ART DECO FASHION – by Suzanne Lussier (2003)

  • Suzanne Lussier
  • AOL Time Warner Book Group
  • Copyright © 2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The term Art Deco was employed for the first time in 1968 by the author Bevis Hillier. It identifies an aesthetic in vogue between 1909 and 1939 which was adopted in architecture, the decorative arts, textiles and fashion; it also influenced the fine arts, film and photography. Art Deco displayed stylized motifs and shapes borrowed from national traditions, folk art and ancient cultures, and was strongly influenced by the art of the avant-garde.

Art deco fashion_Tamara de Lempicka 1929

Art Deco emerged from a unique artistic conjunction. From 1905, avant-garde movements sprung up one after another throughout Europe: the Fauves and Cubists in Paris, the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia. Meanwhile the Ballets Russes were founded in Russia by Sergei Diaghilev who, wanting to rejuvenate ballet by introducing exotic themes, sets and costumes, employed artists and musicians from the international avant-garde. Too unconventional for the conservative Russian public, the Ballets Russes moved to an ecstatic reception in Paris in 1909, a moment which historians mark as the catalyst of the Art Deco period. Pivotal in the development of Art Deco, the Ballets Russes imbued fashion with its colourful and voluptuous aesthetic through the genius of fashion designer Paul Poiret; its influence in fashion would be felt well into the 1920s. Diaghilev s dance company would trigger a long-lasting vogue for exoticism in dress and the use of luxurious materials, a vogue strengthened by the arrival in Paris of Russian emigres like Natalia Goncharova, and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.


Freedom was the motif in the emancipated climate of the post-war years. A huge increase in sport and leisure activities, new dances like the Charleston, greater opportunities to travel all ushered in designs adapted to greater flexibility of movement. Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet were quick to embrace these trends and create innovative new lines for the modern, liberated woman.

Madeleine Vionnet – carnival dress

Black-and-white films demanded sharpness in costume and coiffure, and this would establish new references in haute couture and mainstream fashion. American movie stars had a huge influence on fashion, and they helped to promote haute-couture designs. Most of the time, however, producers could only afford one or two hautecouture dresses, so some actresses bought their gowns directly from the designers and paid for them with their own money. Mary Pickford known to go to Paris regularly, and there buy 50 haute-couture designs which she would wear indiscriminately in movies and in real life. American actresses were the first to create a style of their own: Lillian Gish with her pastel muslin dresses, Mary Pickford in ‘little girl’ dresses and Joan Crawford in garments by American fashion designers. Greta Garbo, with her cape and deep cloche, became the epitome of the late 1 920s fashion in American cinema. Period movies and movies set in faraway locations played a major part in promoting exotic outfits.

Renee Adoree and John Gilbert – La Boheme – Musette and Rodophe

*** For her part as Musette in “La Boheme, ” Erte designed a gorgeous frock of huge puffed sleeves, voluminous skirts ami wasp-like bodice. (Incidentally, you fashion devotees, Erte is an arch enemy of that confining mode. It destroys the grace of line, he says, and will never be reinstated in the style world.) ” The first day she looked exquisite—like a doll. But on the second day she insisted that she could not wear corsets and eat —and eat she must, so off came her corsets. She looked like a balloon!” Two sensitive hands made an airy outline of her appearance. But to say a lady looks like a balloon! It simply isn’t done in Hollywood, you know. Not even at ‘”cat parties.”

Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)

*** And then there was Lillian Gish.

“I designed a pretty costume for her as Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’ Mimi is a poor girl whose poverty is shown in her clothes. Of inexpensive materials I fashioned the dress—of wools and cottons.

” ‘ But no!’ says Miss Gish, ‘I do not wear harsh fabrics next to my skin. They must be of sheerest silk.’

“Silks! Can you imagine silks for a girl who lives simply and whose marriage dowry is a mere tritle!

“So I told Miss Gish she may have the designs—is very welcome to them—but she is never to enter my studio door again. Let her make the costumes herself!”

The French illustrators Paul Iribe and Erte were amongst the first costume designers to work in Hollywood, but their sketches, magnificent on paper, did not translate well to the human body. In 1930, Chanel was offered one million dollars to dress Gloria Swanson, for her role in Tonight or Never, and off-screen as well. Her designs were judged ‘not glamorous enough’ for Hollywood, however, and seemed dated by the time the movie came out.

Art deco fashion – Cover

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