most likely from the third collection.

Detail of bust.


This dress also bears the Elizabeth Arden label “designed by Castillo”, in the his signature.



October 18, 1949 debuted Castillo’s first ready-made collection. This was a significant occurrence. Castillo’s designs were so successful, that Arden created a wholesale component to the business. This means that garments went into production as ready-to-wear, versus costly and time consuming made-to-measure designs.  The ready-to-wear garments were gladly carried by the best department stores, including I. Magnin and Neiman Marcus. The success made Arden’s head grow big, much like with her initial partner Charles James. Arden was planning post-war expansion abroad, and soon started bad-mouthing Castillo to her employees:


That little brat, Castillo, is a constant thorn in my side.  He can behave well for just so long and then the meanness comes out. I am getting very tired of his temperament and one of these days he is going to be a very surprised young man! (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)

Arden was brash in judging Castillo as a brat. Castillo had been pushing Elizabeth to make a very wise investment.  Their final separation occurred over a disagreement on purchasing the House of Piguet in Paris. In 1949, the famous couturier Robert Piguet offered Castillo the opportunity to buy his business.




Robert Piguet.  Image courtesy of Fashion Loves Film.

Piguet had been ill for years and wanted to retire. His house had employed talented designers that included Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy. Castillo recognized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would have been extremely lucrative. Piguet was making over 26 million francs in profit a year, and was willing to sell everything to Castillo for 50 million francs. The investment would have been recouped in 2 years.


Microsoft Word - Castillo at Elizabeth Arden Chapter.doc
Castillo designs for Elizabeth Arden.  Image courtesy of Vogue.


Castillo worked hard to persuade Arden to back him in purchasing the House of Piguet.  He wrote her countless letters, one explaining how profitable the business would be:

“I see now after all my experiences in America that the houses here in Paris are working on a very old basis and sooner or later are all doomed to death.  Having this useful and interesting laboratory here, we could send styles and accessories often for the American Arden salons and in the shop here in the ‘Rond Point des Champs Elysees’ there could be a wonderful opportunity for preparations and perfumes.” (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.)

Arden didn’t care for this idea. She enjoyed the limelight of having clothing produced under herown name.  This was a poor business choice on Arden’s part.  Had she accepted Castillo’s partnership in purchasing Piguet, Arden would have been the very first American-owned luxury power brand, much like LVMH of today. Piguet never found a buyer, and closed his doors in 1951.


Castillo left Elizabeth Arden’s Fashion Floor in 1950 for the house of Lanvin.  Arden would always regret parting ways with Castillo.  His collections made a great sum of money.  The two would be reunited in 1965, when Castillo agreed to produce collections of ready-to-wear garments for the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor.  Yet the two would have a scuffle over the young Oscar de la Renta before being reunited.

Come back next week to hear the rest!

August 9th, 2012

Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor & Charles James

Elizabeth Arden built an empire on cosmetics.  A Canadian by birth, Arden (1884-1966) started by giving manicures and making creams in New York around 1905.  She was determined to build a fortune, and was often motivated by competition from Helena Rubinstein.

Today, Elizabeth Arden is still a well-known name for cosmetics.  Yet many may not associate her name with clothing.  Arden installed a Fashion Floor to her business in the 1940s and employed some extremely important designers over the years.  There were so many talented designers that worked for Arden, that it merits a special series here on my blog.  This first post will talk about the beginning, and Arden’s first collaboration with Charles James.



Elizabeth Arden.  Image courtesy of


Elizabeth Arden’s start in fashion was fueled by competition and anger.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Hattie Carnegie was the undisputed leader of American fashion. By 1944, she had been making American clothing for over 35 years. Carnegie had a keen eye for design and the marketplace. She consistently identified young emerging talent, like Norman Norell in the 1920s, Pauline Trigere in the 1930s, and Claire McCardell in the 1940s.  Carnegie was amassing a fashion empire that was worth $6,500,000 in the 1940s.  In true imperial fashion, Carnegie wanted to expand. So she decided to launch a line of cosmetics. (Source:  Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, 1945, 64.)

Hattie Carnegie
Hattie Carnegie at her desk.  Image courtesy of Life Magazine.


Hattie Carnegie’s announcement of a cosmetics line.  Image courtesy of Vogue.


