Sundae and I, in homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, by Mark Hughes.

As Sundae pointed out to me, the ‘ermine’ was really an extremely charming ferret and there is nothing wrong with that. But then we started chatting about ermine in fashion – its significance and great beauty. I pulled out the rather good illustration of Elizabeth Woodville – now known colloquially as the ‘White Queen’ as in the dreadful eponymous BBC series– bring back Shadow of the Tower – and how it was used in fashion right up to the 1930s. Then I happened to look at the Atelier Versace Fall 2014 couture collection and spot an adaptation of the traditional look of ermine, as if Guy Bourdin had decided to jazz up a mink jacket with silver leather. Clothes for Sirens, the press release informed; not for heroes, but for Sirens .... a harking back, perchance to the femme fatales of the Belle Epoque and Edwardian eras – the Belle Epoque that splintered into shards in 1914?

The 4
th August is the centenary of the start of the Great War, the Armageddon that saw the end of the old world of end of empires and castes, just as effectively as the French Revolution. And just as 1789 saw men’s dress change forever, so the First World War saw a total transformation in dress for women, liberating them in a way that dress reformers never could.

The media is swamped by coverage of the forthcoming centenary – while the fashion world so far has been curiously uninterested. Forwards forwards forwards is the cry! What’s new to whet our weary palates?  Yet there are a handful of Houses which date back to the period; Lanvin and Chanel in particular; Hermès and Louis Vuitton too. These heritage labels are so strong today because of this history – and so many of the women and stars of the period – Bernhardt, Réjane, Rita Lydig, Marchesa Casati, Mata Hari – have inspired designers over the past twenty or so years, as have the great couturiers of the time – Poiret, Doucet, Chèruit, Fortuny, Callot Soeurs; not to mention the phenomenal fashion illustration and photography from the period – Steichen, de Meyer, Barbier, Lepape and Erte.

And who better describes the period than Diana Vreeland in the book on which she collaborated with Irving Penn, Inventive Paris Clothes 1909 – 1939 (1978.)

‘Each decade had its special scene, because fashion is always an expression and a reflection of the social and economic times in which it flourishes. It is important to remember, however, that fashion follows no man; it follows no fad. It is part of the fanfare of our daily lives. As the music of our time changes, so does the fashion. When painting takes on a new direction, a new perspective, fashion changes subtly but quite totally as well.

The scene: the Nineteen Tens: the Cubists have arrived – Braque and Picasso; Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Stravinsky, Debussy, Satie, Ravel – all new sounds, all a new school of music; traditions are being  shattered; Orientalia has taken over; vibrant colours are everywhere; red-lacquered fingernails; Irene and Vernon Castle, the tango craze, electricity and the telephone are used to their full potential; World War I – 1914-1918; women enter a man’s world of activity and responsibility.’  

Elizabeth Woodville in Coronation Robes, Worshipful Company of Skinners' Fraternity Book. Her coronation, along with husband Edward IV, was held in 1465. This looks like miniver - ermine ‘powdered’ with black lambskin in imitation of ermine tails
Paris 6th July 2014 – ‘Haute Couture for sirens.’
Atelier Versace, look 22 for Fall 2014. White fur, presumably mink, with what appears to be applied leather, a contemporary riff on ermine.
Cecil Beaton, Audrey Hepburn in costume as Eliza Doolitle, My Fair Lady, distilled Edwardiana, the skirt decorated with ermine tails,, Vogue 1964. Ermine was a confirmed luxury fur in the Belle Époque and 1920s and had lost much of its formal, stately meaning. Women of fashion wore it – not dowagers. The black and white was a shoe-in for Beaton, who also designed the costumes for My Fair Lady, basing the black and white theme on the 1911 Ascot, held during the mourning period for the late Edward VII. The best came from Ishim in Siberia and in the year ending March 1906, 40,641 ermine skins were sold in London.
Paul Helleu, La Pèlerine de matre, from the former collection of Mme Cheruit, Mme Helleu's favourite couturière c.1901. Marcel Proust based the character Elstir on the artist Helleu in his À la recherche du temps perdu and Cheruit was one of the few couturières that he did not dismiss as a mere ‘dressmaker’.
'Exiting the [Doucet] couture atelier, mannequins as distinguished as women of the world,’ L'Illustration, 27 Dec. 1913,
La Folie du Jour – the tango, by Barbier, from the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1913.
Private Collection
Giovanni Boldini , La Marchesa Luisa Casati with peacock feathers, 1914
An exotic bird of paradise and decadence, La Casati flourished in the febrile world of artists, writers and musicians exactly one hundred years ago.
Mark Hughes, Longchamps 1913.
‘Her own lingerie was fit for a queen, and in the days when that photograph was taken ... They didn’t wear the plain underclothes of today. It was frill upon frill, a foam, a flurry of snow, and the drawers, dear boy! They’d have sent your head whirling. White Chantilly lace and the sides and black in between. Can’t you just see the effect? But can you imagine it?’ On the wardrobe of grande horizontale Lea, from The Last of Cheri, by Colette, 1926.
The Seeberger Brothers, Longchamps, 1912. Fashion’s avant-garde; the dressmaker’s average size at this time had a height of 5’6”, 23” waist and 38” bust – this is post the impact of Poiret and Bakst, a liberated, comparatively lissom figure as women entered the new century.
Gabrielle Chanel, Deauville, 1913, when she had opened her first millinery shop; face forward into the twentieth century in sportswear and very much her own woman, despite the backing of Boy Capel and her relationship with him as a courtesan. A woman who created her own mythology, I suspect ‘Coco’ Chanel was in fact a good old-fashioned tomboy – the Marty illustration of a young Amazon, dressed for riding, is strongly reminiscent of Chanel, an accomplished horsewoman – and in fact, man’s woman, too.
The Young Amazon, Portrait of Mlle Josephine C. By Marty, Gazette du Bon Ton 1913
Gabrielle Chanel in riding dress, c. 1913, by Mark Hughes.
‘Chanel had only to appear in order to make the whole prewar mode fade away, causing Worth and Paquin to wither and die. She was a shepherdess. To her, the trianing course, boot leather, hay, horse dung, the forest interior, saddle soap all smelled sweet.’ Paul Morand - The Allure of Chanel, 1976
Literally swathed in it ..... Mark Hughes, Chanel, 1913
Pierre Brissaud, Renault motorcar advertisement, Gazette du Bon Ton, 1914
Jeanne Aghion, Chic Nouveau – youthful, unrestrained, sportif – a post Great War vamp plays badminton. Le Gout du Jour, 1920
‘One cannot help wishing,’ wrote Vogue in 1920, ‘for a less independent, less hard, more feminine product that the average twentieth century girl.’

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