What does a good coat do for you? The coat in the Gordon Conway 1929 illustration above ticks most of the boxes: the wool fabric delivers warmth, weatherproofing and comfort; the lavish collar looks glamourous and wonderfully cocooning; the colour gives an instant shot of pzzazz to cheer up the dreariest winter day; and the silhouette is svelte and elegant. For an expensive purchase like a coat it is essential to know what suits your shape and your needs – long and voluminous can be great on the tall but overwhelming on the petite; the camel coat is a classic but there are thousands of colour variations that will flatter (or not) different skin tones; luxury fabrics can be delicious to wear but may not withstand the worst winter conditions. Choose wisely and you’ll have a friend for life: in my own case it’s an ancient single-breasted Burberry heavy tweed overcoat, so old even the tweed is wearing thin, but it still keeps me warm and dry and still attracts compliments. I won’t ditch it until it actually falls into shreds.
The development of the overcoat has been strongly influenced by military uniforms, so its no conincidence that around this time of year the fashion magazines will be running their annual features showing military-style greatcoats against dramatic landscapes. We can all conjure the image of Napoleon on campaign in Russia, or more recent images from Grace Coddington’s stunning work for Vogue setting rugged tweeds against highland heathers. Masculine styles worn with a feminine touch are a perennial classic and most of the masculine styles referenced by designers today have evolved from nineteenth and early twentieth century military and sports tailoring. Most famously of all, Burberry and Aquascutum developed trenchcoats to protect soldiers fighting in the trenches in the First World War. The style evolved from the nineteenth century military greatcoat but with additional, practical details – shoulder straps to hold epaulettes and D-rings to attach maps.
Country sports also played their part, giving us the shooting jacket, a multi-pocketed, belted tweed; the redingote – a long fitted coat deriving from “riding coat”; the frock coat – a waisted and flared-skirted coat, deriving from the frock coat with tails used in dressage or without tails as used in show jumping and hunting; and the polo coat is a double-breasted over coat with a half belt at the back, popularised in Jazz Age America and since then by classic labels like Ralph Lauren. There were also variations on the basic styles: the Ulster coat has a short cape over the shoulders for extra rain protection (think Sherlock Holmes); the Chesterfield is a Victorian double breasted style that has become a modern classic of city-wear.
The twentieth century has seen much greater diversity of design in women’s coats. As fashion design emerged as an industry in its own right, coat design became more trend-led, designed to complement the entire outfit. So in the 1920s coats became low-waisted and bat-winged to sit comfortably over low-waisted dresses with fringing or draping.
In the 1930s Jean Patou introduced a more womanly, curvaceous line closer to the body. It is a silhouette that is already emerging in the 1929 Gordon Conway illustration at the top of this post and is highly reminiscent of the look adopted by Hollywood screen sirens.
The 1940s brought rationing and Utility. In response to shortages, the government commissioned fashion designers to produce clothing designs for mass production that used fabric with maximum efficiency. People were encouraged to re-use and re-purpose existing clothing and so female coats became more fitted to the body, shorter and in some cases closely referencing masculine styles – especially when an absent husband’s wardrobe was available to be raided.
Was this where the fashion pendulum started to swing, as each succeeding trend reacts violently against its predecessor? Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’ turned the tables on 40s austerity with circle skirts and a tiny-waisted profile that brought back some longed-for glamour. So as the 1940s became the 1950s, coats had to accommodate this return to volume with swing styles, flaring out from a narrow shoulder.
It was only a matter of time before fashion reacted again and the 1960s brought minimalist, space-age designs. Balenciaga, star couturier of the 1950s led the way with rounded, cocoon-style coats and Paris picked up the baton as Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent delivered neat coats in the high-waisted princess line. Think YSL’s iconic designs for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Givenchy’s beautiful orange coat for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Oleg Cassini’s neat ivory coloured coat for Jackie Kennedy to wear at her husband’s Presidential inauguration. These coats were the perfect complement to the pared down miniskirts and slim trousers of the decade.
The 1970s brought a certain nostalgia to coat design, from YSL’s 40s-style fox fur chubbies from the notorious 1971 collection to full length capes and great coats to balance bell-bottoms or maxi dresses that emerged in the middle of the decade. Perhaps in reaction to the ‘soft-focus’ style of the 70s, the 1980s came in with a harder edge and a sharp shoulder as designers like Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana worked on an inverted triangle profile
Where do you go to escape the constant cycle of trend reversal? The 1990s brought us deconstruction and the rise of the avant garde Belgian designers* and the Japanese designers, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. In Martin Marigela’s hands the classic camel coat was subverted, the collar attached inside out. The result is a piece that looks as if it should be familiar but unsettles the eye (see above).
Today? Globalisation has brought an “anything goes” attitude. So draw from the best of the past, work out what suits you but beware of adopting any look too literally. Find your style and personalise it, have fun and experiment.
