MEN WHO MAKE THE FASHIONS
The Evolution of a Society Costume
By Henry Leach.
Not many ladies when they don a smart new gown which is right up to the fashion of the moment, and are as intensely pleased with it as only ladies can be, have much of an idea as to whose genius they have to thank for their delight.
They would be surprised if they knew that it was a man’s, more so if they understood quite how he did his work, and most of all when it dawned upon them that this same man not only executed the design, but actually took the initiative, and autocratically ordained what the fashion at a particular time should be. The sex may fancy that they themselves and their costumiers make the fashion in dress; but this is only partly true. The male fashion artist has most to do with it. His is a peculiar and interesting occupation, requiring talent far above the ordinary, and it is an occupation of which not many even suspect the existence.
There are several grades of fashion artists, but only a very few in the first, and it is these few who make the fashions for the West End. They are artists in the fullest sense, and find their profession considerably more lucrative than the average painter of pictures does. In some cases they have been painters of pictures themselves and are so still, and they have large and handsome studios in which they work. And how do they work?
One of the most eminent of them explained to me how it was all done. In the first place their labours are divided naturally into three distinct divisions. One consists in visiting the houses of the great just before fashionable functions take place, and making lightning sketches of ladies’ new gowns, which are afterwards worked up at home and then sent for illustration in the various fashion papers. Another is the making of original designs for dresses of an elaborate character for these same papers, such as the Queen, the Gentlewoman, and the Lady’s Pictorial.
A great amount of thought and care is necessary for this class of work, as the designs are intended largely to anticipate fashion. But the most important class of the fashion artist’s work is not that in which he copies, or even that in which he designs, however elaborately, merely for illustration, but that in which he creates for the costumier, in which he practically makes a smart new frock, which will ere long adorn the figure of a lady of society.
Such work requires no small amount of study, thought and pains, and this is how a new fashion is evolved. In the strict sense of the term, there is no new fashion any more than, according to the old proverb, there is anything at all under the sun that is new. Perhaps there is less in fashion nowadays than in most other things, for the artist will tell you that such is the lady’s love for change that long ago the whole gamut of possible variety in the form and arrangement of draperies had been run, and that nowadays he goes to the past for inspiration for the future. The fashion artist keeps in his studio big volumes of the fashion plates for all years, and these are ever and anon turned up in the search for new ideas. Something out of the ordinary, widely differing from the prevailing taste, is required, and it is found in the fashion of a few decades ago. This fashion, of course, is not copied in detail; it simply supplies the basis for the new design, and the idea is worked upon and cleverly adapted till something more or less novel really seems to be the outcome. At the present time the fashion artists are taking their ideas from the 1860 period.
Having obtained a general notion as to what sort of costume he intends to make, the artist then goes about the making of it in a very practical and interesting manner. He sets a little table in front of him and places upon it a miniature model of a lady’s figure. It is only about twenty inches high.
He is supplied with a large quantity of tissue paper of different colours, scissors, gum, artist’s ink and paints, and a little silken material for use on the bodice and cuffs where tissue paper will not do. First he cuts out of the paper a simple skirt, and trims it this way and that until it is to his liking. Over it are adjusted more little pieces of tissue paper of various colours, cut into all kinds of experimental shapes till the right shape and blend are secured, and when at last the idea which the artist had in mind is realised it is time to think of detail. The ink and paints and brushes are taken up, and on the tissue paper is painted with all possible care and ingenuity the representation of the most beautiful embroidery work. Skill and fancy are given a free rein; but it has always to be borne in mind that the design shewn as paint and tissue paper must be capable of conversion with proper effect into colour and the material of which the gown is to be made. Then the sleeves are fashioned and added and worked upon, and finally the bodice, until the little dummy is fully attired in a charming little costume, made up of hundreds of small pieces of tissue paper, which is months ahead of fashion, and which later on will be the pride and glory of the smartest women in town. The artist makes elaborate drawings of the finished design, and then away everything goes to the costumier with full detailed instructions as to what material and what colour each little detail of the gown must be. All is left to the fashion artist.
Possibly this may not seem a very long or arduous process, but really it is so, and there is as much work in the designing of an elaborate new frock as there is in the painting of many a picture. Not that, however, the artist cannot, if he will, turn out a pretty design, quite new, and all complete, in an almost incredibly short space of time, if circumstances demand it. It cannot be an elaborate gown like the other, but it may be a charming one all the same. Mr. Ernest Vincent, who has no superior in his profession, and who must have been responsible for some thousands of the smart frocks which have dazzled London social functions, and who very kindly gave me the greatest assistance in the illustration of this article, supplied a practical demonstration of what he could do in the way of speed work. He asked me to time him.
At the commencement there was an absolutely blank Bristol drawing board, and he had no model or other design to work from. He announced his intention of creating a new costume, à la 1860. In 22 minutes it was finished in detail, as here reproduced, with a wash of colour over it, too, and with full instructions to the costumier —“Blue taffeta silk; collar of Ecru lace; black velvet belt, and bows and tabs to bolero; white chiffon vest and cuffs.”
In some cases a living model is worked from, but in many others, even where it is quite an elaborate dress that is being designed, no model of any kind whatever is necessary, and the artist simply works away with pen and ink on a white board. The series of sketches by Mr. Vincent shews precisely the process of evolution of a dainty new dress in this way.
No. 1 is the rough outline which is first made;
No. 2 is the suggestion for draping the cloth;
No. 3 is the suggestion for the edging of sable fur and the addition of a satin sash at the left side, with fringed ends;
No. 4 is the suggestion for an appliqué of cloth and velvet on the bodice and skirt; and
No. 5 is the completed design, shewing a gown of cloth, trimmed appliqué of self-colour cloth and darker velvet; vest and rosettes of satin, and trimmings of sable fur.
When a design is finished, a fashion-plate is made of it. Sometimes the gown is placed upon the living figure, and drawn again in the artist’s studio. Occasionally a vague idea for a new costume of a particular fancy is submitted to the artist through the costumier from a customer; but it usually is, indeed, a vague one, and for the most part the designing of it is still left with the artist. It is he, assisted largely by his confreres in Paris, who makes the fashions for society. He is also very frequently commissioned for portrait painting, where it is desired that special attention should be given to the dress, as in the case of a bride or a drawing-room débutante, for the ordinary artist, be he ever so clever, has not such a fine appreciation of the points of a delicate costume.
Such are the fashion artist’s work and methods. It is not simple, and it is not light. For two or three months in the winter he is at top pressure designing all the frocks which will be worn in the summer, and from July to September he is busy with the winter costumes. Mr. Vincent starts his work at four o’clock in the morning, and keeps hard at it till early in the afternoon, and then comes the welcome rest. It is hard, but society and the costumiers are mindful of his labours.
It need hardly be said that the work of a fashion artist calls for no small measure of originality of ideas and of genuine artistic ability. It must not be judged by the stiff and formal character of the average fashion-plate. The designer has not to decide what will look well on paper, but he has to take into consideration the artistic values of the various materials used in the costume.
In fact, the modern costume designer needs to be something of a practical dressmaker and milliner in addition to being a skilled designer and colourist.
The Harmsworth London Magazine, Vol. 6, 1901
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Vincent’s studios were at 9 Clifton villas, Maida Vale, 9, not, perhaps, the most fashionable neighbourhood. He was described—Mrs Daffodil wonders if Mr Vincent did his own describing—as “one of the cleverest designers of fashions in London.”
Mrs Daffodil is fond of clever miniatures. One would give much to find an intact tissue-paper toile….
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
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.