Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Press Release

The Gilded Age of Fashion: 1890-1914
19 October 2013 - 5 January 2014

Photos by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine (Click to enlarge)

TORONTO - Toronto Public Library is pleased to announce a new exhibition in the TD Gallery, The Gilded Age of Fashion: 1890-1914. An exhibition of rare and unique items from Toronto Public Library's Special Collections.

Art deco fashion illustration, Canadian costume designs, fashion plates and ladies' magazines from the Library's Special Collections. Find out how Parisian dress styles were advertised and adapted by retail stores and pattern makers to create ready-made fashions. Discover how Canadian costume designers re-imagined the styles of the Gilded Age in stage plays by George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.

The period reaching from the 1890s to the outbreak of WWI was a time of peace and prosperity. After the shattering effects of the First World War, the French looked back with longing at an age they called La Belle Époque (the Beautiful Age). The Americans referred to the early part of the new century as The Gilded Age because a new moneyed class, the nouveau riche, established new businesses and created new wealth. It was a heady time, not least for the fashion world.

At the turn of the century, Paris was the fashion hub of the western world. The House of Worth was pre-eminent, but talented tailors and dressmakers like Poiret and Paquin went out on their own and established successful new fashion houses in Paris. When fashion designers were hired to make costumes for stage celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt and clothing for the English royal couple, King Edward VII and his Queen Consort Alexandra, the success of their businesses were assured. The public were eager to follow the latest styles of the rich and famous and adapt them for their own.

Vogue (N.Y.). (Cover) May 1, 1913.

Ladies' Fashion Magazines

In order to keep abreast of the latest trends, fashion magazines sent their editors to the fashion shows in Paris, London, and New York. The magazines published black and white line drawings and sometimes coloured plates showing the latest dress designs. Mass circulation magazines like Lady’s Pictorial and Harper’s Bazaar were instrumental in bringing new styles to the attention of a wider audience.

Ladies’ magazines promoted the new look, and pattern-makers and retail stores adapted the new styles for the general public. The Butterick Company published ladies’ magazines as a vehicle for distributing patterns. As if the dress designs were not enough of an enticement, stories, recipes, and columns on etiquette were also included in each issue. Vogue also advertised dress patterns that could be ordered by mail. Homemakers could then take the patterns to a dressmaker or sew them at home.

French Fashion

In the late 1890s and up to early pre-war 1914, Paris was the centre of the fashion universe for Western Europe and North America. The predominant silhouette in the 1890s and the early part of the twentieth century was the “S-curve”. A newly designed corset pushed the bosom forward and the shoulders and posterior backwards. The skirt was full around the posterior, tapered in around the knee and then flared out like the petals of a flower.

By 1910, the silhouette was leaner and the skirts narrower. Fashion designers cast away the constricting corset and voluminous petticoats were replaced by crêpe de Chine slips.

French fashion magazines like Journal des Dames et des Modes and Gazette du Bon Ton were launched in 1912 and 1914 and circulated to an elite clientele to promote the designs of the top Paris fashion houses. The fashion plates in each issue were coloured by hand.

Gazette du Bon Ton: Art, Modes & Frivolités. (plate 14) February 1914. Bernard Boutet de Monvel.

Pochoir Fashion Plates

The pochoir stencilling technique perfected by artists like George Barbier (1882-1932) and Paul Iribe (1883-1935) was used in albums or limited edition catalogues featuring the designs of Paris couturiers like Jeanne Paquin. This technique allowed artists to build up layers of vivid colour using metal stencils and colouring by hand. By the thirties, photography had displaced pochoir as the medium preferred for fashion advertising.

The Gibson Girl

Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) was among the best-known magazine illustrators at the turn of the century. His pen and ink drawings for Collier’s Weekly and Life Magazine playfully portrayed men and women of the nouveau riche in their daily social interactions. Gibson’s drawings of young, unmarried ladies portrayed a new kind of woman who was refined, intelligent, and sporty.

The “Gibson Girl” had long hair piled gracefully atop her head, revealing a long slender neck. Her dress might be a low-cut evening gown or the popular tailor-made walking suit topped by a large-brimmed hat which was fastened with a large hatpin. Gibson Girls were often depicted outdoors in various sporting activities like horse riding, motoring, cycling, playing golf or croquet, or swimming at the beach. Whatever the occupation, the Gibson Girl was always young, beautiful, and elegantly attired.

Tailoring and Dressmaking

The tailoring manuals published by J. P. Thornton demonstrate how fashions were changing to adapt to the new craze for cycling and motoring. Horse riding was an activity with special clothing requirements, especially for ladies who were now beginning to have the option of wearing breeches instead of riding side-saddle in a skirt.

Pattern Magazines

The Butterick Company published ladies’ magazines as a way of advertising dressmaking patterns. The Company’s later publications The Delineator and Le Miroir des Modes, and the British publication Weldon’s Ladies Journal advertised patterns that women could order and sew at home or take to the local dressmaker to be made-to-measure.

The Delineator. (cover) September 1906. Butterick Publishing Company.

Local Fashions

Department stores sent their buyers to the Paris fashion houses to buy dresses which were then taken apart and copied by clothing manufacturers. These copies were in turn sold by retail stores. Trade catalogues that have survived the period 1890 to 1914 show the ready-made fashions that were available locally or by mail order.

The House of Hobberlin’s catalogues advertised men’s made-to-measure suits: the frock coat for formal occasions, the sack suit for informal day wear, and the Norfolk coat for outdoor activities like hunting and golf.

Ladies’ Ready-Made Underwear

At the turn of the 19th century, women’s underwear consisted of drawers, corsets and corset covers. By the 1910s, as skirts became narrower and the silhouette leaner, there was no need for voluminous petticoats. Following in the footsteps of French couturier Paul Poiret designers cast away the corset. Crêpe de Chine slips were worn underneath dresses instead.

Turn of the Century Fashion on Stage

Irish playwrights Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) were both writing satirical plays at the turn of the century and they both challenged the social customs and morality of the day. In fact, Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession was initially banned because it so openly portrayed the life of a brothel owner. Wilde’s high society comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, poked fun at the institution of courtship and marriage and the importance of class and money in its brokerage. At the height of his popularity as a playwright, Wilde was facing censure for his own unconventional lifestyle.

The fashions of the Gilded Age are familiar to us because they have been recreated by costume designers on stage and in film. The Canadian costumes designed for Pygmalion and My Fair Lady recreate the fashions of the period in which the play was written, namely the 1910s. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Canadian designer David Boechler has explained that Lady Bracknell’s dress was based on the style of the British Queen Consort Alexandra, one of the fashion icons of the Gilded Age.

Source: Toronto Reference Library

Exhibition Preview

Photo by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine 

Photo by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine 

Photo by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine 

Photo by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine 

Photo by Eva Fydrych / Fashion Studio Magazine 

TD Gallery, Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street - Main Level

Monday to Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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