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Entries in 1910s (33)


The Importance of Wearing One’s Chin High

Last December, I saw MTC’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It has always been one of my favourite plays, ever since I saw the 1952 version of the film as a child. This time I was much struck by one of Lady Bracknell’s lines – I found it exquisitely humorous.

She instructs Cecily Cardew to raise her chin, for chins are being worn high nowadays, and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax obligingly demonstrates the correct angle.

Here, in the inimitable Oscar Wilde’s words:

Lady Bracknell: [Glares at Jack for a few moments. Then bends, with a practised smile, to Cecily.] Kindly turn round, sweet child. [Cecily turns completely round.] No, the side view is what I want. [Cecily presents her profile.] Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.

Further research discovered another amusing influence on the height of chins. Earnest was written in August 1894, but just 25 or so years later, chins were once more being worn high – brought back into fashion along with the cloche hat:

[The cloche], fashionable from 1908 to 1933, was one of the most extreme forms of millinery ever, with an appearance that resembled a helmet. It was the iconic hat of the twenties decade and will ever be associated with the flappers of the era. It was responsible for the period stance we associate with the era. To wear one correctly the hat had to be all but pulled over the eyes, making the wearer have to lift up the head, whilst peering snootily down the nose. (From Fashion Era.)

How wonderful! I have a couple of cloches among my repertoire and hereby resolve to practice the stance.

Some examples of cloche hats – and appropriate chin inclination

Making the Picture

I had a lot of fun dressing up for this picture. To evoke the look of the era, I pulled out my oldest hat, from 1910, navy wool felt trimmed with a baby blue ostrich feather; a vintage bandeau/collar/sleep mask (the Etsy seller from whom I bought it was undecided as to its original purpose); a newish royal purple blouse by Cue that would set off the collar to admiration; a pair of 70s lace gloves with frilled cuffs; and finally a pair of amazonite oblong earrings. A low camera angle helps to achieve the correct degree of snootiness.

The background image is an amazing Art Nouveau door I photographed in Barcelona, situated on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. It’s carved from beautiful golden wood and inset with stained glass. 


The Hat’s Out of the Bag!

This hat is most likely a reproduction, custom-made for a theatre

A shopping time limit and baggage allowance together are not two conditions conducive to tranquil vintage shopping. So when a friend and I were browsing in the Zoo Emporium in Sydney, I did not expect to buy anything.

Not until, however, I looked up at a looming mannequin and saw a 1920s style fan hat that literally made me catch my breath in awe. “Look!” I gasped. My friend’s eyes nearly popped out.

Our amazement was due to the sheer size of this theatrical extravaganza of ostrich feathers. It must have been a metre wide. “Try it on!” my friend urged. I paraded around, testing its balance, supposing it would be too expensive anyway. Upon enquiry, we heard everything in the store was half price, and the hat was $33. Our jaws dropped. Even $66 would be cheap.

“You must buy it!” my friend declared firmly. Assuredly, but what on earth would they say at check-in at the airport? She pooh-poohed my concerns. Easy for her. A plastic bag big enough to fit the hat was found. Conveniently, it was transparent, enabling the airline staff to see the harmless contents.

A more modest version of a fan hat from a 1914 fashion plate by George Barbier, for ‘Journal des Dames et des Modes’

Later that day …

Waiting in line at check-in, I hoped that I would get the male steward. They’re nearly always a little more easy-going than the gimlet-eyed women. Unfortunately, I was waved to another counter manned by a woman. And that’s when the trouble began.

My carry-on baggage clocked in at an acceptable 10.4kg, but the stewardess eyed my handbag and hat in disapproval. I had three items. Her lip curled. “Can you fit the hat in the bag?” No, I explained, I couldn’t possibly do that because the hat was vintage, fragile, and it would get squashed. Adding my handbag to my baggage still made the latter too heavy for the overhead lockers.

“I’ll have it under the seat in front of me,” I pointed out – but no: I would still be carrying three items. The woman asked the male steward his opinion. He shrugged. I had the distinct impression he thought his colleague was making an unnecessary fuss.

