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Fifty fabulous frocks – Bath Fashion Museum

Think of the biggest names in fashion, and you’re likely to see their creations have made it to the party to celebrate 50 years of the Fashion Museum in Bath. Fifty Fabulous Frocks curates pieces from the top fashion designers from Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Chanel to Quant, McQueen, and Erdem, as well as historical creations.

Frock may mean dress to us now, but it actually has a wider meaning:

“Frock: historically referred to an article of clothing; in the 17th century specifically a workman’s outer garment; in the 18th century a man’s loose fitting coat; a religious robe; more typically a woman’s dress.”

As a keen frock lover myself, I headed to the museum for some vintage fashion inspiration. Here are my top five from the collection, not in any particular order…

1. Red mini, André Courrèges, 1960s

Andres Courreges red mini dress

Swinging sixties chic with the optimism of the decade is conjured by this simple, angular mini dress in block red by André Courrèges. A designer for Balenciaga before establishing his own fashion house, he introduced a radically different line in 1964 with dresses like this worn with flat boots, goggles and helmets – outfits ready for the ultra-modern space age. This frock was worn by Ernestine Carter, fashion editor for the Sunday Times (1955-1972), who called 1963 the Year of the Leg. Indeed, as Courrèges  started to shorten skirts at the same time as Mary Quant, the debate on the mini’s originator rages on. An engineer by training, his designs are functional and in heavier fabrics, and he also helped to popularise trousers for women. Go back to the future in ’60s style with this footage of one of his fashion shows. (I’m unsure whether the girls are being locked away for another fashion show or being sent into space…?)

2. Mickey Mouse Dress, 1930s

mickey mouse dress

This quirky dress from the late 1930s made it into my top five, despite a dislike of product placement or branding on clothes, and an ambivalence towards Disney. The maker of the dress is unknown but according to the exhibition, from its skimpiness and narrow seam allowances, it appears to have been mass-produced for wholesale. Without the Mickey motif, the puffed sleeves and fitted waist make it a style I would wear today. Fashion seems to maintain a fascination with cartoons from Minnie Mouse hairstyles at Zac Posen to Manga inspired fashion at Gucci

3. Opera Coat, Christian Dior, late 1950s

Dior coat

The Dior New Look was such a fashion shift that this red satin opera coat had to make it into the top five. Dior’s lines marked a return to a ‘feminine’, curvaceous shape and a luxurious look using lots of fabric after war-time’s less restrictive lines and scrimping on fabric. The bar was the ultimate hourglass outfit with narrow shoulders, nipped in waist and padded hips and full, flared skirt.  Dior was also a marketing innovator by devising theatrical shows, creating trends every six months and diversifying his market. This coat is not couture, but from Dior London, through which his designs were licensed and sold at cheaper prices.  I can just picture this coat modelled in one of Norman Parkinson’s photographs, epitomising effortless glamour.

4. Opulent mantua, 1760s

Mantua 1760s

To show the breadth of the collection, I wanted to include a pre-20th century piece, and so opted for this mantua from the 1760s. Although highly impractical, its sheer opulence and beautiful embroidery made it fit for a top five. This piece was created around the same time as the Assembly Rooms in Bath, home to the Fashion Museum today, but it would have likely been worn in even grander venues, perhaps weddings or birthdays at the Royal Court. The expensive fabric and design would signify the wealth and status of the wearer immediately, and although the owner is unknown, the Museum thinks it is likely it was worn at the court of King George III, who succeeded in 1760.

Before ‘make do and mend’ and the resistance to fast fashion, in the 1760s, fabrics were re-used and clothes ‘upcycled’. The exhibition quotes from a Mrs Papendiek in the 1780s:

“Fashion was not then… the matter of continual change. A silk gown would go on for years a little fashioned up with new trimmings.”

5. Green silk dress, Jeanne Lanvin, 1919 

Jeanne Lanvin dress 1919

This green shot silk pannier dress by Jeanne Lanvin illustrates the word ‘frock’ perfectly. The influence is 18th century with the full skirt requiring panniers, which are sewn into the dress. Lanvin began designing for children, and this fashion house’s logo remains a mother and child. As the Museum suggests, this dress certainly has a child’s birthday party feel. I love the way that now looking back it’s going against our idea of the period with its streamlined flapper look. Alber Erbaz now heads up the Lanvin label, and one of his dress won the 2005 Dress of the Year award showing some affinity with this dress. The footage below features the designer herself in fittings. Don’t miss the pockets in the first dress shown – the detail is absolutely beautiful. 

Happy Birthday Bath Fashion Museum

Fifty Fabulous Frocks is just part of the Fashion Museum’s fiftieth birthday celebrations. The museum was established in the sixties (initially called the Museum of Costume Bath) by Doris Langley Moore and Bath City Council. Fifty Fabulous Frocks runs until the end of 2013. If you’re in Bath next month, check out Bath in Fashion 2013 too.

