At a time when the innovative designs of Coco Chanel are on display at the V&A Museum, it’s important to recognise the ways in which fashion design not only reflects but creates new social norms. Chanel has been feted for the way in which she freed up female dress codes, enshrining casual fabrics and pared down styles in the wardrobes of the fashionable elite. She is also seen as a role model for directing an international fashion house over decades when both fashionable garments and the fashion industry underwent seismic change.
Yet we also need to recognise the work of the generations of women designers who preceded Chanel, and who helped to create the conditions in which she flourished. There were of course many female couturiers in the period before 1914, notably Jeanne Paquin, recipient of the Legion d’Honneur for her work. Couture was generally a female-dominated industry, and employed thousands of women at every level from the apprentice seamstress to the highly skilled fitter and elegant showroom model. The same was true of the ready-to-wear fashion industry, or ‘confection’ in french, which by 1900 was well established in France, Britain, and North America. This covered a wide range of prices and working conditions, from sequinned evening gowns to mass-produced tailored jackets, and from exploited homeworkers to employees in well-ventilated workshops.
Ready-to-wear clothing ranges represented a big outlay on the part of manufacturers, who would have to pay for cloth, cutting out, making up, storage and distribution before a single item could be sold. So advertising and promotion were crucial – as was design input to ensure that each season’s range appealed to consumers. This created opportunities for women ‘fashion artists’ who were employed by manufacturers to create new styles, then to present them to the public in advertising images. Some fashion artists became well-known in their own right – like Adelaide Claxton, who in 1895 drew fashion pages for the catalogues of both Harrods’ of Brompton and John Noble of Manchester. Claxton had trained in fine art and exhibited at the Royal Academy, but a more typical path seems to have been from commercial art classes to employment by a manufacturer or an advertising agency. The fortunate few were promoted on magazine mastheads, while many more eked out a living as anonymous freelancers.
Women fashion artists working before 1914 had a pivotal place in the ready-t0-wear sector, designing and promoting clothes for women in new forms of employment (teachers, typists, civil service clerks) and also forging a new employment path within the industry. Their posters, catalogues, and newspaper images presented women with a vision of themselves as competent professionals, rational consumers, and seasoned travellers – a vision that could be achieved at a remarkably low price.
- ‘Women’s Ready-to-Wear Multiples 1860–1914: H. J. Nicoll and Alfred Stedall’, Textile History 53/1 (2023) DOI: 10.1080/00404969.2023.2189446
- ‘Advertising ready-Made style: The Evidence of the Stationers’ Hall Archive’, Textile History 40/2 (2009)