Contradictions of Fashion- the Form Fitting Dress and the Gigantic Hats of 1908

If there’s one thing I love as much as fashion history, it’s fashion history looking at fashion history. Fashion making fun of itself is one of my absolutely favorite things.

In this article from October of 1908 we see the author compare the gigantic hats of 1908 to the crinolines of the last century. These gigantic hats are often called the “Merry Widow” hat in English, because of the operetta of the same name that prompted the popularity. Let it not be said that current fashions are the only ones that gain popularity from popular culture. (As an aside, if you haven’t seen the 1930s movie The Merry Widow with Jeanette McDonald, do yourself a favor and soak in some fantastic 1930s Adrian costume design goodness).

Here I’m sharing the scans of the original period magazines, along with a rough translation through Google Translate, that I’ve tried to make sense of. If you speak French feel free to chime in with corrections or help us understand some fads that didn’t quite make it to English with the same names!

Note: The Tanagréenne dress was created by Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix, 19 Boulevard Haussman. This was the dress that took the fashion world by storm in 1908, and created the very sleek silhouette we equated with fashion until 1914. The dress was named for the Greek city of Tanagra, and took inspiration from the draped gowns of the classical statues. Although current articles say these gowns were too scandalous for Paris in 1908, they were, in fact, quickly embraced by the fashionable, and shaped fashion for the next five or more years. Of course, there were naysayers, but this article comes to the defense of fashion and, as we saw, the style was here to stay and even gain a revival in the 1930s when women took again to the sleek and draped gowns that fashion now associates with Madeline Vionnet.

Where did the crusade go– for so long led by theater directors, journalists, the prefect of police, the the entire male audience—and even a few women, Madame la Comtesse Greffülhe at the head, and the members of the League of Little Hats! — Fashion, like a little Montmartre girl from Willette, has raised its nose, impertinently, opened its ingenuous eyes, thumbed its nose and enlarged the hats. That is to say: they have made the hats larger than they ever were. It is a success. Then, as for the sake of balance and convenience, she couldn’t make them any bigger, yet they nevertheless seemed a bit small to her in time, and she researched how she could make them look bigger, much bigger without anything added to their actual dimensions. Oh ! she didn’t have to search long… Optics is a science full of resources, and everyone knows that to make a big hat look huge, monumental, disproportionate. It is enough to place it on a high stem and hail: an ingenious artifice which explains why the women never fail to notice that their hat had seemed to them much larger on the fist of the milliner than on their head. Well ! this optical effect could not be easier to achieve by complementing the fashion for tall hats with the fashion of fitted, high-waisted and long dresses, and by exaggerating the fashion for high heels called “Louis XV” or “bootmaker”. Thus the “least” hat, the one measuring only eighty or ninety centimeters in diameter, had to appear at least twice that, and the others such as the most eminent of our mathematicians, M. Poincaré himself , would lose its geometry and algebra trying to evaluate them. This is a great success, a huge success for the crusade!
The worst is that, contrary to all likelihood, this set which participates in the most elementary principles of caricature: to enlarge the head to infinity and reduce the body in the same proportion, is neither ugly nor unsightly, nor even disproportionate. Nothing is decidedly more disconcerting than Fashion, and the aesthetics of women. Imagine, I pray you, a man, one of our brothers, a big fellow five feet six inches tall, Don Quixote, if you like, strapped in a high buttoned frock coat and wearing a bowler of a meter and a half diameter. Can one conceive of a more complete masquerade, a more grotesque caricature? No! The aesthetics of woman adapts to this outfit, her silhouette emerges precise, unexpected, disturbing, evocative, charming. In truth, this is admirable, and this is maddening.

IN 1858 As this amusing caricature by Charles Vernier proves, the Parisienne of 1858 had no easier time to get into a car than today.
IN 1908. The current large hat has the same drawbacks as the crinolines of yesteryear. Car manufacturers will take this into account.

