Dress Reform Through Dance, by Mrs Irene Castle: 1914

Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle

Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle

MODERN DANCES AS FASHION REFORMERS  

In the world of fashion, where there is no appeal from the decree of the great designers, the modern dance has come boldly to the front and demanded, and won, sensible styles. On looking back a few seasons to the clothing worn by women and girls, you will recall long, cruel corsets and garters that trussed them like fowls for the roasting. You will remember, too, the tight snakiness of the hobble-skirt and the hats that were shaped like peach-baskets.

All women will recall them because all wore them, and all wore tight shoes and heavy petticoats and high, stiff-boned collars. Then Paris began to dance, and of course once Paris began to dance all the world began to tap its feet and try to learn how to pronounce “the dansant.” Then our dancers turkey-trotted. They trotted because that was the best they could do in the fashions old Dame Style had decreed; but it was not comfortable, and they succeeded in doing away with the high collars, and introduced a little slit into the skirts. That was the beginning, the opening gun in the war of the Dance upon the Designer. The Dance has won.

To-day the average woman is wearing a girdle-like corset with elastic instead of bones, and at most two pairs of garters. All the old long, stiff tube corsets are left on the bargain-counters. Nor has this reform stopped with the abolition of the corset, for it is to be noted that the modern shoes are big enough to dance in and are held in place with ribbons. The modern frocks are collarless, and the skirts are subtly cut so that they fall freely and give the perfect ease one must have to dance the modern dances.

Simple coiffures have become the fashion because they do not become untidy when dancing; and for lingerie the dancer now wears a smart pair of silken bloomers and a plaited chiffon or crepe de Chine petticoat that fluffs out gracefully and hides her ankles when she does the little dip that comes in the Hesitation Waltz and other measures.

The long, awkward, and often soiled train that used to drag behind women in the afternoons and evenings is seen no more. The fashions of 1914 have done away with it, because-you could not dance in a train! Nowadays we dance morning, noon, and night. What is more, we are unconsciously, while we dance, warring not only with unnatural lines of figure and gowns, but we are warring against fat, against sickness, and against nervous troubles. For we are exercising. We are making ourselves lithe and slim and healthy, and these are things that all the reformers in the world could not do for us.

When Mr. Castle and I look at the girls of 1914 who come to dance in their straight, often quite full frocks of soft chiffon, their low-heeled easy slippers, their simply arranged hair, and when we see how lightly and easily they dance unhampered by uncomfortable clothes, we cannot help contrasting them with the girls who came to us only a few months ago trussed up like unhappy little fowls.

Dancing has had its influence upon the materials that have come into vogue. It is necessary to have one’s frocks soft and light. A stiff, heavy material looks awkward and makes harsh lines about the figure in the charming measures of the dance. In consequence there has arisen a tremendous demand for soft crepes de Chine, chiffon velvets, delicate crepe deteors, and the softest and most supple of taffetas, which are at the moment the most fashionable of all. Perhaps the designers and the manufacturers will not admit that the dance is responsible for the vogue of these fabrics. But we all know that the demand makes the supply, and the demand of the women who dance is, “Give me something soft and light.”

Of course it is dancing that has made the vogue for the charming plaited petticoats of chiffon edged with lace to wear under the dance-frock or the slit skirt, because without these the foot and ankle are shown too much. It is dancing, too, that has made the vogue for the new garters, with their deep lace ruffles, and the little lace pantalets–all to hide those slender ankles that show in the dip. It is dancing that has made the vogue for the Tango slippers, with their ribbons and jeweled slides; and it is dancing that has made the small hat of tulle or lace fashionable for afternoons in place of wide picture-hats. “Big hats are unpleasant to dance in.”

One might go on indefinitely telling of these things; of the return to fashion of the ankle-length skirt and of the new Paris frocks that flare out full at the hem of the skirt to give the wearer room to dance; of the new lingerie, in which everything is combined in one garment, easily slipped on, so that every muscle of the body may have full play for the lithe and lovely measures of the Innovation Waltz, the One Step, and other favorite dances.

All this proves that the modern dances are reformers of fashion. There are still, however, a few lessons to be learned about dressing for the dance. One should not wear in the afternoon a frock so light and décolleté that it looks like an evening gown. Soft silk gowns of dark shades, with black slippers and stockings, are far smarter and in better taste than either the light frock or a tailored suit, though one does see a number of blouses and skirts at thes dansants.

