How Modernist Fashion of 1900s-1930s Reflect Their Theories

This essay sample essay on Modernist Fashion offers an extensive list of facts and arguments related to it. The essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion are provided below.

A definition of Modernism is ‘The deliberate departure from tradition and the use of innovative forms of expression that distinguish many styles in the arts and literature of the 20th century. (The American Heritage-Dictionary of the English Language(2000)in Beard 2002: online) To explain this in more detail, there were many stylistic features that described the Modern Movement in art and design, these include ‘truth to material’, this means an honesty, in the sense that decoration must not mask the way a product is made, it’s constructional basis or spatial arrangement; ‘acceptance of technology’, meaning the use of new materials is encouraged together with the mindset that products could be mass-produced and consumed; ‘functionalism’, meaning that form should be adapted to use material and structure as in ‘form follows function’; the ‘rejection of historical styles’ and ‘internationalism’ meaning there are no divisions between disciplines and class of consumer.

The concept of Modernism was a response to the growth of industrialisation from the 18th into the 20th century known as the ‘machine age’ and it affected all aspects of design.

I am going to look at fashion design between 1900 and the 1930’s and analyse its reflection of these Modernist theories. Typical fashions in 1900 featured the corset. Women were of S-shaped stance; the corset pushed the bust forward and the hips back, and this was combined with a bell-shaped skirt.

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1910 brought a fundamental change in female dress, which seemed to be influenced by the Russian Ballet but there were other major aspects of contemporary culture that can answer to this. French designer, Paul Poiret was the most dominant force in fashion in the first decade of the twentieth century. He designed loose elegant dresses with high waistlines and no corset beneath in 1907.

Womens Fashion In The 1900s

Women’s clothes were softer in line, with an emphasis on slimness and followed a woman’s body rather than forcing the body to conform to clothing as previous dress had done. This is recognised as the start of the tubular silhouette, which remained fashionable to the end of the 1920’s. This style of dress links with Modernist ideas as its emphasis is on the natural motion of the body, which is the essence of ‘truth to material’ and ‘form follows function’. This style of dress goes further to link with aspects of Modernism as Richard Martin claims. This revolution in fashion that saw 3D forms of corseted and buttressed structures dissolve into flat planes, cylinders and shapes suggested abstraction rather than representation, which links with the modern art of Cubism at the time. (Montebello in Martin 1999:7)

The dress shows a complex and random pattern of shapes and lines that resembles cubist art and may have been influenced by architecture. The form of the dress is also made up of shapes and flat planes that are structurally pleated or drape the body in stark contrast. Cubist art suggests motion, which is associated closely to Modernism as Modernism saw the popularisation of the automobile and also reflected the quickly changing times. During the First World War (1914-1919), great changes came to couture. Poiret and other fashion designers were called into the military and their couture houses closed. As male designers defended France a young female designer came of age.

In 1915, Gabrielle Chanel took control of modern fashions, producing hats, and designing loose-fitting chemise dresses with belts at the hip. By 1916 she was making casual pleated skirts from the practical Rodier wool jersey that before the war had been restricted to men’s underwear, and topping them with sailor’s sweaters in the mode of sportswear. At this time of wartime shortages, Chanel’s practical but expensive jersey’s seemed an instant modern classic, appealing to wealthy clients because they made the rich look young and casual. (Tirocchi date not known:online) The war brought about other changes in fashion. Women’s hemlines, which had risen from floor length to ankle length prior to the war, rose to mid calf length by 1916.

Hobble skirts were instantly replaced in favour of wider more practical skirts, and women’s trousers and short hair were promoted as practical fashions for war work. Although these changes were a result of the war they tie in with the Modernist concept that again ‘form follows function’. After the war Oriental fashions continued to be popular, and they were eventually stylised into a form, which came to be known as Art Deco. (Wollen 1999:11) These Oriental fashions linked with some of the modern design of the time and was seen as a part of the interest in ‘novelty’ in the 19th century. Novelty in this sense meant ‘looking at things in a different way’ and demonstrated designs interest in the Far East.

Post-war clothing reflected women’s changing roles in modern society, particularly with the idea of freedom for women. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 and were entering the workforce in record numbers. Forward-looking younger women now made sportswear into the greatest change in post-war fashion. The tubular dresses had now evolved into a similar silhouette that now sported shorter skirts with pleats, gathers or splits to allow motion to rule women’s fashion. This shift towards functionalism again demonstrates Modernist theory as clothing and fashions became practical for a range of active bodily movements. Women wore ‘flatteners’ to have a more boyish bust and the waist disappeared.

