“Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”
I have been informed, politely and otherwise, that I am unqualified to discuss fashion. It is true that when the words ‘fashion’ and ‘photography’ appear next to one another a yawn needs stifling. It is the least interesting genre, one reason being that it is so pervasive. It is one thing to encounter fashion photography in the cosmetics department at the local pharmacy, another when it turns up in hardware stores, as though using this power drill will bestow some kind of glamour upon us. Also, the genre has run out of ideas. People speak of a golden age of fashion photography that lasted from 1920 to the 1950s, which was a long time ago now.
This ‘golden age’ began with technological processes that made it possible to reproduce photographs to a high standard in magazines. Previously they had to rely on line drawings. It coincided with the rise of Parisian fashion houses such as Chanel, the diffusion of modernist principles in photography and suffrage for women, which shifted the balance of power so they were not just portrayed as elegant but having authority as well. But if we look to the years immediately before, we discover that the most important medium for transmitting the latest ideas about fashion was the common postcard.
What made the postcard special was that it was cheap, intended to be sent, and also collected. Typical messages on the backs of these postcards from the first two decades of the twentieth century are: “What do you think of this?” (meaning the costume) or: “Here’s another for you”, meaning the recipient – inevitably a young woman - collected fashion postcards. With the popularity of postcards, studios were pumping them out so someone in Paris could send a postcard to someone in London, who got that season’s fashion tips hot off the press. If her mother was relying on Tatler for fashion advice, she might have to wait weeks for what her daughter received in a few days.
Another advantage postcards had over magazines was that they could be hand-coloured. Fashion advice from the era places a lot of emphasis on colour; gowns and robes are not merely green but chartreuse; burgundy is in; vermilion is out. Japan had been a source of inspiration for European designers since at least the 1880s. Japan meant delicate, which itself meant pastel shades rather than bold colours. When Hermann Kiesel’s studio photographed this model, it most likely received specific instructions on what shades of ink to use.
Despite the postcard publishers promoting fashion, labels are rare to non-existent on the postcards, suggesting that the designer didn’t matter. We know that in the 1910s the fashion house was still emerging as a distinct force but another explanation for the absence is that the outfits on postcards weren’t strictly haute couture but copies. Department stores in New York imported fashion items from Paris but they also copied the designs. If a broad-brimmed hat complete with ostrich feathers and silk bands direct from Paris cost too much for anyone but the wealthy, most middle class women could afford an accurate replica. Also, the market for the postcards belonged to young, unmarried women. We know that because on the back the cards are usually addressed to Miss or Mlle Someone. Actual haute couture was out of their reach financially, and also maturity-wise, since that was supposed to arrive with the debutante ball, or if they couldn’t afford that, marriage.
Which brings us to that borderline between fashion and erotica. The frontier has always been vaguely marked out, given that one is often an intrinsic element of the other, and there are postcards that make us wonder whether the real attraction was the fashion or the impertinence, but young women were supposed to have thresholds. They might have gone for the flapper look, with the cloche hat and the woollen outfit. Showing the suspenders however was perhaps too indecorous. The risk of sending a postcard like this to a friend is that the parents could find it, so casting her in their eyes as an immoral vixen. It isn’t the evidence of the suspenders that would have necessarily caused offence but the woman’s posture. In fashion, a woman’s expression could be sultry, provocative or downright lubricious but her physical pose was always supposed to be demure.
In 1931 Jeanne Jullia of France won the Miss Europe beauty contest. Some time later it was discovered that in the 1920s she had posed nude for Julian Mandel, the infamous and mysterious producer of erotic postcards. The revelations created a minor scandal but they were handled with more savoir-faire than they would be today. She was not stripped of her title, bundled off to rehab or made to grovel before the press, probably because a sullied past was nothing to get excited about in 1930s France; everybody had one. As with the designers, the women who appeared in these fashion postcards were unnamed but look at enough postcards and certain faces become familiar. Usually they were actresses or singers without the status to warrant a caption. Although some women worked as professional models the job was so poorly paid it was something they’d do on the side. Like acting, it was still a disreputable occupation for a woman but at least in the theatre she could redeem herself by becoming a star.
This card was sent to Mlle Sarah Parent at 1197 St Catherine St Montreal on April 25 1907 and asks if she can still come to the theatre that evening. (Mail was commonly delivered three times a day back then, which is why you can find postcards mailed from Brighton to London arranging to meet that afternoon.) A Sarah Parent turns us in the Quebec records as born in 1893. If this is the same Sarah, she fits the profile. At fourteen she would be going to the theatre with friends and have an interest in fashion. Notice that the girl in the photo is only a few years older, about eighteen; in other words, a suitable role model. This was sent at the height of the fashion postcard era. That ended with the First World War. It wasn’t so much that the war created a break in the culture but that the customers grew up. Post war, Sarah Parent would be twenty five, possibly married and if she were still interested in fashion she would be turning to the magazines that were aimed at older women. Like the extravagant Edwardian hats, fashion postcards belonged to the past.
|THIS IS THE MODERN WORLD|