*NOTE: The ‘Antwerp Six’ were Walter van Beirendonck; Anne Demeulemeester; Dries van Noten; Dirk van Saene; Dirk Bikkembergs; and Marina Yee. Though not strictly speaking one of the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela had graduated from the same fashion school but, rather than show under his own name in London as the Six did, he instead moved to Paris to work for Jean Paul Gaultier.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are each providing a feast for an embroiderer’s (tired) eyes. London’s V&A is celebrating the Opus Anglicanum – perhaps one of the earliest examples of national branding of a commercial product in which the collective skill of England’s medieval embroidery industry was focused on the production of ecclesiastical vestments and chivalric devices. It is truly a wonder, not only of art and artisanship but also that so many of these fragile pieces have survived through the centuries. See it in London or online before it closes on 5 February 2017.
The New York Met offers us a complete contrast with the Secret Life of Textiles, a tiny gem of a display in a single room (gallery 599 until 20 February 2017) that shows us some of the earliest examples of the lavish embroidery, voided velvets and brocades that are currently gracing every fashion publication for the autumn-winter season.
We see an exquisite Chinese ceremonial robe (above, Quing dynasty, nineteenth century) in a bright blue silk, trimmed with cat fur as a cheaper alternative to sable, ermine mink or fox. Despite economising on the fur, the silk is lavishly embroidered (see below).
Also from the Quing dynasty but an earlier eighteenth century piece is this badge of rank (below), executed in satin embroidered with silk, peacock feathers and gold thread. It shows a bear as the insignia of military rank. The elevation of the rank is underlined by the use of peacock feathers that also give the piece an iridescent glow, offsetting the gold embroidery perfectly.
There is also European work on display, including a cut voided velvet in a lush midnight blue satin fabric. This is just the kind of fabric that inspired the young Fortuny. In fact, a contemporary, Henri de Regnier, described the scene:
‘Mother and daughter open a massive chest in the corner of the room….The first appears: a fine piece of dark blue velvet made in the fifteenth century, goffered with stylish arabesques. The shade is strange, deep and pure, like the colour of night.’ (Peacock and Vine, A.S.Byatt (2016) p52-3)
If you can, see both these wonderful exhibitions and marvel at these early examples of exquisite artisanship and technical skill.
New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology is currently showing items from the Countess Greffulhe’s incredible wardrobe, on loan from Paris’s Musee Galliera. I went, wondering what relevance these nineteenth century gowns could have on twenty-first century fashion but I came away deeply inspired, and particularly by the power of the sleeve.
Much has been written about the Countess as the inspiration for Proust’s character, the Duchess of Guermantes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but in fact her wardrobe spans a wider period leading up to the Second World War. During her life she not only commissioned gowns from the leading couturiers of Paris, she actively collaborated with designers like Worth, Fortuny and Poiret in the design process. She particularly championed female designers during the 1930s – Jeanne Lanvin, Louiseboulanger and Nina Ricci and the FIT has some beautiful examples of these on show.
But back to the sleeve. The Countess’s nineteenth century Worth gowns all drew dramatic impact from their leg-o-mutton sleeves – a long sleeve, tapering from a dramatically inflated shoulder down to a tight wrist (see below for a similar Worth gown). Sleeves like this will flatter the waist and the neck, slenderising and drawing the eye. Highly fashionable during the Belle Epoque around the turn of the twentieth century, they fell out of favour in the 1920s as fashion moved to more minimalist shapes.
The Countess clearly appreciated the leg-o-mutton sleeve and it features on almost all of the earlier gowns. She even defied trends of the 1930s to use them in a show-stopper of a gown commissioned from Maggy Rouff and this one just stopped me in my tracks.
It was constructed in the simplest, unembellished black silk velvet, with a high neck, fitted bodice and a straight, full length skirt. Its full dramatic impact came from the leg-o-mutton sleeves. As a design it was timeless, in fact it recalled some of today’s designers, like Victor and Rolf and Oscar de la Renta, that have made similarly dramatic use of this type of sleeve.
Maggy Rouff (1876-1971) learnt her skills as a couturier working with her mother at the house of Drecoll. She founded her own house in 1929 and quickly established a reputation for producing exquisite evening wear. This was often cut on the bias, orientalist in influence and owed its dramatic power to cut and sculptural elements rather than embellishment. Seeing the gown on display at FIT, it seems a tragedy that Rouff is not better known today. Perhaps that is because her house did not survive long after her own retirement in 1948, closing in 1956. Whatever the reason, it would be wonderful if one of the major fashion museums would devote a show to this designer who was clearly influential in her time as well as being one of the pioneering female designers of the early twentieth century.
The best exhibitions, of fashion or anything else, leave one mulling new ideas and thoughts for days after seeing them. This one does just that and for me, it was not only a reminder of the dramatic potential of a sleeve, but also a clear demonstration of the value of knowing what suits you and defining your own look.
