Designer fashion - a portrait of 20th century collectible clothing

If writer and bon vivant Oscar Wilde was right and you can indeed "never be overdressed or overeducated", fashion houses ought to be afforded the same cultural cachet as universities, for it is within the walls of these slick institutions that the world's most stylish garments are conceived and produced.

Early 20th century

fashion history
A dress designed by Charles
Fredrick Worth
- the world's first

The history of the modern fashion industry, of "named" maisons de couture run by individual designers, begins roughly two decades before the sartorially conspicuous Wilde makes his London debut, swanking over the social stage in a series of eye-catching ensembles.

The very first "modern" fashion house - the House of Worth - was established by draper Charles Frederick Worth in 1858.

Before Worth set up his eponymous fashion house in Paris, clothing design and manufacture was primarily the business of anonymous seamstresses and tailors, working to the specifications of their wealthy clients.

Fashions were drawn from what was being worn at court during the season. Middle class men and women would commission clothing in the style of their social superiors, while working class people generally made their own clothes, to practical rather than aesthetic stipulations.

Since cloth was costly, people generally had fewer clothes. Yet, as the cogs and wheels of industry whirred ever faster, the price of dyed silk, brocade and cotton fell, bringing previously prohibitively costly materials within the reach of those earning middle incomes.

The House of Worth - the very first fashion house to sew labels into its creations - straddled past and present. Working within the established "design language" of the period, Worth's pieces were subtlety accented, and his subsequent success was such that he was able to originate, rather than merely ape, trends.

At the beginning of the 20th century, soaring literacy rates contributed to a surge in the demand for magazines and periodicals, many of which were concerned with fashion and style. Illustrators such as Paul Iribe, Erte and George Barbier produced stunning portrayals of the age, which graced the pages of exclusive publications such as La Gazette de Bon Ton (The Journal of Good Taste) - a very expensive title intended for the fashionable elite.

The advent of photography contributed to the dissemination of trends. Conspicuous waste and consumption defined the clothing of the era, with elaborately adorned dresses and concealed corseting, which was worn in order to exaggerate bodily curves.


history of fashion
An illustration by Paul Iribe for Jean Lanvin (1925)

As attitudes and lifestyles evolve over time, so do the prevailing fashions. Following world war one - a period during which women joined the work force en masse - long hair styles were bobbed, while dresses with long, voluminous trains gave way to emancipating knee-length pinafores.

Codes of behaviour and modes of being gradually liberalised: women began to smoke publically, to dance vigorously and even to wear trousers.

From the mid-20s, an athletic, bust-less, waist-less silhouette came to the fore, connoting a chic simplicity and enabling greater movement, epitomised by the designs of French couturiere Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel, founder of the Chanel brand, is credited with liberating women from the constraints of the corseted silhouette.

And the designer's own look was as fresh and exciting as her creations. Dressed in a subdued, often monochrome palette accessorised with a simple string of pearls, Chanel's style represented a newly aspirant, physically and intellectually involved woman.

Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou were also prominent during the period. Lanvin, who began her career as a milliner, embraced the dazzling flapper style whole-heartedly, embellishing her flowing creations with elaborate beading, fringing and embroidery, all intended to exaggerate the movements of the wearer.

Patou, simultaneously concerned with luxury and practicality, won an American following with his clean lines and cubist motifs.

Sportswear (in particular, tennis wear and yachting wear) was a major influence throughout the period and the cloche hat became a relative staple among young women.

Mid-20th century

Fashion history
The New Look - Dior

During the late 1940s, Christian Dior, French fashion designer extraordinaire, popularised wasp-waist dresses featuring tiny, clinched in waists and dramatic full skirts.

Following the second world war - an extended period during which people were expected to "make do and mend" - the lavish use of fabric connoted extravagance, whimsy and sophistication, causing Carmel Snow, editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine to declare, "This is a new look!"

In the early 1950s, Hubert de Givenchy opened his first fashion house and created a sensation with a line of separates: Bettina blouses, patterned skirts and dainty swing jackets.

Christian Dior returned to corsetry, reviving the popularity of girdles among women now in possession of the right to vote and drive a car.

Although the glamour of the New Look apparently flew in the face of female emancipation, it represented a different sort of freedom for women - the freedom from war and seriousness, if not male oppression.

Machine technologies lowered prices further, making fashion more and more accessible to the everywoman, while, bright, mass-produced prints proved very popular.


fashion history
Model twiggy in 1967

Until the 1960s, Paris was thought of as the heart of the fashion industry - a byword for style and sophistication.

However, the city's reputation ruptured during the swinging sixties, as possibility and rebellion took hold of people's imaginations and steered them away from established norms.

The teenager born during the 1950s hit her stride in the 1960s, as multiple counter-cultural movements gained momentum.

Hemlines rose high above the knee, making the transition from stockings to tights inevitable, while hair was worn at extreme lengths - uncommonly long (hippies) or unusually short (gamine/Twiggy).

Talented designers such as Mary Quant (famed for popularising the mini skirt) and Barbara Hulanicki (founder of legendary London clothing boutique Biba) made their names in England's capital.

In the US, Rudi Gernreich (celebrated for his avant-garde and futuristic designs) and James Galanos (known for creating luxurious off-the-peg outfits) were also appealing to an increasingly teenage audience. The main outlets for these new young fashion designers were small boutiques, which sold outfits that, though not one-offs, were made in very limited quantities, colours and sizes.  

Psychedelia, pop art, rebellion, medievalism, and futurism were important references.

The late 20th century

Sketches by Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada
Sketches by Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada

The 1970s is often cited as the decade taste forgot. In fact, the period is defined by multiplicity as opposed to absence.

At the decade's outset, a diaphanous, Californian hippie look comprising jeans, caftans and tie dyed items remained popular, while the civil rights movement in the US cast black and African cultures into the spotlight.

The afro ha

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