If you'll pardon the pun, the beauty of writing about the 1930s lies in the fashion. In the years between the world wars, Europe experienced a veritable explosion of art and culture, which naturally found its way into the ateliers of top designers - a refreshing number of them women. We have the interwar period to thank for many of the advances in fashion that still influence modern style; in fact, many of the brands featured on this page endure today, carrying on their founders' legacies as globally renowned fashion houses.
WALLIS’S CHOICE: SCHIAPARELLI
“The bears send their love,” Wallis repeated, and the sentiment sounded empty repeated back over the wire. “I’ll tell him, Thelma; perhaps I’ll remind him how good you look in that gray Schiaparelli, he’ll like that.”
Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most prominent Italian designers of the interwar period. Known for her bold shapes, gutsy patterns and her “trompe l’oeil” designs, Schiaparelli was one of Paris’s most sought-after designers of the 1930s, and the first female designer to grace the cover of TIME Magazine. Initially launching herself as a sportswear designer, Schiaparelli rose to prominence in the late 1920s for her ultramodern haute couture. She was one of the first designers to create a wrap dress, also patented the first swimsuit with a built-in bra: “falsies,” as they were later known, would soon become staples in dress construction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Schiap”, as she was known by her friends and family, was heavily influenced by the Surrealists, and counted Salvador Dali amongst her close compatriots. She collaborated with Dali, Jean Cocteau, and other artists throughout Europe to develop dazzling avant-garde collections: her Dali collection, which included the Shoe Hat and Lobster, Tears and Skeleton dresses, is considered one of her finest. Wallis Simpson, who was an admirer of Schiaparelli’s work, wore the Lobster Dress for her engagement portrait, and chose Schiap to design her wedding trousseau.
But Schiaparelli isn’t only famous for her clothes: she’s also known as one half of the greatest fashion feud of all time. Schiap’s well-documented rivalry with Coco Chanel captivated fashionistas of the 1930s, who would take careful note of which prominent Parisians were gracing which designer at which time. This feud is brilliantly captured by Jeanne Mackin in The Last Collection, where she recounts the memorable occasion where Chanel “accidentally” set Schiap on fire at a party.
The gown referred to by Wallis in The Woman Before Wallis is inspired by a 1933 dark grey bias-cut evening dress that resides in the Missouri History Museum.
LADY LONDONDERRY’S BALL: JEANNE LANVIN
Her free hand brushed across the white satin skirt of her dress, falling in thick folds from her waist to the floor. The top was form-fitted, with small mirrors sewn into the fabric that caught the light as she walked. She wore a thin, glittering tiara: a present from Duke. She’d never worn such finery in all her life.
Jeanne Lanvin was a powerhouse designer and entrepreneur, whose fashion house and fragrance lines endure to this day (I actually picked up a mint-condition Lanvin robe circa 1975 from a vintage shop in Scotland… enduring indeed!) Known for cloche hats and feminine silhouettes, Lanvin was one of the first designers to bid adieu to the corset and celebrate the natural waist. Starting out as a milliner, Lanvin’s first foray into couture was in children’s clothing, but she quickly began designing clothing for mothers, too. Later, she moved into menswear, furs, home décor, lingerie, and perfume, cementing her status as a legend of Parisian culture.
Lanvin was well known for popularizing the robe-de-style – a full skirt with dropped waist. I’ve hyperlinked to the robe-de-style I love best – any aspiring fashion designers out there, take note AND MAKE ONE FOR ME (for another example of a robe de style, look at Lady Rose’s presentation gown in Downton Abbey!)
I chose to model Thelma’s gown after a Lanvin dress she describes in her memoirs. Here’s what she says: “For Averill’s party I chose at Lanvin a beautiful wide white slipper-satin robe-de-style, very tight at the waist and touching the ground. Halfway down the skirt on either side was a cluster of round black-velvet appliqued circles the size of a small pancake. These were circled by little round mirrors which, when I danced, reflected the light.” In fact, the dress itself can be found in this Interview Magazine article about Jeanne Lanvin.
THELMA’S WEDDING DRESS: JEAN PATOU
“Bois de rose, madame,” Jean Patou had told her, holding a subtle pink fabric against her face when she arrived for their appointment at the House of Patou. “Exquisite with your coloring.”
I was incredibly lucky when it came to finding out what Thelma wore when she married Duke, because she describes it in detail in her autobiography. Thelma tells us that Jean Patou designed her wedding dress: “A lovely bois-de-rose crepe de Chine with a matching long coat bordered at the sleeves and hem with soft, silky lynx. Reboux designed a very pretty turban of the same material.”