If you are in New York, see this show before it closes on 7 January 2017- as usual with M Saillard’s and Ms Steele’s exhibitions it is thought-provoking, inspiring and beautifully displayed. And, M Saillard, Ms Steele, if you see this, please give us a Maggy Rouff show to remind us all of the dramatic flair of this overlooked female designer.
The fashion industry is in turmoil. The internet and social media have transformed the traditional show schedule to the point where designers divide between those showing collections ready to buy and those showing to the traditional schedules, six months in advance. It can feel at times as if the poor consumer is existing in a vortex of trends, spinning faster than we can respond. Where did it all start?
London’s Fashion and Textile Museum might just have the answer. Their current Jazz Age exhibition focuses on exactly the point at which Coco Chanel was transforming Paris Ready-to-wear; Hollywood was starting to exploit the commercial possibilities of fashion in films and London was injecting glamour into the traditional migration between city and countryside.
First Hollywood. The film industry was undergoing its own disruption as talkies replaced silent movies and some of the greatest screen stars emerged: Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Hollywood engaged its own designers – Travis Banton, John Orry Kelly and Gilbert Adrian to craft the images of its stars (and the story of Adrian’s collaboration with Joan Crawford in creating the sharp shouldered silhouette has become Hollywood legend). The crucial aspect of the Hollywood business model was that they actively encouraged copying, even franchising out designs for others to reproduce and including ‘fashion shows’ within films. The longest shadow of that age is perhaps cast by Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco (1930) in which she sported full white tie evening dress – tail coat, topper and even the cigarette. The image remains iconic to this day and has inspired countless designers including YSL’s Le Smoking and John Galliano’s collections for Dior in SS2004 and for his own label in AW 05-06.
Back in the twenties, Hollywood commercialism was in stark contrast to Paris, where the divide between socialite and celebrity culture remained strong and haute couture designers strove to maintain their position as the fashion industry’s elite. This made them no less prey to the emergence of trend-driven design. Despite an unhappy period designing for Hollywood, Coco Chanel was influenced by trends closer to home, contributing to the ‘folkloric’ trend of the 20s through her interest in Eastern European and Russian embroidery during her liaison with Archduke Dimitri.
At the same time London’s reputation for eccentric practicality was emerging from the transformation of the country house weekend into a strange hybrid of a day spent at country sports and an evening of high glamour. Driving this trend was the tendency for aristocrats, deprived of their heirs by World War One, to sell to the newly rich. These new owners sought to maintain tradition at the same time as establishing their own social schedule and the 1920s house party was born, bringing with it trends of practical country tweeds (adopted by Chanel herself during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster) combined with evening black tie glamour. The whole scene was parodied perfectly by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies.
What was the legacy of these convergent transatlantic disruptions? Fashion magazines and illustration emerged as a powerful carrier for trends, supported by Hollywood’s push to commercialise looks premiered on the silver screen and a move towards more home sewing and home-made fashion.
So we may think the fashion industry is undergoing unprecedented disruption today but it is probably nothing it has not experienced before and from which it has emerged stronger. Bring it on and in the meantime, let’s just revel in a jazz age moment at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. See it in London before 15 January 2017 or online here www.ftmlondon.org.
Thanks to the ever-inspiring Amber Butchart and Adrian Tinniswood for the insight delivered by their lectures for FTM on Fashion in Film and Life in the 1920s Country House based on their recently-published books of the same names – both are wonderful reads and the former in particular a fantastic feast for the eyes.
London Hat Week, founded by the redoubtable Georgina Abbott and Rebecca Weaver goes from strength to strength. This year it delivered a cornucopia of instruction and advice to the budding milliner. Workshops covered trimmings of all kinds, base construction as well as specialist courses and a tempting suppliers’ fair with some very tempting offers.
Workshops offered the opportunity to learn from some of British millinery’s greatest – Bridget Bailey, Edwina Ibbotson just two of the stellar names on offer – but for me, the advantages were as much in the hints and tips on offer in the sidelines. So here, for fellow millinery enthusiasts, is a small digest of the small but important hints and tips on offer.
Spray starch, ironed into silk organza helps it to hold pleated folds and is a labour-saving way of preparing the fabric.
For light fabrics prone to fraying, metallic binder set in place with some glue helps to ‘finish’ the edges that are unavoidably exposed. Though, equally, never be afraid to try some ‘artistic’ fringing or fraying of edges – sometimes it works beautifully.
For intricate pleating, use bondaweb to hold fabric in place to make it easier to sew into place once you are happy with the effect.
When stiffening felt hoods use a 50-50 solution of stiffener and methylated spirits – the alcohol helps drive the solution into the felt and reduce the risk of creating white marks. The purple colouring of the methylated spirits is also a useful reminder that you have made up the solution.
