The roots of Art Deco fashion are profoundly innovative. Key to this innovation was new technologies and new fashion designers.
Art Deco was a movement in the visual arts that first emerged in France, before the First World War. It combined many contemporary art styles, including the bold geometric patterns of Cubism, borrowing bright colours from Fauvism, and balanced asymmetry from the Bauhaus movement. Art Deco was fascinated with exoticism, echoing visuals from Aztec, Ancient Egyptian, and Asian culture.
The name comes from Arts Décoratifs, a 1925 Parisian exhibition of the visual arts. This exhibition had Art Deco’s golden rule—no old styles may be copied, only transformed.
An epicentre of Art Deco fashion was the stage sets and costumes of the Ballets Russes, which inspired many significant designers. The textile choices were deliberately eye-catching, and the central philosophy of the company’s style was also to transform ideas.
Man-made materials became far more common during the industry boom of the 1920s, broadening the accessibility of fashion; rich colours and precise craftmanship were no longer exclusive to the wealthy, and could be enjoyed by many. The use of jersey and artificial silk democratised Art Deco style, meaning anybody could take inspiration from the items in department stores and high-end designers.
Significantly, designers such as Paul Poiret enjoyed massive success by utilising innovative ideas. He conceptualised a new way of crafting items, by draping fabric and cutting along straight lines. This idea was revolutionary. Here emerged a streamlined, loose, straight silhouette, with Western fashion finally rejecting corsets and moving towards a simpler and more practical style. This revolutionary change reflected the strides in feminism; perhaps it is symbolic that women were at last no longer restricted by corsets, as they began to enjoy far more opportunities, such as the right to vote.
This silhouette was further popularised with Coco Chanel’s designs, and became associated with the flapper, a symbol synonymous with the sophisticated and liberated woman of the 1920s. Thus, the famous flapper is intrinsic to Art Deco fashion. The ‘flapper-style’ high hemline and low waist to elongate the upper body, the metallic and pastel colour palette, utilising glamorous embellishments such as silk, beading, satin, and diamond, are all key features of Art Deco fashion. Here, Art Deco fashion strove to create a timeless elegance that rejected tradition.
In the 1930s, hemlines dropped to the floor, and the bias cut was popularised, a manufacturing method in which a pattern is cut at a 45 degree angle, so the fabric has more stretch and is more form-fitting. Still, the lean, tall sophistication of Art Deco prevailed, best exemplified by the ‘Old Hollywood’ aesthetic, where movie stars were a source of inspiration for long, fluid silhouettes and glamorous embellishments.
During wartime in the early 1940s, the structural forms of Art Deco were introduced into more practical everyday wear, including A-Line skirts. The angular shapes of Art Deco were introduced into simpler daywear, in belt buckles and broaches.
Art Deco fashion prevailed through hardship, war, and economic depression. Despite all this, fashion was a way in which people could express themselves and embody a simple glamour. After World War Two, Art Deco fashion declined in popularity but has been a constant source of inspiration, particularly enjoying a revival in the late 1960s.
As we see the world dip back into an era of turbulence and uncertainty; notably the Covid 19 pandemic; perhaps, a century after its genesis, Art Deco fashion is due another revival. Hopefully, as restrictions ease and the future appears brighter, we’ll have plenty of occasions to showcase our Art Deco glamour to the world.
Author: Emma Barclay