When you put on a bikini at the beach, keep in mind that this mini swimsuit was named after a bomb. A few days before the revolutionary swimwear was presented at the Piscine Molitor in Paris, in the summer of 1946, the first American nuclear test had been dropped on Bikini – an atoll in the Marshall Islands. Clothing is an inexhaustible source of stories linked to the history of the world. Conflicts, wars, climate, economy, arts, societal debates, everything is mirrored in our closets in one form or another.
A technical mishap
Let’s go back to the industrial revolution. As the 19th century drew to a close, we saw the emergence of a new wealthy class, and the voluminous skirt, formed of several layers of embroidered silk supplied by booths of the Empires, became statutory: the richer one was, the more opulent the skirt had to be. On May 4, 1897, the 12th edition of the Bazar de la Charité was taking place in Paris. All of high society assembled in this wooden hut where the flea market was being held, and the highlight of the day was a film screened using the first ever cinematograph, a device activated by an ether lamp.
A technical mishap caused the place to catch fire, and the flames ran across the wooden floor, licking the bottom of the skirts, transforming the women into live torches. Of the 120 victims of the fire, only six or seven men are listed. After this sad episode (watch the excellent series Le Bazar de la Charité [The Bonfire of Destiny] on Netflix), the lavish petticoat was soon radically swept away by the demands of World War I which put an end to the “Belle Epoque” era.
Russian ballets and Japanese fantasy
In the meantime, paradoxically boosted by industrial prosperity, the Art Nouveau fashion, which unfolds in “noodles” and lianas, introduces a style that celebrates nature, in reaction to a mechanical world. Fashion designer Paul Poiret abolished the corset in 1906 and opened up a new chapter of freedom for women. The sumptuous simplicity of his fluid, high-waisted dresses, supported by sheaths, whether Japanese-inspired or influenced by the success of Parisian performances of the Ballets Russes, was highlighted by the first couture jewelry.
Poiret was a pioneer in everything: he was inspired by all the arts, had his fabrics designed by Raoul Dufy, threw parties to stage his dresses, had villas built to showcase them, invented the first fashion shows, participated in exhibitions, displayed his work in magazines, played in theaters, lead the trends of the Parisian life.
Trench-coats, blood and mud
Soon the First World War would break out and fashion took a new turn. You would have looked at your Burberry trench coat from a different perspective had you imagined it rolling in the mud and blood of the trenches. Yet, much more than during Christopher Bailey or Riccardo Tisci’s era, this is when it it had its heyday. It dressed about half a million soldiers who crossed this four-year carnage, with its multiple rings designed to hang all kinds of equipment, grenades in the front, sabers in the back. One cannot imagine the radical changes that this war brought upon women’s clothing. Factories operated at full capacity, and their workforce was predominantly female. Pants made a shy entry into women’s closets. One had to be able to move quickly, get on a bicycle. The suit, imitating military attire, became a classic. The nurse’s uniform embodied a kind of feminine, almost maternal ideal for soldiers enlisted at a very young age.
Paris is a party
Eventually, it was the American troops that triumphed over the German army. Peace has been signed. The interwar period meant America in Europe, jazz, Charleston, cabarets, cafes, music halls, fringes, cigarette holders, short hair, feathered headbands: “Paris is a party.” The first paid holidays made people dream of beaches. New designers hatched, willing to dress women for their emancipation in these Roaring Twenties. Their names will cross time: Elsa Schiaparelli who used to flirt with surrealism, Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, Marcel Rochas and of course Gabrielle Chanel.
The jersey is the accomplice of the Garçonne whose silhouette is increasingly thin and androgynous; “Eat with your wits,” Chanel used to advise. These twenty years were weighed down by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Recession that followed. Between an impoverished America and a destabilized Europe, the crisis made the bedrock of a certain Hitler.
Cork heels and pencil stitching
The specter of a new war drew near… And here it was again. The 1940s were years of drastic restrictions and ration tickets. Fashion houses were put on the back burner, textiles disappeared. Women had to sew their own clothes, recutting old garments, recycling men’s jackets. The shoulders were oversized, the waist underlined by a belt. Heels had to be sculpted in cork. Silk stockings were a luxury few could afford. Their absence used to be drawn with a pencil on the curve of the leg. Rarely have women thirsted for femininity as much as they had when coming out of these gloomy times.
Christian Dior was the first to understand it. In 1947, he launched his New Look, “Corolle” shape, curved waist, flared skirt scandalously cut in 20m of fabric! The season of the Glorious Thirty, the thirty most prosperous years of modern times was on. Hollywood invented glamor and its stars were goddesses, idols whose intangible style all women in the world wanted to imitate.
Wide Leg Pants and Iron Curtain
Ten years later, the baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s would emerge, children of optimism and the “never again” pledge. The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe to revive, but Eastern Europe remained under the wing of the USSR. It was the cold war.
On the one hand there was Flower-power, return of the sexy, Swinging London, Mary Quant makeup and protests against the Vietnam War, Wide Leg Pants and tapered collars. On the other hand, non-fashion, serial prints, workers’ dull dresses. It is from this hidden world that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, emerged the Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, obsessed with the logos of mass manufacturers, founder of Vetements brand and art director of Balenciaga since 2015.
Glamor is dead, long live top models!
The Hollywood icons aged and disappeared from the screens. In the mid-80s, they were replaced by a new phenomenon: top models. Utmost beauties suddenly appeared on all media. Their names were Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, Eva Herzigovà and Kate Moss.
Their arrival escorted the disco madness launched at Studio 54 in Manhattan and soothed a decade marked by AIDS, invaded by a dystopian fashion brought by Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela. They embodied beauty, health and freshness in a world depressed by the fear of illness. The decades to follow will witness, in this wake, an increased demand for perfect images exacerbated by social networks –especially Instagram –, mobile phone cameras and their multiple filters. In 2010, Robert Duffy, partner and right-hand man of Marc Jacobs, told us that their winter season was inspired by Victoria Beckham.
The former Spice Girl, converted into a fashion designer and savvy businesswoman, portrayed herself as a spoiled child who spent her days shopping. She embodied the dream of a generation of working women who no longer had time to “pamper themselves” as the advertising mottos proclaimed.
Pandemic and recovery
We didn’t really see the turning point. We haven’t listened enough to these Millennials who came into the world around the 2000s like warriors, come out to rescue Mother Earth. In a century where excessive industrialization has exhausted resources, devastated living things, destroyed common heritage, here is a generation that is, unlike those that preceded it, aware that fashion is the third most polluting industry on the planet. It will not wear furs, even from farmed animals. It will wear less leather.
It will track down all animal products incorporated into clothing. Recycling is its watchword. We have produced more than we can consume. Now we have to transform what already exists. The Covid-19 pandemic, blamed for these multiple destructions, has accelerated the phenomenon. Teleworking imposed by confinement responds to a need for comfort. How long will this new standard last? Between shapeless cuts and salvaged fabrics, where will seduction find its place? Let us listen to the signs of times, as they mainly speak to us of elegance.