On zeitgeist, transitional fashion and the 1910’s

I’ve been dabbling in 1910’s fashions the last few years, collecting a ton of images, reading, making some garments and experimenting with a few different systems of drafting patterns from the decade. I really like the styles of the latter half of the decade, especially, the WWI years and what little fashion there was going on between 1918 and 1920, in the wake of both a devastating war and a pandemic. The influenza of 1918-19 is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 millions of people worldwide, 3-5% of the world’s population at the time. WWI resulted in the death of about 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians, in comparison. Clearly, the late 1910’s were a bleak time to live in, why is that so fascinating?

Well, the world would never be the same again after those five years between 1914 and 1919. Part of that is about those horrifying five years and the enormous amount of human suffering and loss that happened in that short space of time, but another part is the great social changes that were brewing before the outbreak of the war, to some extent contributing to it, and were hurried along by it. Equal and universal voting rights were granted in many countries, to all genders. Women not only entered the workforce – almost all women did work before then, after all, in homes and farms, if not what we think of workplaces today – but entered a great number of professions that had previously been closed to them. Increasing numbers of women educated themselves, went into professions and became economically independent. That was never an option for many of their grandmothers; marriage was the only career open to a lot of women in the 19th century.

It was a revolution. The world became completely different in the span of less than ten short years. Of course things had to look different! Modernism also happened in the 1910’s. There were rumblings earlier, of course, but in many ways the 20th century was born in the 1910’s. Fashion may be frivolous compared to pandemics and suffrage, but you still have to wear clothes, and fashion always reflects the zeitgeist.

So the style on the left somehow morphed into the style on the right . Not overnight, although that’s how it often seems to figure in the minds of people who are not overly interested in the history of fashion. There was a transition, and that’s fascinating to me; the weirdness of transitional fashions, the odd things that happen to what people wear in times of great upheaval and change. When an entire society restructures itself over a short time span, that change is reflected in the clothes, because fashion reflects zeitgeist. And when fashion changes very drastically in very short time, there are transitional fashions between the old and the new. They can be very odd indeed.

All this is part subjective and part my own temporal goggles, so to speak. We are all stuck in our own time, our own zeitgeist, and everything we look at is filtered through that. What I think looks good now is a fairly 2016 idea of what looks good, even if I have my own biases, personal taste and so on. Have you ever re-watched a costume film or series 10, 15, 20 years after it was made and been surprised by how much more dated the hair, clothes, make-up and silhouettes look than you thought they were the first time you saw it? That’s the temporal goggles in play. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for all the trees. We are often blind to the current idea of what looks good, because we are right in the middle of it. It doesn’t look, like, so 2016, it looks normal. Fifteen years later, though, it’s a different story.

But I digress. (Always.) Transitional fashions have a special place in my heart because in the process of getting from point A to point B very hurriedly, say from the elaborate, somewhat restrictive layers of Edwardian fashions to the stark simplicity of the 1920’s, things often end up looking… awkward. Bear in mind, also, that no one knew along the way what point B would look like. The direction is only clear in hindsight. It’s probably possible to see the outline of some sort of transition, and the need for something new and radically different must have been there, but not more than that. Things need to look different, to be different. The way we used to dress five years ago doesn’t work in the lives we live today. It feels wrong, and besides, everything is rationed now. Let’s try something else! The new tonneau silhouette, how about that? Yeah, that hourglass figure we used to like feels completely out of touch now that everything is so different, and I can’t be bothered to wear all those undergarments to work anyway. Why not? Let’s try that!

And so suddenly the barrel is the new, exciting silhouette for five minutes, because what the hell, it’s different. Modern. The old rules don’t apply anymore. It’s refreshing, we’ll try it. And you end up with a few trends so weird in relation to both past and following generations of temporal goggles that they feel like an elaborate joke. I’m not sure I buy into the idea that there’s some sort of biological imperative behind our longstanding fondness for small waists, the history of clothing in other cultures than the Western world would give the lie to that, I think. But it’s clearly something we’ve been into here for centuries, and WWI and 1920’s fashions are one of the few blips on the history of Western fashion that deviate from that.

WWI-era fashions are not, and I hate this word, flattering to the contemporary eye. That is, they don’t make you look as thin as possible. That’s oddly liberating, while making these styles difficult to appreciate through a contemporary lens.

The photos are autochromes from the first three decades of the 20th century. I do not own any of them.

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