Helpfully, the stewardess suggested I remove clothing from my bag and put it on, so that the carry-on would be light enough to fit my handbag. I looked at her like the nincompoop she was. It was practically still summer – what did she think I had in my bag? A fur coat? I didn’t have enough clothes in there to put on to make a difference.

I needed to lose weight fast, or I would obliged to pay an extra $70 to check my baggage – which would defeat the purpose of buying a cheap flight. It seemed we were at an impasse, but for a divine inspiration that struck me suddenly: “What if I wear the hat?” I asked.

Did such an enormous hat actually count as a hat, or a piece of furniture?

The woman stared at me. I could see the cogs ticking over. Did such an enormous hat actually count as a hat, or a piece of furniture? She referred to the steward again. “It is a hat,” he shrugged. “People can wear hats.”

At last she was satisfied and warned me that I would have to wear the hat through security, and on board the plane. “Okay,” I replied meekly, suppressing my triumph.

Approaching security, I paused. Was I really going to put on the hat now? I rather suspected that the mere sight of it on my head would be enough to have security tackle me to the floor and slap handcuffs on me. I decided I would not wear the hat, and I sailed through with flying colours. No-one was at all interested in me or my belongings.

I did suffer a slight check when I saw the same steward from check-in scanning our boarding passes, and rather sheepishly tried to obscure my hat behind my body. He grinned and waved me through. I was going home!


The First Vamp (in Hollywood, not Transylvania) 

Theda Bara dripping with pearlsTheda Bara (1885–1955), an American silent film actress who never made a talkie, was one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her exotic origin as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor was entirely fabricated, an aura of mystery and an exotic background being at the time a popular method of promotion.

Her proclivity for wearing very revealing costumes in her films (jewelled pasties were a favourite accessory), eventually – and unsurprisingly – lead her to becoming typecast as the femme fatale. Early on, she had earned herself the nickname of ‘The Vamp’: short for vampire, and slang for a sexually predatory woman. She was even celebrated in songs of the era. Despite the fact that she took her craft seriously, Bara had played too many exotic roles as the vamp that no amount of wholesome heroines and tragic Juliets could eradicate. 

Bara as Cleopatra – only costume stills of this film survive todayAt the height of her fame, Bara was earning $4000 per week – a huge amount of money for the time (and still not bad for now!), and made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926. Owing to a fire in 1937 at Fox Studios, when most of the studio’s nitrate films of the silent era were destroyed, only six complete prints survive today.

You have to admit though, that those early days of Hollywood in the 20s did produce some pretty fabulous costumes. One can’t blame her for being tempted – or tempting.

Note: thanks to Hannah K at Stuff Nobody Cares About for bringing The Vamp to my attention.

Bara as CleopatraBara as CleopatraBara as Salomé

Theda Bara dressed, as herself, 1916. Image from


The Grandmother’s Chest

I had been searching for an antique white cotton lace blouse for years. By antique, I mean the turn of last century. I had no particular reason for that bee in my bonnet, I just liked the idea of owning something that old, fragile, and hand-made.

I have also always liked lace, and unless you can afford couture, most lace today is made by machine – and even worse, using synthetic or poor quality thread. I particularly dislike that cheap lace made in China that trims all sorts of inexpensive garments, especially when it pils – ugh!

The store front (click for larger version)So while I was wandering the fascinating and twisty streets of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic, I was thrilled to discover a vintage boutique, called L’Arca de L’Avia (The Grandmother’s Chest). Housed in what might have historically been storage rooms, the boutique is dominated by the stone arches overhead, so that one feels like one is entering a vast, subterranean treasure trove.

It really was like an Aladdin’s Cave, bursting with vintage stock – impossible to take it all in. At the back of the store was a bridal centre, where they made new, or altered old, gowns. They had a large collection of vintage veils and other bridal accessories.

The lingerie section had a few 1920s and 30s slips and nightgowns, as well as a large selection of Victorian white lace blouses.