In case you can’t make the exhibition, look out for another post featuring the next top 5. After all, there are another 45 fabulous frocks to choose…

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Flapper fashion: 1920s dress-up in Berlin

After blogging about dressing up for Bohème Sauvage in Berlin a few weeks ago, I thought I’d share the outfit that I wore to that very 1920s party, which had the period’s sensibility without any real efforts at authenticity. All were picked up cheaply at vintage stores or had been hiding in my wardrobe just waiting to go to the ball…

Flapper(ish) Dress

When we think of 1920s style, it’s all about the flapper. Zelda Fitzgerald, dubbed the first by her husband, writes in a “Eulogy to the Flapper”:

“The Flapper awoke from her shoes of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure … she was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart…”

The flapper sticks in our imagination starting with film of the same name in 1920 starring Olive Thomas, and then through the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos via Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Josephine Baker. Although many of the women in the 1920s wore flapper attire, they did not necessarily have the attitude – it was just fashion. However, part of its appeal for us now are those glamorous, wild connotations. These young women were taking a more active role, living for the moment after the insecurities of war (and won the ‘flapper’ vote in 1928 in the UK). The archetypal image of a flapper is heavily made-up, doing the Charleston, cigarette or cocktail in hand – stepping out in domains where women were not supposed to tread, let alone kick up their heels.

As fashion and cultural change are intertwined, women’s more active role during the First World War was reflected in post-war trends. Women took on men’s roles in factories and wore loose full knickers – slack girls, while Coco Chanel introduced less restrictive fashions, pauvre chic, in jersey. And of course women needed looser, shorter dresses for dancing the tango – just in vogue from Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, I was really interested to read that when Paul Poiret’s neo-classical empire line dresses came into sale pre-war, the Edwardian corset did not completely disappear. The boyish dresses still necessitated a corset, which was straight up and down rather than an S shape, for those with the figure of a less lithe boy.

The flapper dress was certainly what I had in mind when I went on a mission to Glasgow’s vintage treasure troves. In Circa Vintage, I tried on a flapper style dress with tassels but it just looked awful and shapeless (I don’t have a boyish flapper figure). Then my fellow vintage shopper spotted this dress below. It’s 1980s /early 1990s but the characteristic drop waist is there, it’s got a low neckline and back, and the diamontes are in keeping.

vintage 1920s flapper dress and accessories Boheme Sauvage

Headdress

Headgear is key to the 1920s look – whether a turban, cloche, birdcage hairpiece or feather headdress. It’s in this area that your dress-up can become costume, but it’s also what makes you feel most of that period and out of time. That’s why the Bohème Sauvage website encourages us to wear our hair vintage style:

“We especially want to encourage the ladies to creative use of headdresses and hats, as well as exciting modelling of hair (keyword: water wave) and the use of various make-up techniques (keyword: smoky eyes and pale complexion).”

The headband (pictured above) picked up at a vintage fair here in Bristol, helped me get in the mood. The girl whose birthday took us on this trip to Berlin, was treated to a bob, and another of our party had a go at water waves (see the flyer below). If you want to read more about 1920s hair and make-up, pay a visit to Come Back in Time.

Water wave - Boheme Sauvage ticket

1920s jewellery

I imagine a flapper wearing long pearls as in this iconic photo (by Eugene Robert Richee, 1928) of queen of the bob, Louise Brooks. A long string of black beads which I bought in a charity shop years ago, were flung on (needless to say not really anywhere near Ms Brooks).

Louise Brooks peals - Pandora's Box

Cape

The 1920s style of coat that appeals to me the most has long lapels, perhaps with (fake) fur, and one large button to fasten it. However there weren’t any coming my way so I chose this cape. It’s not of the period but it’s in keeping and worked with the dress. Although in a ‘Style Me Vintage’ guide I read, they advise eschewing the cliché of long gloves, I added them for extra sophistication and again to pull me out of the present time.

cape for 1920s vintage dress-up

Bag

I have a rather shameful love of handbags of all shapes and sizes so I thought this part would be easy, but when I looked in my wardrobe the right thing did not jump out. So I opted for this simple purse.

1920s style silver purse with Boheme Sauvage tickets

Shoes

I must confess I did look in high street shops for a new pair of Mary Jane T-bar shoes as I thought they were a staple that I’d wear again and again. However, luckily I remembered a pair of Red or Dead shoes that I’d bought around 10 years ago in my wardrobe. Although the heel is perhaps too high and not rounded enough, they were the style of the decade – the T-bar and the suede element felt right. So they got to dance the night away. (And I am very pleased about this after reading WRAP’s report that there is £30 billion unused clothes in our collective wardrobes.)

Red or Dead T-bar shoes with metal heel - 1920s vibe.

And for the boys… or girls

Vintage style is not just for the flappers. Gangsters, cads and artistic bohemians also need to look the part and Bohème Sauvage welcomed a mix ‘n match style for men too. We had the upper class toffs in top hat and tails, the middle class professionals in pinstripes with trilbies or twisting it to a gangster look, and the workers or starving artists in baggy Oxfords with braces and flat caps. Flapper frenzy was avoided by some women too taking on male attire but it was notable that the worker look outlined above was chosen by women, over the others, so there were no Marlene Dietrich look-alikes. Monocles were optional for men and women…

Over to you flappers …

Do you like to dress as a flapper? What style would you choose? Who are the ‘flappers’ of 2013?

If you want to find out more about 1920s fashion (and look at lovely illustrations and photos of the period) check out the ‘Fashion Sourcebook – 1920s‘ by Charlotte Fiell and Emanuelle Dirix (Fiell Publishing Limited,2012).

There are lots of vintage style books on the market at the moment, and one of my lovely friends treated me to ‘Style Me Vintage’ by Naomi Thompson, Katie Reynolds, Belinda Hay (Pavillion Books, 2012).