For the diner dansant one wears an evening gown, less elaborate, of course, than a ball-gown would be, and short, not en train like an opera frock. One should always wear white gloves, and these should not be taken off. There is a strong attempt being made by the younger set to do without gloves altogether for dancing, but it is not comme il faut.

In the evening one’s slippers and hose should match the costume, but in the daytime only black or bronze are permissible. The bronze slippers and stockings are much in vogue in Paris just now, and most lovely hosiery for the girl who dances is being shown. There are filmy stockings with anklets embroidered in colored gems, lace incrusted hose with silver embroideries, and, of course, all kinds of clocks and butterflies to draw attention to a slender foot and ankle. Any of these may be worn without violating good taste, and are the one part of a woman’s wardrobe against which dancing has not started its reform campaign, principally because it was not needed.

Modern Dancing, Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle, 1914 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle, were, of course, the toast of stage and thé dansant, popularising ball-room dance and creating dances such as “The Castle Walk” and a refined version of the Tango. The thé dansant was a dance held from perhaps four in the afternoon to seven. There would be a live orchestra, and light refreshments such as cake, ices, sandwiches, champagne-punch, and biscuits. They were especially popular with the young and informal.  

Mrs Castle was renowned for her exquisite wardrobe and her elegant figure. Earlier in the book cited above she describes the ideal costume for dancing the tango: 

The plaited skirt of soft silk or chiffon, or even of cloth, is by far the most graceful to dance in, and the one which lends itself best to the fancy steps of these modern days. Therefore, while fashion decrees the narrow skirt, the really enthusiastic dancer will adopt the plaited one.

A clever woman may, however, combine the two by the use of a split skirt, carefully draped to hide the split, and a plaited petticoat underneath. Thus when she dances the skirt will give and not form awkward, strained lines, and the soft petticoat, fluffing out, will lend a charming grace to the dancer’s postures.

The openings in a skirt of this sort can be fastened with tiny glove-snaps, so that on the street the wearer may appear to have the usual narrow costume, while at the same time she has a practical one for the daily the dansant.

The dancing-petticoats of the year are really lovely, and are quite a feature of the dancing-costumes at Castle House. Some are of crepe de Chine, some of plaited chiffon with straight lace ruffles on the bottom, or tiny rosebuds as trimming; they should always match the costume and the stockings.

Dark stockings showing through a filmy petticoat and a split skirt are very ugly. Under these petticoats the dancers are wearing the new combination of brassiere and silk bloomers, finished with ruffles of lace or sometimes ending quite plainly at the knee. These, too, give full play in the various steps….

Personally I use and recommend a special corset made almost entirely of elastic, very flexible and conforming absolutely to the figure, which at the same time it supports. It is known as the Castle Corset, and is designed especially for dancers. Many corsets are now being brought out, however, with elastic in place of whalebone; and the late word from Paris that we may again display a waist-line and hips allows even the fairly stout woman to don shorter and more comfortable “stays.” Modern Dancing, Mr and Mrs Vernon Castle, 1914  

The proper shoes were essential for the Tango:

Tango Boots. c. 1918

Tango Boots. c. 1918

For Tango Costume

Whatever pertains to the tango costume appeals to the girl who dances. Beginning with the dancer’s feet, which are of most importance, since, lacking them, she would be wholly out of the running, there are for the satin, suede, or kid slippers attachable heels in silver or gold color, which flash fascinatingly as she whisks along. The pearl, crystal, rhinestone or cut steel encrusted heels which came in for evening slippers a few years ago, are again in high favor, but chiefly for tango occasions, and to go with them come sets of ten buckles through which may be laced ribbons, that wind round about and support the ankles.

Better than the slipper and anklet lacings, however, are the high boots in kid or satin. These, while very soft and pliable, support the anklets and prevent them from turning in the swift, sudden movement of the more complicated figures of the tango. With these new boots, which are without trimmings are worn tango “wings” made of jewel-encrusted gauze or of tiny ostrich plumes rooted in a little cluster of flowers, a bowknot or a buckle in brilliants. The Ogden [UT] Standard 19 March 1914: p. 9 

See this podcast from the Bata Shoe Museum about a pair of brilliant “tango boots.”

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

One thought on “Dress Reform Through Dance, by Mrs Irene Castle: 1914

  1. Pingback: The Rational Dress Show: 1883 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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