A History of
Fashion in the 20th Century
By Gertrud Lehnert
Könemann, 120 pages, over 150 illustrations, softcover
Reviewed by Nancy Lyons
Although its scope is narrowed by a limited time frame, this rather slim volume attempts to cover an undeniably huge subject. A History of Fashion in the 20th Century manages this feat in only 8 chapters which are concise but thought-provoking: "Beginnings of Haute Couture," "The Roaring Twenties," "Fashion in Times of Crisis," "The New Look in Full Swing," "Fashion Revolutions," "Flower Power," "Dress for Success," and "Fin De Siecle". Each era has its own time line, showing the world influences on fashion. In each section the key designer for that period is highlighted. Also, decorative accessories such as hats, shoes and ties are given 2 page spreads of extra coverage throughout. A handy glossary and index of fashion designers are found at the back of the book.
Lehnert begins with a definition of fashion and its comparison with art. Haute couture or "the high art of sewing" is as much of an economic influence on the industry as prêt-à-porter or even more so ready made. Fashion nowadays is unrestricted and ever-changing compared with any century prior.
Charles Worth can be credited with changing the fashion world forever by creating individual collections which he presented to his wealthy clients, and Lehnert points out that he succeeded in turning the dressmaker into a "creator of fashion," and the "craftsman into an artist."
At this time, men's fashion, once as flamboyant as women's, became more sombre, leaving women's outfits to demonstrate the financial success of their husbands. Reform groups were aimed at women's fashion, as men's clothing seemed comfortable enough. Suddenly there was a public discussion between aesthetics and comfort in fashion. By borrowing from the Empire and Oriental style Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny created more natural, yet exotic, designs, which became fascinating to the social set.
The author describes 1920's fashion as a new democratic and "manly" femininity developed with the help of legendary designers such as Coco Chanel. At the same time, men's fashions adopted a more casual look and matching suits were "out". Pullovers, suits in tweeds and knickerbockers were "in". Men's fashion showed diversity of expression which included nonconformist views from American jazz influences and "dandies" who perfected their dress. New fashion houses emerged, along with the fashion industry as we know it today.
By the end of the book, Lehnert touches upon just about every imaginable fashion topic: from war time thrift to Hollywood glamour, from trendsetting American youths in jeans to 1960's "swinging London", from knits and ethnic styles of the 1970's to street Punk, from "dressing for success" in the 1980's, to coming full circle with the retro look and fashion as promoted in advertisements and film.