ART NOUVEAU FASHION DESIGN
Art nouveau design penetrated into all types of modern, luxury European decorative arts in the period from 1895 to 1905. Its undulating vegetal curves and graceful floral swirls were also a design gift to the Parisian couturiers and until about 1908 or 1909 art nouveau style was energetically appropriated for seasonal, high-fashion use.
Evening garments were the most lavishly attuned to art nouveau. Couturiers swathed their evening wear with a profusion of silk brocade, appliqué, embroidery, and lace. From neckline to hem, the designers played art nouveau swirls around the voluptuousness of the fashionable figure, which itself was curvaceously shaped by “S”-bend corsets. Even tailored woolen walking costumes were trimmed with swirlings of appliqué. By 1907–1909, the style’s popularity had waned, replaced by a more upright figure styled with a geometric simplicity drawn from the Vienna Werkstatte, a fashion drawing from Les Modes of August 1909 by Gaby, Toilettes pour Le Casino.
This appropriation of art nouveau styling coincided with the moment in the history of couture when a united business structure was firmly established by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Unrivaled elsewhere in the Western world, Paris couturiers dressed the women of international royal courts and high society including in Japan and tsarist Russia, the wives of the wealthiest international plutocrats, and the great actresses of the Paris stage. Commercial clients already included the grandest department stores at an international level.
The art nouveau “look” was at the cutting edge of modern style. Only the most fashionable wore it in its fullest manifestation, while others preferred moderated versions. These styles were spread internationally through fashion journals, such as Les Modes and down through middle-class oriented magazines such as The Ladies Field and La Mode illustrée. Les Modes of July 1902 featured, for example, an art nouveau ball dress by Maggy Rouff with full-length swirls in silver and diamante, on a straw-colored silk ground trimmed with alençon lace.
From 1895 all the top twenty or so Paris salons were developing art nouveau fashions, from the House of Worth (whose designer was by then Jean-Philippe Worth) through the salons of Doucet, Maggy Rouff, Jeanne Paquin, and Laferriere to cite just a few. They launched season after season of art nouveau–styled garments on to the international fashion market. Examples survive in the great fashion collections of museums in Paris and the United States.
High Art and Popular Versions
Within middle-class levels of ready-to-wear manufacture (for department stores and top levels of wholesale manufacturers), the style was watered down but clearly visible, as in a tailored woolen walking costume featured in La Mode illustrée, journal de la famille in January 1901 for example. The swirl did not, however, penetrate the cheapest levels of mass manufacture of tailored clothing for women. At the level of John Noble’s Half Guinea Costume, as seen in the Lady’s Companion of 19 September 1896, there was no trimming or decoration at all. Described as “dainty and durable,” consumers were concerned with little other than a vaguely stylish silhouette and issues of durability.