Thelma had a taste for French designers, so it’s no surprise that Patou was part of her repertoire. Getting his start in fashion through the family fur business, Patou opened his first dressmaking salon in 1912 – only to have to close it in 1914, when he served in the First World War. He became internationally renowned in 1919 for breaking from the “flapper” dress (a style Thelma and Gloria both loathed: “We like our waists where God put them, thank you!”)
After the stock market crash, Patou’s company shifted from haute couture to perfumes. Ever faithful to her designers, Thelma’s signature scent was Patou’s best-known fragrance, Joy (eagle-eyed readers might notice the description of the scent on page 156 of The Woman Before Wallis!). The House of Patou is still in existence today – in fact, Joy is still the second-best-selling fragrance in the world, second only to Chanel No. 5.
CANNES COUTURE: LOUNGING PAJAMAS
“They’re called pajamas, darling—aren’t they a scream?” said Gloria. She swept a hand along the top of her thigh, upsetting the tropical flowers painted on the silk. “So comfortable—it’s as if you’re walking around naked. Everyone here wears them.”
Beach pajamas – also known as palazzo pants – were all the rage at the most discerning Rivera hotspots during the 1930s. Worn on the beach, at home, or at your sister’s lover’s casual cocktail gathering, beach pajamas weren’t for sleeping: they were for lounging (an altogether different prospect). Beach pajamas were wide-legged and loudly patterned, constructed of light fabrics like silk or linen, meant for emphasizing small waists and tanned skin. I humbly submit that this was the best fashion evolution of the 20th century, and that we should start a petition to bring back the beach pajama. Immediately.
Full disclosure: I made up Thelma’s orange-and-cream chevron beach pajamas simply because if I had a pair, that’s what I’d want them to look like, but in this picture you can see a woman wearing something similar.
THE INDEX OF CHANEL
Thelma rang off and walked to the patio where Gloria, reclining on a lounge chair next to a tea table, rubbed coconut oil into her arms. “Chanel says a tan is the index of chic,” she declared, her face half-obscured by a pair of sunglasses.
Fashion designer, perfumier and businesswoman, Coco Chanel founded, quite simply, one of the most enduring fashion houses of all time. Still celebrated today for her clean, chic style, Chanel originated many of the staples of women’s fashion today – including, of course, the little black dress.
Born into poverty and raised at a convent, Chanel rose to prominence in the Parisian fashion world as a milliner in 1910, opening her first boutique at 21 rue Cambon, in Paris. Three years later, she opened a second boutique in the resort town of Deauville, where she introduced leisure and sportswear – a previously untapped area of women’s fashion. Using comfortable, casual fabrics like jersey, Chanel’s creations stood out from the crowd, making her so successful she was finally able to open her own maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, in Paris.
In the 1930s, Chanel was one of the most successful fashion designers in the world, employing 4,000 people at the height of her success in the 1930s. Her guiding philosophy – less is more – ran in direct contravention to the extravagant excess of the 1920s. Instead of flapper dresses and feathers, Chanel gave us the little black dress; rather than long skirts and corsets, she gave us the classic French gamine, dressed in breton stripes and espadrilles. Even Chanel’s iconic scent – No.5 – is a departure from the flowery scents of the past, and presents a clean, sparkling fragrance which, according to Marilyn Monroe, is all a girl should wear to bed.
Chanel’s impeccable fashion sense, however, is only part of her story. A known Nazi sympathizer, Chanel moved into the Hotel Ritz during the occupation and struck up a romance with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an officer in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence apparatus. Her connections to prominent members of British high society, including Sir Winston Churchill, kept her from facing retribution as a collaborator after the war. She remained in her apartments at the Hotel Ritz, where she died a successful designer and businesswoman in 1971.
Turning her attention back to Elise, Thelma dismissed the second set of dresses. The blue Lanvin she’d bought two years ago; the Florrie Westwood with the gathered waistline… Thelma refastened the tie of her dressing robe, its cuffs showing signs of wear. Gloria would have to take her shopping soon.
Florrie Westwood was a lesser-known English designer whose dresses, by the time we meet Thelma in 1925, would have out of fashion. While Westwood’s dresses are long gone, the Victoria and Albert Museum still possess some of her drawings, which give us an idea of what she designed: high-waisted, feminine dresses, with conservative necklines and light fabrics.