This infuriated cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden. Immediately after receiving the news, Arden phoned her long-time friend, Chicago-based fashion designer Charles James and screamed: If that woman can do cosmetics, then I’ll do fashion.  And this was the birth of the couture branch of her cosmetic and fragrance salon, the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor. (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005. )

Charles James (1906-1978) was the first couturier to debut for Arden’s Fashion Floor. James was born in England to a socially prominent family that divided their time between Europe and Chicago. He began his career as a milliner in 1926, opening a small Chicago boutique on Oak Street. Working under the name Boucheron, James began crafting beautiful hats.



Charles James at work.  Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1943.


Often, James would create the hat directly on the client’s head for a perfect fit. It is this experience that shaped James entire career. The materials required in millinery are quite rigid to create structure. The construction of hats is architectural, which left a very strong mark on James clothing designs. He also liked working directly on the client’s body.


Obsessed with perfection, James viewed each of his garments and accessories as a work of art. He urged patrons to donate their gowns to museums. James himself donated several of his of dresses to museums, not only to elevate his status as a designer, but also to ease his tax burdens. This obsession with perfection led him to spend inordinate amounts of money and time in crafting garments, infuriating clients and leading to James own financial ruin. He was best characterized as:

an impossible genius. His personality “ bitter, petulant “ is the sand in the oyster bed. His clothes “ as structural and mathematical as a Mobius strip “ are the pearls. (Source: New York Magazine. January 12, 1976, 77.)


Charles James at work 2
Charles James at work.  Image courtesy of


James was extremely talented, but lacked business acumen and missed important deadlines. He had been kicked out of school as a teenager, and was extremely temperamental.  He was often bankrupt due to breached contracts and late work. James was simply unable to manage his own business. He therefore jumped at the opportunity to be financed by Arden.


Elizabeth Arden was equally as petulant as James. When she phoned him in 1943 to begin the fashion floor, Arden assured James that he would be in complete control of the fashion operation. Perfect. You design them [the ateliers and showroom] and supervise their construction.

You can have the entire second floor at 691 [Fifth Avenue]…Charlie, it’s your baby. You’re in complete charge. I won’t interfere. (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005.)


Yet this was a promise Arden could never keep.


Things began smoothly. James was thrilled, and began by designing an extravagant showroom and atelier, despite wartime restrictions. He borrowed money from his mother to cover initial costs for the atelier: fitting, cutting, and sewing rooms. The atelier was illustrated by Cecil Beaton, James childhood friend, in August 1944.


Sample Chapter The Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor
Interior of Elizabeth Arden’s Atelier, Designed by Charles James & Illustrated by Cecil Beaton.  Image courtesy of Vogue.


This illustration appeared in Vogue of December 1944, but by the time the magazine had gone to print, James was no longer employed by Arden. Yet the illustration still serves as an intimate glance into James’ work space.

Standing mannequins showcase beautiful dresses in the process of being made. The space appears small, but functional. Workstations have piles of fabric, irons, and other tools of the trade. It seems as if the seamstresses had been discretely ushered out of the room in the middle of the day for Beaton to complete his illustration.

Dozens of mannequins are stored on the left side shelf, probably crafted to the measurements of specific clients. The showroom was even more magnificent. Lavish decorations filled the second floor salon: a crystal chandelier, sumptuous window drapes, and a table crafted with coral legs.  The showroom had three large, intricately carved bay windows. James always enjoyed the finer things in life, and knew he would attract clients who shared his tastes. The interior was also complementary to James’ beautiful, intricate designs shown in the photograph.


interior of fashion floor



Interior of Second Floor Showroom & Salon.  Image courtesy of Vogue.



One of the hallmarks of the contentious relationship between Arden and James was that they shared a similar philosophy of fashion. Both disliked the casual aura that sportswear was creating in America. This casual look was first introduced by California designers, and spread quickly as women entered the workforce during World War II. Women had to have clothes that were practical, easy to wear, and could be laundered at home.

Both Arden and James detested this move towards casual sportswear. They believed that women should be polished, elegant, and put together “ even if it required rigid undergarments, a dressing maid, and disposable income. Simply put, they agreed that the new fashions were too simple and very sloppy. Their vision was to create a couture line of evening wear and gowns for special occasions. Arden believed James had just the panache she was looking for.


Dress by Charles James for Elizabeth Arden.  Image courtesy of
Dress by Charles James for Elizabeth Arden.  Image courtesy of


The opening of the Fashion Floor and its debut collection was presented at a Red Cross benefit at the Ritz Carlton. Arden entitled the show One Touch of Genius, and James showed 25 gowns. Curiously, there was not much reported about the first showing. The New York Times reported that:

The importance of good posture as a basis of both beauty and fashion was emphasized in a fashion show…The costumes were especially designed to bring out the beauty of the figure which is based on correct posture. (Source: Posture Fashions Shown. New York Times: 5 May 1944, 14.)

