The Fabric Of Society

1913 was a good year to dress up.  There were still twelve months to play in, before dancing off the precipice into four years of disillusionment and blood.

But there was time enough for that.  1913 celebrated the freedom…of ladies' ribcages.  Dresses were becoming looser ever since 1907, but in 1912-1913, designers were actually building brilliant new styles based on this new couture of comfort.  Thay had come to understand the mechanics of pliancy and liberated women from their frozen curves.

Dresses now skimmed lightly over the lady's body:  her shape and movements were no longer secrets drowning in seas of taffeta and frou frou petticoats.  Materials were fine weaves; no longer heavy with beads, tassels, sequins or jewels anchored down by gold and silver threads:  a favorite conceit of the 16th century.

Fashion was now racially charged, as it was now allowing mixed marriages – of saffron and orange, ruby and honey, cadmium and sage.  There was no longer a 'color of the season', which would see every young lady of taste wearing lavendar, or pearl, or ecru or another faded hue.  All colors were in season, all patterns – unavoidable, unsubtle – were acceptable.  It was no longser a faux pas to be noticed.

The new look was fantastic, a fantasy.  And it was to this exotic, starry world that women excaped, to find thte mystery they gave up when they began to wear clinging strips of fabric.  Turbans with dyed feathers were wrapped about pretty faces; ropes of pearls were worn, like Salome.   The odelisques of Matisse were seen walking in Paris, in London and in New York - wearing fabrics in complex stripes, harem pants, tunics and ballooning jackets.  Western Europe's vision of the Orient, of Asia, of Constantinople and Morocco were crossing busy city streets wearing gold bracelets, earring made from foreign coins and slippers of silver brocade.

In 1913, the food for fantasy came from the ballet.  Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes brought exoticism, deadly with its barely contained passion, to Europen stages starving for madness and desire.  Pavlova swooned.  Nijinsky leapt across the length of the stage.  In the begiinning, the fashionable world might have been shocked…but already the stays were unlaced so it could lean forward and take a closer look.

In the ballet there was emotion.  Movement.  Yearning.  Regret.  The natural and beautiful world.  All reflected in the color, the glitter, the dark that dared to be darkest, the bright that dared to shine brightest, in the billowing tapestries – in the insane orientalism of Leon Bakst's designs.

1913 also saw a renaissance in cosmetics.  In previous years, a daring lady might dab her cheeks with rouge, gloss her lips and lengthen her eyebrows, to achieve the ideal feminine expression of innocence and suffering.  Suddenly, a ballet with dancers made up to look like gypsies, the seasons, elements of the earth, had come to lure that lady from her dated delicacy.

Boudoir tables were suddenly laden with lipsticks of blood, garnet, violet, raspberry.  Rouge pinks were heightened, face power paled.  Eyes were rimmed with kohl.  Eye shadow was applied like solid swatches of color.  Husbands might have complained that their women were suddenly looking like St. Petersburg courttesans, but they had to accept that fashion was no longer lightly seasoned.  Flavors were now strong and unforgettable.

This was when fashion magazines – like children's books – had been transformed into showcases for art and magic.  Publications like La Femme Chic, Les Modes Parisiennes, Gazette du Bon Ton and Vogue portrayed their illustrated models in animated and spirited situations.  Bundled up against snow flurries, walking in a spring rain, gossiping during a party, opening a letter from…whom?…they were caught in the sweeping sketches of Drian, Barbier's stylish decoration, LePape's ornate simplicity – all alive, unchaparoned, free to be happy and unabashedly elegant.

But even as a woman's waist became free and supple, her walk had suddenly become limited…as her dress became more flamboyant, her steps became small and limited.  It was necessary for one leg to completely cross in front of the other to accomplish a single step.  The hobble skirt had been introduced.  Whether it was the tapered skirts, or just lengths of fabric draped against her calves and then pulled tight, for the sake of an elaborate, hip-centric walk, she was imprisoned again.

Still, what difference did it make?  It was 1913 – what was the hurry? 

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9 responses to “The Fabric Of Society

  1. couture of comfort….of saffron and orange, ruby and honey, cadmium and sage
    hats and scarves and the clicking of bead strands, Oh My! How beautiful and how much fun to wear the silky tunics and Turkish coats…. but can we send it out to be cleaned? I don't want to do that laundry.
    Aubrey, were their shoes comfortable too? Seems like I remember square heels? or turkish slippers? hmmm I'm not sure. But I can't imagine them pairing a hobble skirt AND tippy shoes. Thanks again for the beautiful read!

  2. here's to the freedom of women's ribcages! and their hips too. has it ever been possible to be both fabulously fashionable and fully comfortable, aubrey? i mean for women. (men have had it pretty easy, methinks…)

  3. I've always longed to be a petite flower, the sort of woman who could wear narrow, sumptuous clothes, but alas I just walk too largely.

    Fashion In today's NY Times. I was reading my daily news and thought you might enjoy this slide show.

  5. Your words paint pretty pictures, Aubrey.&:o)

  6. In my fashion of history class I was told that one had to reinforce the hem with rope or with a strong flat braid so that one long step did not blow out the bottom of the skirt. You can still buy hobble skirts today. Just look under fetish wear. I'm not buying one I would be flat on my face with the first step. Blammo. But I love the mental pics you give Aubrey. It's it about time for Coco Chanel to step on the fashion scene?

  7. MarsV – they wore shoes with little curved heels, or slippers. Most dainty, and very suitable! (thanks for the slideshow: the socialite with the kimono and Vreeland – of course – looked the best, in my opinion. The models looked a bit lost.)
    IG – it always seems to have been that not caring about the discomfort your body is in was all a part of being fashionable.
    Redz – yes, inside of all of us there is a gamine struggling to get out.
    roisin – hobble skirts made their way in one form or another into the 1950's – I've always wanted to struggle into one.

  8. Love the post!Will stay away from the hobble skirt. I can't walk gracefully withOUT one. 🙂

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