The Jazz Age – birth of fashion?

Centrepiece of the London Fashion and Textile Museum’s current Jazz Age exhibition

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.  1920s-tweeds

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.

flapper-dressesAt 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.


Rhapsody in Red, illustration by Gordon Conway for Britannia and Eve magazine, December 1929


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

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.

The top tips every milliner should know


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 and20161008_123544 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.

20161010_111410When 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) 20161011_193953always 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.


Is there enough velvet in your life?

Kim Basinger smoulders in the film LA Confidential

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.

Collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris

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 20161001_154021buying 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).

Balenciaga green velvet opera coat from the collection of the Fashion and Textile Museum, London

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



A Capeline never fails to flatter


A classic image of the wide-brimmed capeline is Bette Davis in Now Voyager and Bette and her genius costumer designer Orry Kelly, knew their stuff.  I’ve yet to meet the person that isn’t flattered by a wide brim.  Especially when the brim is wired – it means you can play with it, shape and angle it for maximum flattering effects.  Dipping it down over one eye, a la Bette, is a good way to go, as is getting the brim to run parallel with your jaw line, helping accentuate it.  The capeline is a marvel of engineering – practical, ergonomic and beautiful.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016


The pillbox hat – glamourous minimalism


A black velvet pillbox hat is a classic example of 1960s minimalism.  This one reminded me of the fabulous little pillbox that Audrey Hepburn wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, especially with the addition of some white spot veiling to recall the more flamboyant white feather on the front of Miss Hepburn’s hat.

The film clearly shows the transition from 1950s studied glamour to 1960s spontaneity.  The clean lines of Hepburn’s Givenchy wardrobe and hats have the simplicity of combinations she has come up with on the spot.  They look youthful and fresh compared with the high glamour of Patricia Neal’s Pauline Trigere ensembles that have the feel of an entire top-to-toe ‘look’ crafted by the designer.  Over a decade after the original ‘New Look’ of Christian Dior in 1947, it was time for a fashion re-set and the pillbox was then, and is still, the perfect minimalist touch.  Add a few feathers or a veil and create some drama.

Are you going to London Hat Week?

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016

The cloche hat: Jazz Age modernism


Nothing so epitomises the Jazz Age like a cloche hat.  First appearing around 1914 in designs by French milliners Lucy Hamar and Caroline Reboux, it was a reaction against the wildly extravagant picture hats of the Belle Epoque, groaning under the weight of their embellishment.  It summed up the modern, practical spirit of a world of female emancipation, motoring and minimalism.  The cloche looked fresh and youthful and crucially, helped to keep newly bobbed hair smooth and sleek, as it still does perfectly today.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016

And check out Jazz Age Style at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum at their Autumn blockbuster exhibition –



Glamourizing the beret


Berets are classics and for good reason.  Everyone can wear a beret but the trick is getting the angle right.  Just experiment with it: is it better dipping to right or left (very few people’s faces are symmetrical so the effect will be quite different).

Or perhaps you prefer it pushed back off the face a la Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker?  Or maybe your beret is the serious kind – a French intellectual, or a tudor-style Thomas Cromwell?

This one was inspired by Steichen’s iconic 1924 image of Gloria Swanson, eyes piercing through a veil of black lace.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016