Fashion Push-Back: Tailormades

Walking Suit

It’s pretty much a given that fashions change but it doesn’t mean that change is necessarily accepted and there’s often push-back. One interesting example of this phenomenon was in during the 1890s with the increasing popularity of suits for women (aka “tailormades”). According to one commentator, a one Comtesse de Champdore, in the April 5, 1894 issue of Vogue (the precursor to today’s Vogue Magazine):

The great Parisian couturiers, with Worth, Laferriere, Felix and Doucet at their head, have put down their foot and at length carried out their threat of declaring war against tailor-made garments,which in future they will oppose tooth and nail. You may take it for granted that they would not have ventured upon such a momentous step unless they had previously assured themselves of the sanction and support of our principal leaders of fashion.

Inasmuch as the latter, at least those who influence La Mode, are no longer in the first bloom of youth it is perhaps only natural that they should have agreed to the proposal of the couturiers, since the severe simplicity of the tailor·made gowns requires a young face and figure to carry them off well, whereas beauty of a more mature type looks best when enshrouded in all kinds of flounces and furbelows. There is to be a complete change of fashion. We have done with 1830 and are back again in the Louis Quinze [Louis XV] epoch.

The balloon sleeves, the flounced skirt, the brimmed hat with feather tufts are from to-day obsolete, and the painters whom the couturiers’ designers are now studying at the Louvre are Boucher, Watteau, Lancret and Nattier. We are to come back to the paniers [panniers]; the genre Pompadour is to prevail, materials are to he transparent, colors are to be light, plenty of lace, plenty of guipure [Guipure lace], and, above all, plenty of essentially Parisian frou·frou. To use the words of Worth, “Woman is once again to become woman, and fashion is to find its task in giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it. Masculine modes are to be abandoned.”

(Note: I have broken the original passage into several paragraphs for clarity.)

Well, that’s a pronouncement. 🙂 Getting past the concept of “designer-as-dictator,” this passage is interesting in that we see a style being rejected out of hand not only do we have primarily on the basis that it’s a “masculine mode” and as such, fashion’s primary objective is “giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it.”

Why the resistance? The most obvious answers are simple: resistance to change in the status quo; it challenged established norms; and resistance to the changing role of women as more they began to enter the workforce in many Western countries for this first time in large numbers. It’s also interesting in that the style that the couturiers are advocating was the “Louis XV” style, a style that drew upon elements from the early to mid- 18th Century characterized by pale colors, silk brocades, lace, and elaborate trim.

Walking Suit c. 1896

Walking Suit, c. 1896; Nasjonallmuseet, Norway (OK-1962-0073)

But there’s also another interpretation: economics:

The decision meets with universal approbation alike on the part of our mondaines [worldly] and their tradesmen, for the Louis Quinze style is perhaps the most luxurious of all, and necessitates no end of jewelry and trimmings of every fashion and kind, all of which will help to revive trade, and perhaps render our fournisseurs [suppliers] less inclined to torment us for the payment of our bills on the time-worn pretext that “times are bad.”

Elaborate styles require more trim, expensive fabrics, and of course, accessories to include jewelry and that would keep the suppliers employed, an argument often heard today in regard to haute couture and the fashion industry in general.

Of course, one must ask if this is the opinion of just the writer or did this represent a major sentiment? Although a cursory online search yielded nothing helpful in this regard, there are hints scattered about that trends in Great Britain and America during the 1890s were going in the direction of simpler outfits for daywear as exemplified by the tailormade suit and skirt/waist combination. Yes, more conventional day dresses were also extant but what we see is greater variety of styles that were becoming available to women and especially those who were middle class.

1896 Waist Skirt Fahsion Plate

One element that would give this idea some weight is that going back to the early 1870s, Redfern, a house that had gotten its start in Britain, had built a thriving business offering women’s suits of various types aimed at women who were of the same class that also patronized Worth, Doucet, et al.

The idea of clashing trends between simpler styles and the traditional has always been a constant throughout fashion history and in many instances, it also symbolized conflicts between social and cultural ideas and in extreme instances, symbolizing seismic shifts in social and cultural attitude (the 1960 provide a prime example of this). Or perhaps we’re reading way too much into this… 🙂 In any event, it certainly reveals some cracks in the wall of seeming Victorian Era uniformity when it came to fashion and that bears further examination.

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