Arden also had models to demonstrate exercises to correct posture and increase flexibility at the event. The focus of the evening was on the total image, not on the designs of Charles James.



marlena deitrict


Arden told James to bring his designs directly to the press if he wanted attention. This resulted in several of his designs being featured in Vogue of October 1, 1944, including this pale blue silk satin gown worn by Marlena Dietrich (above). Considered a dinner sheath, this elegant gown showcases how both Arden and James believed women should be dressed for dinner and evening events. The gown is open diagonally from the shoulder to hip, and closes with self-material bows. The asymmetrical bias cut clings to Dietrich’s body, but allows for movement. The photograph attracted interest with wealthy clientele in New York, including Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Mrs. William S. Paley. The new couture salon was experiencing its first fashion success.

Arden was thrilled. So thrilled, that she began to separate James from the debut of his collections. Angered that Arden took his dresses to Chicago without him, James decided to decorate the Fifth Avenue display window like a red light district.  He took a red vase, dipped it in perfume, and placed a candle inside. The result was the window display looking – and smelling – like a very different type of establishment. After seeing the display, a friend of Arden’s said:

“My dear, I didn’t know you were running a red-light house.” (Source:

The relationship was strained beyond repair from this incident. Arden promptly dismissed James in the fall of 1944. James continued to design clothes for New York’s wealthy socialites. While his jaunt at Elizabeth Arden was brief, it was enough to make him well known.

Now, the cosmetic’s mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer. . .


Hope you’re looking forward to hearing about the next designer for Elizabeth Arden!  Be sure to check back next week.



October 25th, 2010

A return to the ideal

Fashion is directly correlated to the shape of the body.  In fact, clothing attempts to alter the shape of the body.  But what do we see when we look at clothing?  Are we seeing the clothing, the body, or a social construct of beauty of the time?


noun 1. Sociology. the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.

When we look at clothes, we actually see the ethos of a culture or time period and what the ideal body of that culture or time is/was.  The term natural really has no place in fashion.

If you were to remove all the clothes, you will not find a ‘natural’ body but a body that is shaped by fashion: the body is no more ‘natural’ than the clothes it wears.  (Hollander)

If I had to summarize the ethos of the ideal body shape from 1995-2009, I’d have to say it’s “Pin-Thin and Pissed Off”.  (Thank you for such a concise philosophy, Rachel Zoe!)

For the first time in recorded history, visible bones and sagging flesh were the desired ideal bodies in the fashion world.  Philosopher Lars Svendsen discusses this unique ideal body in his book, Fashion: A Philosophy

One ideal of beauty that is quite unique to our age is visible bones.  A constant feature of all ideals of beauty until the First World War was that a beautiful body had to have enough fat and muscle for the skeleton to remain hidden beneath them.  Visible ribs and hips were ‘unnatural’ and ugly. (85)

But really, the idea of natural is dictated by the ethos of the time.  Some eras idealize the a body that is more realistic for women to achieve or maintain, but really the idea body is mainly out of reach for most.  (Hence the term ideal.)  Most models even fall short of this, that’s why Adobe invented Photoshop and plastic surgery is a booming industry.  According to Svendsen, a Pre-Modern society nature as the norm.  A Post-Modern society  individuals establish their own norms.  (80)

So let’s take a look at ethos through time and how the ideal body has changed.  (And I’ll take a gander at where it’s headed for the future!)

The Visitation (1506) Tempera on limewood, 139,5 x 94,7 cm Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

The Visitation shoes the Late Gothic ideal body: small breasts, a round swollen belly, light skin and long lithe extremities.  Ethos: Fertile, and ready for maternal duties.

Anne of Denmark, 1605.

Mary Radclyffe, c. 1610

1600s: The early 1600s ideal body had changed.  A long, narrow torso was ideal, and held in place by a corset.  The length of the torso was emphasized by a stomacher – a triangular piece of fabric covering the torso.  You can clearly see this in Anne of Denmark’s portrait above.  Wide, rounded hips were also desirable.  This shape was kept in place by a farthingale.  (see below).  Large, standout collars were worn, drawing attention to the face.  Long sleeves terminate at the wrist.

Ethos: Wide hips are a great armrest.


Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden, c.1744

The Two Cousins by Watteau, c. 1717.