A BIASED LOOK AT MADELINE VIONNET
Gloria pursed her lips. “Not that one—you look sallow.” She pulled a cream-colored Vionnet from the pile. “Try this one, then we can go visit the baby.”
Considered one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, Madeline Vionnet was a French couturiere whose skill as a dressmaker remains unparalleled today.
Vionnet was known for her barefoot models and loose, Grecian-style robes, which gave her style a more sensual feel than the look of her competitors. Departing from stiff fabrics, constraining corsets, buttons and boning, Vionnet felt that clothing should celebrate a woman’s natural curves, and work with, rather than against, the natural female form.
Most importantly, she is remembered for her revolutionary use of the “bias cut”, where fabric is cut diagonally on a 45 degree angle, allowing it to cling to the body. In the 1930s, her bias-cut gowns were worn by the likes of Marlene Deitrich, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, and her techniques remain in use today in the creation of form-fitting creations by the likes of John Galliano, Comme des Garcons, and Issey Miyake.
Vionnet was revolutionary in her ability to design and construct dresses, but she was also revolutionary in how she treated her workforce. Unlike other designers of the day (looking at you, Coco Chanel), Vionnet offered her 1,200 employees healthcare, paid holidays, daycare and maternity leave, even hiring an in-house doctor and dentist to ensure her workers were healthy and happy.
Mea culpa: The dress I used as inspiration in this scene is from 1938 – an unacceptably later period than we see it in the book – HOWEVER! Look at it and tell me it’s not worth picturing Thelma in this when she first meets Duke. Vionnet regularly used cream-coloured fabrics, and this is a spectacular example of fringe-work. I regret nothing.
Wallis took the tiara in both hands and faced the mirror. Slowly, she placed it on the crown of her head; they all seemed to exhale as one as she took her hands away and the tiara rested atop her shellacked curls.
Wallis studied her reflection. For the first time that day she looked serene.
“Wallis in Wonderland,” she said softly. She looked at Thelma, breaking the spell. “I won’t say this isn’t special. My mother was a landlady.”
The court presentation was, quite simply, the most important event for any young woman seeking to enter Britain’s high society – it was the mark of acceptance for a debutante, and the start of the London Season for high society at large. Established during the reign of Queen Victoria, these presentations were intended to introduce young, eligible ladies to young, eligible men – however, they quickly ballooned to include married women seeking a leg up in their social standing.
Given the constraints of high society, only certain young women were eligible to be presented at court: first, they needed to be of good moral and social character; second, they needed to be sponsored by someone who had already been presented – usually a mother or an aunt – and third, they needed to be wives or daughters of the aristocracy, gentry, clergy, military, or professional men. Newly married women were eligible; however, divorcees were frowned upon, and required special permission to be received at court. Both Thelma and Wallis received special dispensations to account for their divorcee status.
The court presentation was rife with pageantry (which made it such a delight to write about!) and this pageantry was especially present in presentation outfits. Debutantes were required to wear low-cut white, ivory or cream dresses, with a long train measuring at least two yards from the shoulder, and 54 inches at the end. White ostrich feathers were worn in a “plume”– two feathers for an unmarried woman, three for a married woman – towards the left side of the head, and white gloves were required. Tiaras, naturally, were encouraged but not required for married women.
The presentation itself made for a long and rather hot day – Edward, the Prince of Wales, loathed court presentations because he was required to stand behind his father’s throne for the duration of the presentation, which lasted hours.
The court presentation was abolished by Queen Elizabeth in 1958, who felt the tradition was elitist and out-of-touch with her modern monarchy. Her sentiment was shared by the rest of the Royal Family – Prince Philip loathed court presentations, calling them “bloody daft”, while Princess Margaret observed archly that by the end it had lost something of its old magic: “Every tart in London was getting in.”
I was lucky to have both Thelma and Wallis’s court presentation photographs to use while writing these scenes. While it’s not immediately obvious, Wallis is wearing Thelma’s tiara and ostrich feathers, although she’s wearing them further back on her head than Thelma did (ever making a statement!). As you can see, Wallis’s dress doesn’t fit her properly under the arms. Here’s how Thelma remembered things: “Early in June 1931 Wallis Simpson was to be presented at Court. We were then warm friends: I shared in her excitement and helped dress her for the occasion. She wore a large cross of aquamarines that I believe she had bought in China when she was married to [Win] Spencer. I lent her the same train and feathers I had worn when I was presented. She could not wear my dress, however, because she is not my size; I am taller.”
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