Sunday, August 3, 2014

Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion

 image source: San Francisco Public Library Etching and Engraving Picture File

Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion is a display in the Art, Music and Recreation Center on the 4th floor of the Main Library. It will be available to view through mid-October.

It was extremely stylish, now it’s just extreme. According to Oscar Wilde, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” The perception of beauty is always subjective. What is considered the height of fashion looks ridiculous after it predictably, goes out of style.

Self-adornment is found in every culture. Evidence shows that people began wearing clothing up to 500,000 years ago. Images of people wearing clothing have been found in 20,000 year-old cave paintings. In western civilization, being fashionable in the way we now understand it began sometime in the 14th century. Increased trade and travel, technological breakthroughs in textiles, the growth of a middle class and the beginnings of disposable income all converged in this era. The result was that women began to create and follow fashion.

Towards the middle of the 19th century the rate at which the fashionable silhouette changed accelerated. The invention of the home sewing machine and the increasing popularity of paper patterns encouraged home dress-making during this time. Concurrently, periodicals, especially fashion magazines intended for women became popular. By the 20th century the pace of change in the fashionable silhouette grew ever more rapid as the expanding fashion industry, in conjunction with new forms of media, became more effective at stimulating demand for a constant flow of new styles (read more about this at "Women's fashions of the Victorian era").

In the first part of this entry we’ll focus on styles from the head to the waist. Our next entry will discuss the waist to the feet. Listing extreme styles chronologically is another approach, but as you’ll see, some styles and silhouettes cycle in and out of fashion, in some cases centuries apart. It’s also fascinating to compare the extremes of proportion within one article of dress. For example, the hoop skirt to the hobble skirt.

Working our way from top to toe, here are just some of the more extreme styles that women have chosen in their quest to be fashionable.

Hennins, Horned Headdresses and Caged Headdresses: 15th c. Europe. Sumptuary laws limited the height of the cone-shaped hats called Hennins to 24” for the aristocracy, while princesses could wear Hennins up to 36” high. Doorways were adjusted to accommodate the fashion. Eyebrows and hairlines were plucked to increase the illusion of height. Horned Headdresses were stuffed, and Caged Headdresses were wired to maintain their shapes.

image source: San Francisco Public Library Etching and Engraving Picture File

Enormous Hats: 1780’s and early 20th century. These looks coincided with two of the big hair eras. The thought was that a big hat balanced the hair style and created a pleasing proportion. Big hats provided plenty of room for decoration. Edwardian hats were often adorned with a full variety of waxed fruit, yards of ribbon and net, or full nests of stuffed birds.

Extreme Hair: 1700’s, 1800’s and 20th century (1910s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s). For women without enough hair to achieve the look there were always other options. Padding, false hair, wire cages, hairspray, teasing and extreme chemical treatments. It’s an impressive comment on creativity that all of the different “Big Hair” eras look unique.

Ruff collars: 16th century. The more extreme versions were reserved for the aristocracy, but variations of pleated, starched or wired collars were worn by the middle class as well.

Taxidermy Fur Stoles: In the early 20th century, mink and fox stoles often included the full animal- head, tail and all four legs. One popular way to wear this style was to attach a fastener under the animal’s jaw and then clip it to the tail. This gave the appearance that the animal was biting its own tail.

Shoulder Pads: During World War II, women’s fashion took on a militaristic look. Shoulder pads helped to support this tailored, masculine style. When shoulder pads came back in the 1980’s they began as a retro reinterpretation of that 1940’s style. The 80’s pads seemed to take on a life of their own though, as they grew to truly enormous sizes. The theory was that broad shoulders made the hips look smaller.

Oversized Sleeves: Popular from about 1825 until 1840, the “gigot” sleeve was full at the top and tighter toward the wrist. By the mid-1830s the enlarged top cap was sagging with its own enormity. In order to support these massive sleeves, women resorted to filling them with stiffened buckram undersleeves, whalebone hoops or large feather-filled pads. Enormous sleeves became popular again in the Victorian era around the turn of the twentieth century. They reappeared briefly in the 1930s as a precursor to the shoulder pads of the 1940’s.

Stuffed Birds and Feathers for hats and accessories: At the height of the “Plume Boom” in the early part of the 20th century the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world. By the turn of the 20th century, this trade had nearly eliminated egrets in the US, and populations of numerous other bird species around the globe were also approaching extinction. Reports of “murderous millinery” atrocities led to the formation of the first Audubon societies. Soon, many American women wore “Audubonnets”, the term given to the non-feathered hats.

Sentimental Jewelry: 19th and early 20th centuries. Also known as mourning jewelry, ornaments made from human hair grew out of the desire to keep a part of a loved one close to the wearer. Hair was woven and knotted to make brooches, bracelets, watch chains, earrings and necklaces. Exceptionally skillful crafters also created large landscapes from hair that were framed and displayed. The Civil War and Queen Victoria’s strict mourning customs helped popularize hair jewelry.

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