The Tailored Suit Advances

By the 1930s, the tailored suit had definitively entered the wardrobe of Western women, on many occasions replacing the dress as the garment of the bourgeoisie. Its sober appearance was reassuring, and it attenuated social, cultural, and even national differences. However, the cost of the garment made it hardly accessible to the working classes. It became the symbol of a degree of success for the middle class, worn by women at work as well as those who stayed at home. Often very subtle details, in terms of the quality of fabric, of cut, or of accessories, revealed the economic and social status of the woman who was wearing it.

Because of the economic crisis of 1929 and its political consequences in Europe, the rise of conservative and reactionary movements radically changed the image and the perception of the tailored suit. It lost its androgynous character for a newfound femininity.

The use of sporty suits, notably those made of jersey in favor in the 1920s, was limited to leisure activities. Beginning in 1931, the woolen suit worn in town emphasized feminine curves: it outlined the breast, emphasized the waist, and flared in widened basques on the hips. Skirts were longer and adopted a narrower line, created by pleats, darts, and complicated cuts. Suits often had a severe and feminine line, exaggerated by the adoption of shoulder pads. This almost martial style experienced its apogee in the success it achieved in the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the period. Parisian couturiers, seized by the fad for neo-romanticism, decorated jackets in a manner increasingly distant from the original masculine cut, with lace, guipure, flowered-patterned linings, smocked shirtfronts, and jeweled buttons. The actress Marlene Dietrich stood out in contrast to this vogue, in which glamour and femininity went together, by appearing in films and in her life in men's suits made by the celebrated Austrian tailor Knize. In the 1930s and during the war, women in pants caused discomfort. The evening jacket, in a variant with a long dress, very fashionable in elegant circles, was the only exception to this general tendency. The suits made by Elsa Schiaparelli, influenced by the surrealist movement, with evening jackets richly embroidered with baroque and unexpected motifs, contributed notes of humor, derision, and refinement in a period that was conservative and conventional in taste.

In the postwar period, the style of Dior did not challenge this orientation. The New Look suits, with very feminine lines, were the continuation of a form of attachment to the past. The stiff jacket with broad shoulders, a fitted waist, and oversized basques was worn over wide pleated skirts, recalling the silhouettes of the eighteenth century and the Second Empire.

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