In the book, The Perfect Lady, Willet C. Cunnington describes the period from 1900 to 1910 as the “reign of lingerie,” and indeed fashion magazines in these years, and especially in summer months, show many examples and variations of the so-called “lingerie dress”- a style of dress adorned with embroidery, lace, pin tucks, ruffles and ribbons which was inspired by the chemise gown, as part of an eighteenth- century revival.
However, the first decade of the twentieth century is also marked by a gradual yet radical change in fashionable body and dress, helmed by French couturier Paul Poiret. So while the style of the lingerie dress remained fashionable throughout this period, the proportions, waistline, hemline and sleeves were gradually transformed to reflect the change in taste.
The lingerie dress was worn at summer garden parties, the races, or at other promenade activities, as beautifully illustrated in a photograph taken by the beach in New York,1905.
Fashion publications, like Harper’s Bazar, gave readers detailed instructions and guidelines for reproducing Paris models at home. Just how dominant was this style, in an array of fabrics, and as many colors, is evident from the following excerpt from an article in Harper’s Bazar, April 1909:The lingerie dress is one of the most vitally important item of the summer outfit, and if it is to be embroidered by hand it must be begun early. The model shown here is suitable for handkerchief linens, muslins, and for thin silks, and will make a charming liberty silk gown for a youthful bride.
Another example for the supremacy of the lingerie dress as the correct attire for socializing in summer afternoons appeared in the French publication Les Modes in April 1904 (below). The three ladies in the photograph, taken at the races, are all wearing lingerie dresses lavishly adorned with ruffles, embroidery and lace. Yet, they are more formally dressed than the ladies on the beach, with matching long gloves, lingerie parasols and elaborate summer hats.
A wonderful example that might have been worn on such occasion is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (below). This afternoon dress, from the House of Doucet, dated by the museum 1900-1903, is a fine example of Doucet’s liking for pastel colors, delicate laces, ruffles and over-all lingerie-like style of dress. Jacques Doucet was one of the leading couturiers to emerge at the last quarter of the nineteenth century, along side Jeanne Paquin and the already established Charles Fredrick Worth. Doucet was an avid collector of eighteenth century art so it is only fitting that he would also take part in the revival of the chemise gown which was favored from the end of the seventeenth century and through the better part of the eighteenth century.
The Doucet dress is made of rose printed chiffon decorated with fine off-white lace and ruffles, and a velvet sash in vivid turquoise color. It seems that many lingerie dresses (usually in white, off- white or pastel color) were accessorized with lively colors. A fashion report in Harper’s Bazar, September 1908 supports this:Such color combinations as Napoleon blue tights and slippers with buff cloth dress, or green under champagne color, or again, cherry color under mole shades, are among the combinations shown in advance importations.
A fashion plate from the publication L’Art et la Mode, March 1906 (below), illustrates another interesting variation. The drawn figure is shown on a background of light blue and ocher watercolor; a trace of the same light blue is shown on the dress itself. This effect might just be the work of the illustrator, however the caption below reads: “UNLINED VALENCIENNES GOWN WITH SEPARATE SILK SLIP”, and the light blue strokes seem to emerge from under the skirt and along the torso and the upper part of the sleeve. This pale shade of blue is similar to the coloring of the rose print of the Doucet dress, and is in accordance with the fashionable pastel palate favored by designers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, like Doucet himself.
Additionally, Harper’s Bazar article titled “Embroidered Parasols,” June 1909, shows that a touch of color to an all -white outfit was quite fashionable:In these days of dainty lingerie, the lingerie parasol holds its own, and a few designs are shown that may easily be reproduced at home… Fig. 4 is attractive in either a heavy linen with no lining, or again the sheer linen lawn, with colored silk lining giving a tinge of color to the outside. The design of flowers, leaves, and dots is the French embroidery, the edge being a heavy buttonholing. The centers of the flowers are eyelets, allowing the silk to show through.
During the long “reign of lingerie” styles were subtly adjusted, trimmings updated, and proportions shifted. The photograph below appeared in Le Figaro-Modes in June 1904; it is an example for the influence of Art Nouveau, not only in the floral motifs characteristic to the movement in France, but also in the curvaceous silhouette. In the late 1890s the fashionable body was shaped by the “monobosom” corset. The new corset forced the upper body forward and lower body backwards, creating a sort of s-shaped silhouette, in perfect harmony with the aesthetic of Art Nouveau.
Between the turn of the century and the end of the first decade the fashionable body gradually changed – from a rounded, curvaceous figure enforced by stiff corsets and heavy petticoats to a slimmer, elongated shape attained by softer, smoother undergarments.
In lingerie dresses the design details, such as ribbons and lace insertions, segmented the body in a way that emphasized the desirable fashionable silhouette. Whereas earlier in the decade the body was divided into several horizontal planes- emphasizing the shoulder, hip, cinched waistline and swirling skirt, in the later years of the decade the placement of trimmings is used to elongate and slim the shape. In the second half of the decade the style of trimmings also changed. If at the begging of the twentieth century fluffy ethereal ruffles, gathering, ruching and other dimensional decorations were used, from about 1907 fashion magazines show more and more afternoon dresses with flat trimmings such as embroidered ribbons, pin-tucking and lace.
Since a shift in silhouette naturally demands a change in accessories, the new slim figure was balanced out with wide brim hats, usually heavily decorated. Although these enormous hats were often ridiculed, the labor and attention invested in them mark the beginning of what many consider the “golden age” of millinery, which stretched through the first half of the twentieth century. It is important to note that hats were essential feature of respectable dress through the centuries, and were mandatory for socializing outdoor at this period.
Big hats were worn over equally big hairdos. The hair, properly pulled back and upward, was sometimes reinforced by false hair pads (“transformations”), which also helped to stabilize the long pins that were necessary to anchor the massive, excessive hats. The result was a voluminous head that appeared so large it made the neck seem longer, the shoulders smaller and the body slimmer and more elongated.
It is evident that although the lingerie dress and the setting in which it was worn remained virtually unchanged throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, the style and desirable figure certainly transformed. There is a sharp contrast between the exaggerated, excessive style of the earlier examples to the sleek, modernized style of the later ones- the earlier examples stylistically belong in the nineteenth century, while later examples face the new century. With the appearance of modern designers, like Coco Chanel, this dainty, ultra-decorated style seemed old-fashioned in comparison to the new, clean and streamlined style of dress.