When stiffening felt, use a short-haired round brush (a stencilling brush cut down is perfect) to drive the solution into the hat in small areas. Put a pin in the base of the hood to remind you of the start-finish point as you spiral down from the crown.
When draping felt, let the hood and the steam dictate the folds. It can be a daunting experience but allow the felt to adopt its natural folds. Then use dressmaker pins to score it and hold it in place and leave it to harden overnight.
Faced with a choice to two alternative thread colours (for base and trim) always choose the darker – it will be more invisible.
12cm is the standard cloche depth (measured ear-to-ear over the top of the head) – go deeper or shallower for a more extreme effect. Remember if you go shallow that you might need to wire the edge to hold the hat on (and then hide the wire under petersham or another trim).
Thread a needle using the end of the thread from the reel not the cut you have just made – your sewing will work with the weave of the thread and it will be less prone to knotting.
Use the thimble on your middle finger to push to needle through stiff fabric. It leaves the index finger free to direct the needle and will help you stitch faster with practice.
Mark the front and back of a felt hood with soap and/or bright tacking thread – ‘X’ for the front and ‘I’ for the back as the couture milliners used to do.
File down cut edges of felt to even and soften the line with fine sandpaper or a nailfile.
Though London Hat Week is over for this year, Atelier Millinery and many of the other master milliners continue to offer workshops year round so it is always worth checking their websites for details.
Velvet – isn’t it just the height of glamour? Always chic but especially on-trend this winter, with Prada’s luxe midnight velvet hiking boots, Gucci’s gorgeous teal velvet bag and Demna Gvasalia’s strapless gowns for Balenciaga.
Why do we love it so? Its extreme softness and delicacy has made it a luxury down the centuries. Elizabeth I actually made it illegal for any subject below the rank of knight to wear velvet, so concerned was she about devaluing its currency as a mark of nobility.
She need not have worried: velvet has maintained it luxury edge down the centuries. When Charles Worth, the man widely credited with creating the first haute couture fashion house, opened his design salon in 1858, he quickly became known for lavish fabrics and embellishment. This richly beaded velvet jacket from Worth even draws clear inspiration from tudor style with its structure and puffed sleeves.
Velvet seems to have originated in Baghdad in the 9th century. It reached Europe in the middle ages through Venice, the main thoroughfare for the spice route between Asia and Europe. The city has maintained a close association with velvet through the ages, culminating in Mario Fortuny’s exquisite devore and printed velvet cloaks, coats and tunics, produced in the city in the early twentieth century, and recently celebrated by A S Byatt’s excellent book, Peacock and Vine. Fortuny was an inventor and an artist – fashion was only one of his talents which also extended to lighting and theatre set design. To this day, no one has managed to discover the process he invented (and patented in 1909) to create his signature creased and crushed silk “Delphos” dresses. Lucky ladies buying the dresses received them rolled and wound in boxes.
Velvet can be made from cotton and linen – typically heavier textiles – as well as in lighter silk or silk/rayon mixes. The fabric lends itself to a range of textural effects, from devore, in which the velvet is burnt with acid to create a pattern, to crushed velvet (see left). It can also be woven in combinations of colours to make it appear iridescent.
Since the start of the twentieth century velvet has featured strongly in every decade’s fashion. In the Jazz Age of the 1920s flappers wore lustrous embroidered velvet opera coats, referenced by John Galliano in his 1998 haute couture collection for Christian Dior (below).
Art deco of the 1930s brought a more minimalist feel in which colour and design were pared back to bring out the beauty of luxury fabrics themselves, as seen below in a panne black velvet necktie trimmed with ermine.
The 1940s and 50s saw the return of colour and pattern, especially in hats as velvet was used for percher hats and half-hats. The shimmer of the fabric highlights and flatters skin tone (see above).
The greatest couturiers of those decades, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, also used velvet frequently in their collections. Dior’s H-line collection (Autumn-Winter 1954-55) was inspired by tudor court dress, while Balenciaga manipulated green velvet into a pattern mimicking astrakhan fur for this opera coat.
The 1960s saw the rise of perhaps one of the greatest designers to use velvet in his collections: Yves Saint Laurent. Who can forget his black velvet flamenco hat from the iconic portrait of Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel? Black velvet was a staple ingredient of his evening dresses and featured strongly in some of his most famous collections – as bodices in the “Russian” collection of 1976 and as knickerbockers in the “Chinese” collection of the following year.
And what better lesson for us all in how to wear it than to study Lou Lou above? Velvet needs attitude for sure but it also needs a little disrespect. Pair it with jeans for Parisienne glamour, with leather for a rock chick edge, vamp it up with black jet to reference Victoriana, or go classical with contrasting white satin. No wardrobe is complete without it.
This post first appeared as a guest blog for The Gathering Goddess