The Debut of Elegance
The word ‘Elegance’ comes from the Latin ‘elegantia’, meaning taste and refinement. Fashion designer Coco Chanel famously said, “Elegance is refusal”, meaning it is best to skip big jewelry and flashy clothes in favour of simple styles made from luxurious fabrics that one could wear forever – and look great every time.
For me the 1920s and 1930s were when elegance was at its height. I grew up watching black and white Hollywood films such as those of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and was transfixed by the beautiful dresses, the dramatic music and the strong roles for women. Leading ladies such as Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn and Jean Harlow appeared uninhibited, beautiful, witty and free-spirited. They drank and smoked, drove racing cars, flew planes, rode horses, had jobs, danced and sang. They seemed like they could do anything and look fabulous while doing it.
My favourite actress and style icon from an early age was Lauren Bacall. Her beauty, style, grace and talent made her one of the greatest stars of the golden age of Hollywood.
Simplicity was a modern concept in the 1920s and 1930s and fashion was mesmerized by it. Clothes for women became simpler and more practical.
Otto Weininger, a psychologist: “You cannot drive a Rolls Royce in a Gainsborough hat, amputate a limb in a crinoline, or play polo in stays”.
Women needed different clothes for work, for day and for evening. For the first time there was a masculine influence in women’s clothing seen for example in the exaggerated shoulder and trouser suits. New innovations such as the zip fastener helped women save valuable time changing.
As films were no longer silent, Hollywood film had an increasing influence on fashion and in 1930 the worlds of Hollywood film and French fashion merged when Coco Chanel signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn to design costumes for the stars of United Artists Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never. Parisian designers of the day such as Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Lucien Lelong and Elsa Schiaparelli realized that film would be the future of fashion.