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
Fashion and identity are inextricably entwined. At the turn of the 20th century, fashion in America took shape as a democratic art with the rise of the “ready-to-wear” industry. At the same time, Paris in the Belle Époque was the birthplace for a fashion industry that served an established social hierarchy. For the upper echelons, the advent of Parisian fashion magazines in the early 20th century affirmed the importance of appearance.
“If it were simply a matter of clothing oneself, fashion would certainly not exist," wrote one critic in the Parisian Journal des Dames et des Modes in 1912. "But it is above all a matter of attiring oneself, and whoever says ornament says art…So, ladies, be stylish. It is a great civic duty.”
While haute couture, as depicted in these charming fashion plates, flourished in Paris until the outbreak of war in 1914, in America, women’s rising ability to create their own identity took on a wholly different shape. Drawn to cities by economic opportunity, America’s “New Woman” worked, lived and shopped with increasing independence. The advent of department stores—“palaces of abundance”—allowed them to select clothes that expressed their newly-achieved independence. Increased economic empowerment sped the fight for woman’s suffrage, culminating with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 that secured women’s right to vote.
Culled from the library collections of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, these plates were originally published between 1912 and 1914 in the French Journal des Dames et des Modes and have recently been made available online. The journal was a compendium of poems, fashion reports and reviews of both theater and literature. The vivid stencil prints of dramatic couture outfits of the era, many drawn by the artist and foremost fashion illustrator of the time George Barbier (1882-1932), depict the opulent fabrics, bold patterns and rich embroidery in crepes, and silks, and exotic plumage and provide a vivid record of high fashion in the Paris prior to the outbreak of World War I. A collection of these prints are on view through the end of March at Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library.
The Smithsonian Libraries have made available an exclusive selection of reproductions for sale at Art.com.