To the left of the door was a section devoted to nineteenth and early twentieth century lingerie, including two racks full of white lace blouses. They were all delicate and beautifully made, and in pristine condition. The prices ranged from around €75–100, which I thought wasn’t too bad considering their quality. I would never even see anything like this in Australia. After exploring the rest of the store, I returned to them and found three I liked.

I would never even see anything like this in Australia.

Looking into the second chamber, which stored all sorts of haberdashery (vintage lace, buttons, feathers), and precious accessories in glass display cases, such as antique fans and purses.

After trying them on I couldn’t choose between them, and for such a relatively expensive purchase, I decided to consider them for a day or two. Returning on my last rainy afternoon in Barcelona, (pleased I was able to actually find the store again), I made my selection. There was only one tiny thing wrong with the blouse: the ribbon that pulled it tight at the waist was sewn down on one side of the placket. The helpful shop assistant exclaimed in dismay and told me she would fix it, if I could return in a couple of hours. Certainly I could, I assured her. I would come after a visit to the national art gallery, but before the Spanish guitar concert.

And that is how I brought home to Australia my little piece of Spanish treasure. (Here I am wearing the blouse.)


The Breathtaking Jeanne Lanvin

Pochoir illustration for a Lanvin invitation to the private fashion show held within the boutique; 1910–1912.

Lanvin, by Dean L. Merceron, Rizzoli 2007Out of all my fashion books, this large-format book Lanvin has to be one of the most beautiful, both in subject matter and presentation.

The book traces the history of the House of Lanvin, mostly covering the work of its founder, Jeanne Lanvin. The House was opened in 1909 and has survived in near-continuous existence to the present day (with Alber Elbaz currently at the helm). Like Chanel, Lanvin began with millinery. Then came the exquisitely detailed, sophisticated and successful range of children’s wear; her muse was her own daughter, Marguerite Marie-Blanche.

1920s hats

In the book, Merceron writes:

The designs of Madame Lanvin had various readily identifiable characteristics including beading and embroidery, ethnographic inspiration, sublime combinations of texture and textiles, and, most of all, original use of colour.

And throughout the book, this is made evident by hundreds of images: archival sketches and photographs, and contemporary photography. It’s absolutely wonderful to see spread upon spread of original sketches side by side with pictures of models of the day, as well as full colour images of the garment in whole and in detail. The attention to fine detail in these couture garments is utterly breathtaking.

(Left) Georges Lepape illustration, 1924; early 1920s dress and hat; (right) late 1930s hats

Actress Jane Renouardt in a robe de style featuring a pearl and crystal bow; 1925Fashion lover or fashion student, there is so much to be learned from this book; even merely reading the captions accompanying the images on the 300+ pages provides a wealth of information. There is a short epilogue on Alber Elbaz, but this mainly covers catwalk images and advertising campaigns, and provides little information of interest. Normally $85, and currently on sale for just over US$50 on Amazon, Lanvin is an expensive investment, but well worth it.

Scroll down for more images. (Click for larger versions.)

Metallic lamé robe de style; 1922Appliqué detail and rendering of ‘Marche Nuptiale’; 1923

Illustration created for the Brazilian market of mother and child in gowns; around 1925

‘Brimborion’, a modernised version of a kimono with sliced sleeves, 1923; appliqué detail and rendering of ‘Veronique’, 1925

Front and back views of a black silk chiffon evening gown, created for the collection of winter 1948–49

Evening dress, 1936; detail of gilt kidskin strips appliquéd onto white silk chiffon. An identical linear pattern is present on some of the angel robes painted by Fra Angelico.

‘Fausta’, winter 1928, a navy blue silk chiffon dress over a navy blue silk crepe underpinning; the original gouache design; Princess de Faucigny-Lucinge wearing ‘Fausta’.

Sketch and detail of ‘Fête Galante’, a cream silk taffeta robe de style

Cutwork dresses, 1931, and detail of cutwork embroidery

Embroidery and beading details of ‘Veilleur de Nuit’; 1924.

Amazingly intricate details on late 1930s gowns

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