1700s: Dress becomes somewhat less constricting.  The torso length is still elongated by the stomacher, but less so than the 1600s.  Hips continue to be accentuated, but become fuller and wider.  The emergence of the sac(que) gown occurs during this time.  The outter skirt is loose in the front and back, to allow easier walking.  It’s more formal version is known as the robe a la française. See the billowing fabric in The Two Cousins?  Petticoats and hoops made the skirts full.  Later, panniers were worn to give additional width to the hips.  Necklines were lower, and sometimes covered with light-weight cloth, called a fichu.  Fichu were typically made of fine linen, and sometimes lace.  Long sleeves are still common, but some forearm begins to be exposed.  (How racy!)

Ethos: Bigger, longer, fuller!

Dolley Madison, 1804.

Louis XIV

1800s: The French Revolution & The Reign of Terror (1789-1799) changed fashion drastically.  Paris secured it’s global dominance in the fashion arena under Louis XIV (1638-1715). Louis goal as king was to create a centralized state governed from the capital and to assert his absolute power. Feudalism had given power to local rulers, which diminished the king’s power.

Louis’ strategy was to invite the local rulers to live with him at his palace in Versaille. Once at Versaille, Louis (portrait at right) organized continuous banquets, parties, and social events, each of which had a lavish dress code . The nobility could never wear the same outfit twice. The local rulers would spend exorbitant amounts of money on new clothing, making them financially weak. They were also so absorbed on their social lives that their political power diminished.

This extravagance continued until the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793). Queue the images from Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, became the target of the French revolutionaries.  Anyone wearing extravagant garments became a target, ensuring a trip to the guillotine.  The French Revolution made dressing down, or “undress” very fashionable.  (And for reasons other than looking stylish.)

The court had become completely self-obsessed with displays of conspicuous consumption. So self-obsessed that they ignored that France was in an enormous financial crisis and was nearly bankrupt. (Sound familiar?)

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette had started a small movement amongst her closest friends of dressing very simply. She would often wear simple white muslin dresses, and even wore it for a public portrait. The portrait was met with criticism, as the dress was very similar to undergarments of the day and thought to be improper for the queen.

A series of riots occurred, and the monarchy was overthrown. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed at the guillotine, which marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Anyone who appeared to support the monarchy, by action, dress, or relationships, were sent to the guillotine. Women adopted simple fashion to avoid death. Ironically, most women dressed in white muslin dresses like the one Marie Antoinette’s (left) had received criticism for.

Dancing Dress, 1809

Undergarments are considerably less restrictive. The chemise, a loose linen “slip” worn to protect the outer garments from persperation, continue to be worn.  The corset is short, and looks like a proto-bra.  Shorter sleeves are now in fashion.  The look is usually pared with gloves, like this dancing gown from 1809.  Ethos? Shabby Chic.

Corset and chemise, c. 1811

1830s-1860s: Puff sleeves expose the arms in their full glory.  Necklines also begin to expose the neck and shoulder, emphasizing delicate areas as well as the decolletage. The skirt becomes full again, mostly with starched petticoats, but crinolines become popular with advances in technology c. 1850.  Skirts get wider and wider, to almost ridiculous ends. Critics ridicule the woman wearing the massive crinolines, noting how they make normal tasks like walking and shaking hands very challenging.  Ethos: Looking good is more important that being mobile.


Queen Victoria, 1841.

Crinolines make for difficult introductions

1870s-1880s:  My personal favorite!  The bustle becomes the latest style.  All of the fullness that was present in the skirt is pushed in the back, accentuating the derriere. The overskirts were elaborate with lots of trim, flounces, ribbons, and pleats.  The corset became very structured, and making the torso take an S shape (cuirass corsets).  Day dresses have sleeves, evening dresses have either short or no sleeves.  Off-the-shoulder gowns with a low neckline were very common.  The overall silhouette is very form fitting.  Ethos: Baby got back!

Woman in Blue, by Corot 1874.

Love Letter by Toulmouche, 1883

1890s: Women take to a more active lifestyle, and abandon the extreme ornamentation of previous decades.  Corsets are still severe, but women are becoming more active.

Mr. & Mrs. Phelps by Sargent, 1897

Bicycling, tennis, swimming, horseback riding – woman wanted to do it all.  The skirts were a-line, allowing the legs to have a greater range of movement than in long, bustled skirts.  Leg-of-mutton sleeves become popular.  Even non-athletic women are interested in the new sportswear.  The engraving below shows two woman talking about bicycle suits.  The original caption reads:

Gertrude: Dear Jessie, what on EARTH is that bicycle suit for?

