All illustrations from L’Officiel 1924
The 1920’s. Finally, we made it
The 5th season of Downton Abbey which has just begun airing on PBS finds the Crawley family and servants in the year 1924, a time rife with change, a time when modernism ran rampant. It manifested in literature, in art, architecture, in industrial design, graphic design, photography and, of course, in fashion. The waist was dismissed, assigned to hover abstractly over the lower hip like a vestigial limb. The bosom was banished. Although a mere hint remained it was never obligatory. Western culture’s fashionable body, having been engineered to suspend from either the waist or the bust for hundreds of years, relocated to the shoulders. Common to most modes of dress found outside of Europe, this particular fashion innovation hadn’t been seen in Western costume since the Middle Ages, and more distinctly, the fall of Rome. It is why Diana Vreeland once proclaimed the 1920s as her favorite decade citing that it was the first time in history women wore their hair short. The first time their ankles were revealed. It’s the time of the Bauhaus, of Man Ray, of Jazz and Chanel. For women’s dress it was an utter schism.
The beauty of Downton Abbey is that it’s allowed us to follow fashion from the sinking of the Titanic through a World War and into the world of tomorrow — all chronicled through a fantastically written, superbly acted, lavishly produced and exquisitely costumed soap opera. And now with the 5th season beginning the timing couldn’t be better for fabulous 1920s styles to go on display every week for the next two months or so.
The ‘20s is one of the most misunderstood decades. It is consistently butchered and shortchanged, scantily summed up with something vaguely flapper-ish. But the ’20s saw one of the most radical shifts in dress of the last 300 years. While dress reform was already underway by the time Paul Poiret was ruling fashion in 1909 it wasn’t until his success that fashion was challenged directly. Poiret offered revolution in the guise of the exotic. His interest in global dress provided vivid contradiction to the status quo (his innovative though eccentric Harem pantnts were highlighted in Downton Abbey season 2). But World War I brought on many changes and Poiret could not follow up on the modernism he instigated. Credit is given to Chanel for inventing the modern woman’s wardrobe though it is likely her then rival and now virtual unknown Jean Patou who was a more impactful designer. Regardless, both of them made extremely modern, cleverly engineered and flawlessly styled sportswear — obliging the demand for a more active and confident means of dress for even the most fashionable woman.
The effect is not unlike what designers Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen and Phoebe Philo have been getting at in the last couple years or what Armani has been proposing for the last 40. As a sportswear revival goes underway, led by likes of The Olsen twins and Christophe Lemaire, Downtown Abbey offers itself as a compelling series of fashion plates granting a detailed and insightful peek into one of the most exciting and eternally relevant eras of fashion.