Chanel’s designs took dominance and a new type of women came into existence- androgyny. This look was known as ‘the Flapper’ in America and embodied the modern spirit of the Jazz Age. Chanel androgyny image and analysis. Chanel’s biographer, Edmonde Charles-Roux, states that Chanel was responsible for adopting sportswear to daily life and capitalizing on ‘the feminising of masculine fashion’. Chanel created the ‘poor look’, the sweaters, jersey dresses and little suits. The aim was to make people of all social status look the same, like ‘the girl in the street” This was the style of the heroines of the 1920s yet it was also a classless style and so Chanel’s designs were soon adapted for the mass market.

This was the dashing streamlined look of the twenties, which captured the spirit of modernity. Chanel is also known for the ‘little black dress’ where fuss and detail are removed, an item that now presented in varying forms and styles, is still considered a fashion essential. This is another reflection of Modernism as the design is simple; it’s basic form and is not cluttered with unnecessary decoration. This trend showed a more masculine tailored look in comparison to the pre-war fashions, which in itself relates to the masculinity associated with many aspects of Modernism. This trend may have been the resultant of women trying to find their place in the masculine Modern world.

Several Paris firms such as Doucet, Doivillet and Drecoll closed their doors and even Poiret who had done so much to revolutionise fashion in 1910 now found himself out of step with the times. (Tirocchi date unknown:online) Chanel was a friend of Cocteau, Picasso and Stravinsky and she too felt the influence of Modern Art…. Between 1925 and 1935 the strong influence of functionalism displaced ornamentation to take the form of accessories- costume jewellery; Chanel also held this forte. Clothes had become rationalised, as the modernist aesthetic had demanded. (Wollen 1999:12) Schiaparelli was another majoring force within fashion design at this time. She rejected 1920’s modernism of Chanel turning instead to Surrealism.

She paid homage to Poiret and like him surrounded herself with artists like Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Meret Oppenheim. Schiaparelli also experimented with new materials like cellophane, glass, plastic, and parachute silk. Schiaparelli had an architectural approach to dress, she directed her fantasy in design towards hats, gloves and shoes which can be experimented with without affecting the basic form of the body. (Wollen 1999:14) The body must never be forgotten and it must be used as a frame is used in a building. The vagaries of lines and details or any asymmetric effect must have a close connection with this frame. (Schiaparelli (1954) in Wollen 1999:14)

The development of man-made fabrics during 1930’s and improving technology of mass production meant that simple, well-cut clothes were brought to a wider range of people (Allan 1973:23) 1930’s dresses were slim and straight, sometimes wider at the shoulders than at the hips and were sleek, flowing and streamlined as were many other products of design in the Modernist period. The streamlining was also a link to motion and speed as women started driving. This was of major influence to fashion trends as the image below shows, fashion images showed women with cars, outside and moving and so to be fashionable and modern were to be moving. The 1930’s also saw women in trousers which links to masculinity and ‘form follows function’. The post war boom was short lived and the 1920’s and 30’s suffered from a slump named the Depression.

The Depression helped bring the clothes of the different classes together at least in general line and now a new process had begun which brought the creations of the great Paris houses within the reach of nearly every woman. Before 1930 buyers (especially American buyers) purchased several dozen copies of each selected model shown in Paris and resold them to a wealthy clientele. But after the slump American authorities imposed a duty of up to 90% on the cost of the original model. Toiles were allowed duty-free. Each toile was supplied with full directions for making it up and so a simplified version could be sold very cheaply. There was also the growing use of synthetic fabrics. Even the factory girl could now afford to purchase artificial silk stockings. Costume and Fashion fill in***) These points reflect the Modernist feature of ‘Internationalism’.

Divisions between the classes of the consumer had minimised. Conclusion I think the fashions of the 1900’s into the 1930’s reflect many aspects of Modernist theory. Mass manufacturing, increased consumerism and the speed of change are all characteristics of the Modern period and these factors altered the fashion industry and trends. The rejection of historical styles has been evident, as I’ve studied the typical looks for each decade and the sweeping trends. Fashion trends, silhouettes and fabrics rapidly became old and fashionable women had to have the latest look in fashion. Modernism is characterised by the love of the new.

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How Modernist Fashion of 1900s-1930s Reflect Their Theories. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

How Modernist Fashion of 1900s-1930s Reflect Their Theories
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