The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: VI - Femininity and Androgyny

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

Vionnet cleverly amalgamated a still lingering desire for femininity with the wish to dress without the restricting comfort of corsetry. ... But it was the androgyny promoted by Chanel that dominated women's fashion in Europe in 1919.

The idea that Chanel suddenly brought out a less curvaceous figure in 1919 has already been dealt with, so I thought I'd go a bit more academic on this one, if you'll forgive me.

A large problem with the discourse around dress of the 1920s in both pop culture and academia is the feminine/androgynous dichotomy - the idea that the fashion of a particular era is either feminine or androgynous (sometimes "masculine" is the word used for the opposite pole, and in this case, androgyny appears to mean, essentially, "masculinity in female dress"), and that these are two mutually exclusive adjectives.

The trouble is that you can't define anything as objectively feminine, or objectively masculine, because these attributes are determined by socially-constructed roles, which shift with society.  What is masculine in one era may be feminine in another, and vice versa!  (See: the role of pink and blue in baby clothes.) It's too easy to judge the past by present-day standards in this regard - what we consider masculine, feminine, a combination of both, or neither - rather than to try to see what contemporaries would have pinpointed as any of those choices of adjective.
"The June Bridal Party is Gowned in White", models by Miss Steinmetz, Harper's Bazaar, May 1922, p. 70
There are a few indisputable facts.  The fashionable figure of the 1920s was sometimes considered "boyish" by contemporaries, both in praise and condemnation, and touches from menswear continued to be incorporated into women's clothing.  But the following quote (from Harper's Bazaar, December 1922, p. 53) provides a good look at the way fashion tended to play out:
For the street and for almost all daytime costumes, except those for formal afternoon wear, [Peggy Hoyt] makes the smart woman a youthful, boyish person, given to wearing little velvet costumes with Eton or Fauntleroy collars, trimmed with many tiny buttons and braiding.  Sometimes these costumes look as if they had stepped out of "David Copperfield"; again, there is a romantic frill of lace at the throat and cuffs to remind us of the gallant little figure of Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous Blue Boy. ... These costumes are very much part of the modern spirit. ...
In the evening, this youthful and rather boyish young person Miss Hoyt changes entirely by the simple magic of costume.  She turns from the naive Eton collar and short bolero jacket to the full and enveloping skirts of the "picture gown."  The smart woman now becomes a romantic figure from eighteenth century Venice, or a gracious feminine lady, flounced and ruffled, like those charming tiny-waisted persons in Godey's Ladies Book. ... She wears silver lace, soft satins, veilings of chiffon.  She trails voluminous wraps of lace and rich stuffs and fur about her.  She is femininity: she is everything that is gracious; she is romance.
Even though that slim figure (which related more to young, lissome women than to boys) was fashionable, it's important to consider what was worn over it.  Far from there being "a still lingering desire for femininity" represented by a single designer's work, much of early 1920s fashion reflected a stereotypical and historical type of femininity.  It was understood that much sporty daywear took inspiration from men's clothing - as had been happening for centuries, with women's riding habits in the eighteenth century, Regency spencers, and Victorian tailor-mades: this was not a new concept for Western society.  But eveningwear (and dressy afternoon-wear) continued to be seen as a different beast.
Peggy Hoyt models, Harper's Bazaar, August 1922, p. 77
As stated in the article and shown in fashion plates too numerous to count, evening dress was still allowed and encouraged to be romantic, soft, and stereotypically/historically feminine.  The full-skirted look* was not as hugely successful as the straight chemise line, but it had a short period of prevalence in the higher-end fashion magazines, and persisted in existing all the way through the decade.  And even in those slender gowns without full skirts, light chiffons and silks as well as intricate trims were frequently used to create an appearance that spoke to traditional femininity.

And, of course, one must address the corset.  Corsetry and femininity are very strongly linked in the public imagination - corsets equal a curved hourglass shape which suggests an exaggerated form of femininity.  There is much discourse about women's bodies being oppressed and confined into an overtly feminine shape, and it is often assumed that removing the corset thus equates to a removal of patriarchal oppression.
From "Inspirations", Harper's Bazaar, 1916, p.?  
The corset of the 1910s was not intended to create a very curvaceous figure.  Most advertisements focus on the "line" - smoothing the body for an elegant shape (exactly as our modern Spanx and other shapers are intended to do), and making it easier to fit dresses to the body.  They could be bought for any body shape, but they were meant to "guide the figure into womanly contour" or "coax the body into perfect poise".  Irene Castle, the famous dancer, even claimed in an advertising testimonial that her Redfern corset was more comfortable than not wearing one at all.  Photographs of the late 1910s show women with completely ordinary-looking figures - for the most part, unless you were aware that corsets were still commonly worn, you would think that the subjects had already tossed them away.

Vionnet evening gown, pictured in Harper's Bazaar, January 1922, p. 25
Similarly, when examining photographs of women of the 1920s, their casual figures give the impression that they've been liberated from their bodily oppression.  But in reading periodicals and catalogues of that decade, it becomes clear that the corset had hardly vanished.  In fact, while many could get by with only a waist-high girdle and a separate brassiere - which, at the time, was much closer to the cosplayer's binder than the modern cup-and-lift undergarment - others wore a full-torso, elasticated corset with straps to hold it in place.  While actual fashion was not as unforgiving as the high-end fashion plates and caricatures of the later 1920s would make it appear (just as we accept today that fashion illustrations and runway models have figures that are impossible for us to achieve), the "boyish, youthful" figure was and is not the default corsetless state of every woman's body.  Corset companies frequently took out full-page advertisements, the expense of which implies that their business was not suffering.  A dress was still considered to fit and hang better when worn over a corset.

Ladies' Home Journal, September 1921, p. 153
Once again, the reality of 1920s fashion is that it grew organically out of 1910s fashion.  The under- and outerwear of 1920 resembled that of 1918 more than that of 1928, because there was not a severe break with tradition in 1919 that created a brand-new style.

* Just a note on this type of dress.  It's generally called the robe de style, because a) a few fashion plates label it as such, and b) we fashion historians love having specific names for specific styles of dress (as well as specific traits to pin to specific designers).  But in the research I've done recently on the 1920s, it's become fairly clear to me that the vast majority of people and designers and fashion editors would refer to it as the "bouffant look"/the "full-skirted silhouette" or simply call them evening or afternoon dresses with various adjectives such as "romantic", "nostalgic", "old-fashioned", &c.  Robe de style is not an anachronistic term, but it seems to me that calling every full-skirted 1920s dress a robe de style as though they were seen as unrelated to "ordinary" dress is not true to history.