Serial costume history 2 - The Belle Époque

In the second part of our fashion historical review, we are going to study the clothes of the turn of the century and the 1910s. Women abandon clumsy hoops and stiff corsets; uncomfortable decorations are replaced by practical common sense and elegant simplicity. We can owe these mainly to reform-costumed artistesses, suffragettes and to Coco Chanel. Our selection is dominated by female portraits, because men held on to the so far acknowledged elegancy; their clothes did not change a lot.

Historical outlook


By the end of the 18th century, the ‘beautiful age’ or Belle Époque brought along the economic, spiritual and cultural boom. The second industrial revolution was prospering: Ford automobiles were mass-produced on conveyors and men conquered the air. Life became increasingly comfortable for the strengthened middle-classes and aristocracy. The light bulb and the telephone were already used, and hygiene had greater importance. Women’s roles changed, women’s movements fought for the education of women and their right to vote. The bourgeoisie had a growing demand for amusements; sports as free-time activities were popular. The evolution of swimsuits and bathing costumes had already been discussed in a separate exhibition. The cultural appetite of the mainstream resulted in new functions of the art. In the meantime, workers searched the solution to a better life in developing ideas. The Monarchy was in the fever of preparing for the millennial festivities. Budapest became a metropolis slowly. Prosperity was broken by the First World War finally.

Wasp waists and mutton sleeves

Around the turn of century, women still liked the fashion of the preceding decades: ornamented dress creations with corsets. Skirts left their hoops – but sometimes shapes were emphasized by bustles – their materials dropped freely until the ground from the tight-belted wasp waists. Turtleneck blouses and mutton sleeves were novelties:  shoulders or sleeves of dresses were over-exaggerated. Ornaments and materials were also measures of positions that women occupied on the social ladder. Parasols and hats decorated with flowers, ribbons and lace were also very popular accessories. The most frequented hairdressing was the loose bun and the fringe.


Men’s wear did not change much: the most typical fashion was the tube-trousers, jackets or longer coats with waistcoat – in the same colour textile. Stand-collar white shirts were very fashionable for men as well, with a tie. Other necessary accessories were: the hat or top hat, the walking-stick, the pocket watch and naturally, a moustache or a beard also decorated their looks.


Revolution of comfort


The movement of reform dresses developed in the last decades of the 19th century. Most of all, innovative and progressive minded women represented the movement, who revolted against the unhealthy and uncomfortable corsets and bustles and the superfluous over-decoration. The style of dresses evoked and idealised ancient ages: Middle Ages, Renaissance and Classicism, but it could be Oriental as well. Besides comfort and practicality, dresses had to be aesthetic, too.

Softly flowing dresses emphasized women’s real shapes, thus painters took a liking to them and often depicted women in reform dresses. Secession style especially loved colourful sheath gowns with foliaged and flowery motifs – these clothes became emblematic later in the hippy age of the 1970s. In Hungary, the movement became popular among the artists of the art colony of Gödöllő. However, not everyone liked that: many women felt naked without their corsets, thus comfortable clothes did not get into the ‘canon’ for a while.

During the 1910s, public opinion changed radically, due to suffragettes among others: the movement of comfort ripened. Women demanded free motion, became more emancipated and fashion designers respecting this turned up. Corsets disappeared completely, and superfluous ornaments, puffs and ruffles were removed from clothes. Voluminous skirts were outdated and they were shortened above the ankles sometimes. Women often wore jackets similar to men’s jackets. Sizes of hats grew in inverse proportion to those of skirts: women’s hats were the largest during this period.


Coco Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1910. She created the prototype of the modern, practical and elegant women’s attire. Chanel was one of the representatives of the haute couture – the outstanding-quality, custom-fitted dressmaking – that became a kind of cult by the 20th century. She introduced short skirts and the slightly masculine ‘sailor’ style, a clear world of forms and neutral colours overall.


War and practicality

During WW I, fashion was restrained: they had to economise with materials and women who served as nurses and clerks together with men had to wear proper uniforms. Skirts shortened again, because wage-earner women employed in factories had more important problems than decorativeness. The most important feature of a dress was practicality.

The tendency continued during the 1920s: demand for simplicity, as most women worked. Art Deco also called Gatsby style reviving today started its conquer, thus we are going to peep into a couple of dance parties and bars. Tube-dresses, bob haircut and Greta Garbo are coming, but that is another story to be continued.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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