Jessie: Why to wear, of course!

Gertrude: But you haven’t got a bicycle!

Jessie: No, but I’ve got a sewing machine!

Ethos: Anything men can do, woman can do more stylishly!

Bicycle Babes, 1895.

Bathing suits, 1898.

1900-1919:  Narrow skirts, high waistlines, and low necklines are the rage.  Styles tend to be off the shoulder for evening, worn with long gloves.  The Gibson Girl look is very popular, best illustrated by the portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, below:

Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, 1905

Paul Poiret begins to make radially new fashion – innovation in fashion design.  His hallmarks are the harem look, the hobble skirt, and the lampshade tunic.  Ethos: Romantically exotic.

Poiret Design, 1914

Harem look


1920s: Yes, the era of the flapper and beginning of Chanel’s empire.  Taboos are thrown out the window: women cut their hair short, wear short skirts, and abandon the corsets.  Caminols and lightweight bralettes were worn instead of the restrictive corsets.  Really daring women even wore pants.  The ideal body was very boyish – small breasts, no hips, short hair. Chanel was a great pioneer of sportswear, and used lots of jersey in her designs.  (I’ll talk more about her in a future blog post.)  Ethos: Burn your bra (and corset)!

Young Woman, 1925. (Doesn’t she look like she’s on a cell phone?)

Early Chanel

Chanel Sportswear

1930s: Women return to a more glamorous style.  The unrestricted female form is shown, without smashing the breasts down.  Longer skirts were worn: daytime lengths were mid calf, evening were floor length.  Nylon and the zipper are used in the mass market.  Since women are becoming more active, there is a bigger distinction between daytime and evening wear.   Ethos: Liberation is great, but glamor is better!

Working Women, c. 1936

1930s Glamor

1940s: World War II reduced high fashion down to a trickle.  America was shut off from Paris, making manufacturers higher American designers.There were several years of altering old clothing.  Then it came.  The New Look.  Dior changes the length of the skirt, starting a fashion revolution. (Mainly because women couldn’t alter their skirts to get the new length, causing them to have to buy a new wardrobe!)   The small waist was idea, and jacked included boning and light corset structure to achieve that architectural look.  Ethos: Time for a shopping spree . . .

Dior’s New Look

1950s: The glamor continues.  Silhouettes are generally within the following types: A-line, Trapeze, The Sac, & the Empire Line.  The hourglass figure is the ideal, with emphasis on a very small waist.  Ethos: Womanly and elegant, but idealized by clothing.

Trapeze Jacket

Fab 50s


1960s:  The decade started out demure, with the ideal of Mad Men and Jackie Kennedy, but ended up with a youthquake!  Mini-skirts, colorful prints, and experimental fashion were prevalent.  Unusual materials, like paper were used – stressing the ephemeral nature of fashion.  Super thin model Twiggy becomes famous, ushering in thin as the ideal Ethos: Thin is in.


Paper Dresses, Warhol


1970s: Characterized by anti-fashion.  Androgyny is common (not being able to tell if it’s a man or woman).  Leisure suits are huge, and Hippies are everywhere.  Ethos: Is that a man or a woman?

Leisure, all the way. 1972

All I can say is, WOW…

The late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s had been the period of the Glamazons: Christie Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington (my favorite!), Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, and Laetitia Casta.

Christie Brinkley
Linda Evangelista

Christy Turlington
Naomi Campbell
Laetitia Casta

The Big Six were: Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.  The ideal body is very feminine, curvy, yet fit.  Definitely a more sensual idea, and more attainable than the 60s focus on Twiggy.  Ethos: Curves for miles.

Late 90s: Ushered in “heroine chic” and the use of painfully thin models.  The most notable was Calvin Klein’s choice of Kate Moss, who at one point weighed around 95 lbs.  Ethos: Pin thin and pissed off.

A Very Thin Kate Moss

Kate, take 2

Feed her, quick!

Recently, a more realistic ideal body has been taking the fashion world.  Similar to the early 90s, a curvier, more feminine body is becoming accepted.  This month’s Harper’s Bazaar featured an article on Christina Hendricks, from Mad Men.  The article compares her to Marilyn Monroe, stating that her sexy curves and stunning self-confidence made her a star.

Christina Henricks

Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks

Other stars pioneering the more realistic ideal body are Kim Kardashian and Crystal Renn


Crystal Renn

Crystal Renn

By the looks of the runways, it seems fashion is headed for a return to the ideal.  Stay tuned . . .

 Ethos: Embrace your curves!

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