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Belle Époque

Wasp waist, wide sleeves, lots of lace, S-shaped silhouette, sun umbrellas and large hats - these details of women's wardrobe are connected by the Belle Époque. The era, which began in the last decades of the 19th century and lasted until World War I, originated in Paris and spread throughout Europe. In Britain, this time was the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, in the Russian Empire, this time is known as the Silver Age.

During Belle Époque scientific and technological progress accelerated, culture flourished, and the first steps of the suffrage movement were born. People began to use electricity, telephone, and radio, and began to travel more. Huge hotels were built around the world, which are still working: Ritz in Paris, Savoy in London, Negresco in Nice, Plaza in New York, etc.

At this time, not only aristocrats and nouveau riches could look fashionable. Department stores have opened with an innumerable assortment of ready-to-wear dresses and incredible service. Some of them attract customers today: Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Liberty and Selfridges in London, GUM and TSUM in Moscow. Women learned about fashionable trends not only from shop windows but also from popular women's magazines and newspapers that promoted luxurious and chic life and fashion: Les modes (1901-1937), La mode illustrée (1860-1914), Harper's Bazaar (from 1867), Vogue (from 1892), Tatler (from 1901), Women's Wear Daily (from 1910).

Women's magazines were also published in the Russian Empire: New Russian Bazaar (1867-1898), Fashionable Light (1868-1916, published under the name Fashionable Light and Fashion Store in 1883-1906), Modiste (1889 -1898), Viennese chic (1899-1908) and others. The magazines included sewing patterns that helped to sew outfits on their own using sewing machines.

The fashion of that time was transitional: it became simpler than the fashion of the beginning and middle of the 19th century, but more elegant than the fashion of the 20th century after World War I. According to etiquette, women were supposed to change dresses for every occasion of life, 5-6 times a day: at home, for visits, walking, travel, theater, ball, etc.

At the beginning of the era, women continued to wear a corset. At the end of the 19th century, the S-shaped corset was created. It was an alternative to earlier models and it was safer for women's health. It did not squeeze the diaphragm, pushed the woman's chest forward and her hips back.

By the end of the era, the woman was partially freed from the corset. A new type of dress was created - a tea dress that does not require wearing a corset under it. Initially, women wore them at home, but over time they began to walk and travel in them.

Keira Knightley wearing tea dresses in the film A Dangerous Method (2011):

Blouses, jackets, and dresses with high collars were in fashion, which Alexandra, Princess of Wales, brought into fashion, hiding her scar on her neck. She wore ribbons, tight necklaces, and chokers with open evening gowns.

Uma Thurman wearing a dress with a high collar in the film Bel Ami (2012):

The ideal of the feminine physical attractiveness was Gibson Girl - a character in the drawings of the American artist Ch.D. Gibson - with a thin waist, lush breasts, and wide hips. She was feminine and elegant, wearing a high hairstyle, long skirts, blouses with ruffles and ribbons on the chest, and puffy gigot sleeves, voluminous at the top and tapered at the bottom. She was a symbol of an active and freedom-loving woman. Her image was used in women's fashion magazines and advertisements.

The movement for women's rights and the opportunity to study and work simplified women's wardrobe: dressy toilets were replaced by comfortable dresses of simple cut and suits with a long jacket and skirt. Women also traveled wearing such suits. A replica of one of these suits Kate Winslet wore in the film Titanic (1997). Costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott, who won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in this film, was inspired by the tailored Linker & Co suit from Paris magazine Les Modes, 1912.

The return of the Olympic Games in 1896 influenced the development of sports, including among women. They were fond of tennis, cycling, golf, swimming. This was reflected in fashion after the Olympic Games, which took place in the capital of fashion Paris in 1900. Clothing for sports was created: flared skirts, jackets, blouses, bathing suits.

Women wore sharp-nosed shoes or boots with a slightly sloped heel. Sunburn in high society was considered indecent, so on sunny days women walked with umbrellas.

A strict dress code prohibited women from leaving the house with their heads uncovered. They adorned their high hair with huge hats with an abundance of flowers, bows, feathers, and birds.

Examples of these hats in films and TV shows:

Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964) wearing a costume designed by the legendary Cecil Beaton.

Juliette Binoche in the film Slack Bay (Ma Loute, 2016) and Louise Bourgoin in the film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec, 2010).

Hats in the first season of the TV series Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016).

Hats in the film Titanic (1997).

Elizabeth McGovern in the first season of Downton Abbey (2010-2015).

Elizaveta Boyarskaya in the film Admiral (2008).

Michelle Pfeiffer in the film Cheri (2009).

Barbra Streisand in the film Hello, Dolly! (1969).

Huge hats were a favourite object of caricaturists.

Fashionistas had difficulties with public transport due to the size of the hats. In London, there was a law that limited the width of hats and the length of hatpins (no more than 23 cm), which became a deadly weapon. A scene from the film The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec, 2010) demonstrates one of the examples.

In summer, women wore simple straw canotiers with narrow brims. Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View (1985) and Keira Knightley in Colette (2018).

Despite the spread of the Belle Époque lifestyle throughout Europe, Paris remained the center of entertainment and fashion. The high society of the city went out to demonstrate their fashionable outfits. Favourite places of entertainment were theaters, the luxurious Maxim's restaurant, casinos, and cabarets. Cabarets Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère were sold out daily. The can-can dance was considered very scandalous, therefore the dancers were celebrities. The most famous dancers were Liane de Pougy, Carolina Otero, Cleo de Merode, La Goulue and Jeanne Avril.

La Goulue and Jeanne Avril in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings:

There are several films about the legendary Moulin Rouge cabaret.

Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jeanne Avril in the film Moulin Rouge (1952). These dresses were created by Elsa Schiaparelli.

Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! (2001):

Since 1909, Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Saisons Russes) began to tour in Paris and other cities around the world. Parisian women were delighted with bright stage costumes and were ready to wear something similar in everyday life. The leading couturier of Parisian fashion at that time was Paul Poiret. Inspired by the ballet Scheherazade with costumes created by the artist L. Bakst, Paul Poiret created an oriental collection with harem pants, kimono, and turban. The hit of the collection was the high-waisted lampshade dress with a wire-framed top skirt.

Paul Poiret created extraordinary outfits. He created a "hobble" skirt in 1911 that was sharply narrowing from the knees to the floor. It caused a storm of emotions in society and became a new object for caricaturists.

Towards the end of the era when World War I ended, Poiret went bankrupt and lost his influence on fashion. His theatrical outfits with feathers, bright silks, and stones have become irrelevant. A new breath of glamour and glitz returned after the war during the Roaring Twenties, but other designers created clothes for this period.

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