Sunday, November 23, 2014

When Fashion Was Flights of Fancy

And only $25!

I discovered a gem tucked away in a used book store — Harper's Bazaar dated December 1936. The Art Director was Alexi Brodovitch, Cassandre painted the cover, Man Ray, Munkacsi and Louise Dahl Wolfe took photographs, Herbert Matter turned photos into faux travel posters. Those names are pioneers in their fields of design and photography. They still had to pay the rent.

Slightly battered Bazaar

There are ads from Tiffany for an emerald cut diamond ring at $960 ($16,398 in today's money), a 16mm Kodak movie camera for $125 ($2,135), a 27-day cruise to South America on the Italian line, starting at $325 ($5,551 a bargain really) and a shiny red 1937 Cadillac for $1445 ($24,683). An editorial feature on affordable dresses ("I Don't Want to Spend Much") highlights a fabulous long black net gown with pussy cat bow and puffed sleeves for $25 ($427), a price I don't think of as affordable even today.

No question about it

Diana Vreeland wasn't on the masthead yet, but her "Why Don't You" column (two-page spread continued in the back) was in full swing. Diana became famous (or notorious) for this column that she wrote (she says) tongue in cheek. Those who knew Diana disagree. It would not be unlike her to "wash your blonde child's hair in dead champagne" (one of the most quoted and outlandish "Why Don't You"s). According to Diana, she questioned the advisability of publishing such frippery during what was still very much the Great Depression, but flipping through this Bazaar leads to the conclusion not everyone had lost everything.

Diana in the 1930s

Diana wasn't Fashion Editor yet. She'd been hired by Carmel Snow as Diana not only had style, she traveled in the society that was Bazaar's intended audience. Carmel made her the Paris Editor, which suited Diana just fine. She got sent to Paris to report and would continue to have her clothes made there until WWII changed everything. You might assume Diana would crumple having no access to her beloved Paris, dealing with clothing rations and general hardship in time of war. She not only turned lemons into lemonade, she swirled them in a silver cocktail shaker. Diana championed American designers, literally bringing many out of the back room for the first time. She paved the way for an American style of dressing— sportif, practical, comfortable, appropriate and always chic.

But that's another story. In 1936 Diana was still tripping to Paris and tripping out on what she found there. No one but she could have written these "Little Ideas from Paris":

"Make a little Juliet cap of net and encircle its edges with a wreath of multicolored ostrich tips— but the tiniest, brightest tips you can find."

"A black velvet peasant cap embroidered brightly in silk like the cap of a little Norwegian peasant girl. To wear in the evening."

"Or while tennising or golfing or hiking, just for fun, tie a cotton hankie around your wrist— a nice wild decorative one. Or try a chiffon one for evening." 
Voice from 2014: that last actually sounds like a nice idea.

"A blue fox coat, soft and shaggy, over a gown of smoky, taupe paillettes with a tiny velvet cap, also taupe, perched on your head, and short green gloves."

"Choose a simple gown, and with it, a huge cabochon emerald in one ear and an equally large sapphire in the other."
Voice from 2014: another fun idea though my jewels will be faux.

"Tuck a bright velveteen scarf under your black evening coat and wear it all night tightly rolled in the high neckline of a plain black dinner dress."

Is it my imagination or was there more fun to fashion back then?

Little ideas from Paris


  1. I have a Vogue Magazine from 1946. A couple of things stand out: the sizes shown in the ads are much larger than today's (most start at size 10) and there are many articles by world famous authors. In the issue I have there are articles by Somerset Maugham, Albert Camus, and Daphne Du Maurier. Not sure if fashion was more fun, but it certainly was different.

  2. The scarf in the evening dress sounds like it could be fun... or a disaster. I'm not quite sure!