La Belle Epoque to the Decade of Diana
When King Edward VII made his historic visit to France in 1904 it laid the ground for the Entente Cordiale, the treaty that ended eight centuries of hostile relations between the British and the French. It was Edward’s love of life, his good spirits and, not least, his famous list of mistresses, that won over Gallic opinion and thawed the diplomatic ice. Where politics had tarried, fashion had long since crossed the Channel. During La Belle Epoque (1871-1914) the dominance of the Parisian fashion houses had been complimented by the excellence of British tailors, regarded as the best in the world.
An early sign of how the bon vivant monarch’s diplomacy had borne fruit was the English opening up shops in Paris, at that time indisputably the centre of world fashion. In his younger days Edward had even given a boost to British fashion on occasion, as had his consort, Princess Alexandra. Amidst the imperial splendour Alexandra often displayed, Charles Redfern had created for her the graceful women’s tailored suit in 1880; whilst Edward had popularised the Homburg hat later in the decade.
Although the era had made connections that would last, adding to the cross-fertilization of the European fashion scene, the last heady days of the old Europe were at hand and an age of war and social upheaval about to begin. If the future is often born in tears, it was never more so than in The Great War (1914-1918) with its hitherto unprecedented mass slaughter, a horrifying war of attrition. Following the carnage, and as a consequence of it, an age of liberating social change began
Equality was the cry across society as the masses demanded their governments deal with the huge social and economic problems they faced. War had also aided the liberation of women, largely because they were needed to keep national economies going whilst their menfolk fought and died in the trenches. Hard won gains for the fair sex, including for the British in 1918 the right to vote for propertied women over thirty, were vibrantly reflected in the fashion of the inter-war years. A generation thirsting to live life to the full eagerly sought out the new, epitomised as ever in the changing approach to the female form.
La Belle Epoque’s Gibson Girls, feminine and fragile ideals of beauty, were replaced by vivacious Flapper Girls. Bouffant coiffures were out, short hair-cuts in, dresses with long trains swapped for above-the-knee pinafores. The new look broke not just with recent trends but with the historic portrayal of women. It was shockingly androgynous, becoming known as the garconne or bachelor girl look, which symbolised the desire of young women to enjoy their freedom. But the decade, most often revisited through old films of the young dancing frenetically to jazz rhythms from the USA, proved to be the briefest of interludes.
The optimism of the 1920s was shattered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the financial thunderclap that announced the 1930s and the Great Depression. Whilst stock exchange millionaires hurled themselves out of skyscraper windows, hard times saw fashion move away from the experimental to more traditional themes. The female silhouette once again became a more familiar one. The waist regained its prominence, as did the bust, hair was worn longer and often gently waved. Nonetheless, change continued as designers raced to keep up with lifestyle changes, such as the introduction of paid holidays for the French, which called for a casual, easy to wear wardrobe. The style we today call sportswear was born in the 1930s. (Extract © Royalty Magazine Volume 23/10)