I infer from this that Fashion and feminine aesthetics have specific laws, singularly polymorphic laws, polymorphic to the point of being amorphous. We are at it, or rather the women are at it for the moment, with the big hat surmounting the tanagréenne dress, and despite our prejudices we are forced to admit that it lacks neither grace nor elegance. Half a century ago they were… on the contrary: the crinoline and the headdress which encircled the hair, or the little lace headdress which was content to rest on the bun. No one joked about the cabriolet headdress, at least for its dimensions, if not for its shape, nor the lace cap. But the crinoline left bad memories; its bad reputation is now perfectly established; it is the scarecrow of the generations, which have not carried it on. Why ? Simply, I think, because it is no longer fashionable. The silhouette of those who wore it, with tiny hats, which has been transmitted to us by countless documents, paintings, fashion plates, photographs, and it is neither more nor less charming than that of present-day Parisiennes; it is different, no doubt, but just as precise, just as attractive, just as evocative – which singularly contradicts this assertion that so many once wrote, and which remains to be demonstrated, that the crinoline in particular, and all fashions in general, only intended to conceal deformities, even infirmities. Error, mistake and malice. The question, in this affair of fashions, is not to change the feminine silhouette. No: it is expressly to create it, and to renew it from time to time — for the greatest pleasure of our eyes and the most pleasant seduction of our hearts. Have you ever thought about what would be the monotony of our life, of our streets, of our houses if the versatility of fashions did not come from it? Did not periodically change their appearance? Nature without seasons, trees always green, skies always blue and women always the same — which of us would resist the weariness that sets in?
Emerge from a similar uniformity? This is what fashion remedies, exquisitely, by turns the fashion of crinolines and small hats and the fashion for sheath dresses and huge hats – one as charming as the other to prove to us, moreover, that contrary to all the other arts, that of the female costume can ignore proportions and relativities.

WITH THE CRINOLINE When it comes to fashion,
contradictions are law: the wider the dress, the smaller the hat.

WHAT LOGIC WOULD LIKE Little hat and fitted dress; but the respect of proportions is not indiscriminate of feminine aesthetics.

If one respects them, one creates the Louis XVI fashions, the basket dress and the shepherd’s hat, which remain as adorable models of charming and precious grace; if one does not respect them, one creates the crinoline and the cabriolet which do not deserve the attacks which were lavished on them, or the current tanagréenne dress and the large hat which one can suspect is of great convenience in the theater or in the car, but of which would be truly unfair to deny the profound charm and very special elegance. But, it must be recognized that more often than not, Fashion defies all the ordinary rules of aesthetics and proportions, and it must be added that from its very particular point of view, it is absolutely right and could not be made better. Paradox bias, we must admit that, with the crinoline the small hat was essential to give woman a clear silhouette, to prevent her from affecting the shape of a giant hourglass, whether from head to waist or from waist to feet the two sections would resemble some sort of colossal spinning top. And the same goes for current fashions: the little hat cannot go, as they say, with fitted dresses: the tanagréennes need huge hats — to prevent the woman who wears them from taking on the appearance of a tall, lanky stem, shapeless and unattractive.

Generally speaking, the aesthetics of fashion call for and unite contrasts. What is truly amazing is when it does not bring together opposites and disparities that it seems to break the laws of line and proportion. The photographs that we reproduce here show it and prove it abundantly. And we can thus formulate the two or three fundamental rules which are essentially specific to this disconcerting aesthetic:
1° The larger the hat, the narrower the dress should be, and tighter fitting.
2o The larger the dress, the smaller the hat should be.
3o The less the proportions are respected, the more the silhouette has charm and exudes seduction.

WHAT LOGIC WOULD LIKE Big hat and crinoline: we saw it almost under Louis XVI, but never to see him again. (WH NOTE- This is meant to be 1908’s illustration of 18th century fashion)

And the exception of Louis XVI fashions, like all exceptions, only confirms these rules.
Besides, it would not be necessary to detail them very thoroughly to discover some, or even all, of the contradictions between the different parts of the costume which occupy us at the moment. These contradictions happen with all fashions, eternal like the fashions themselves. We have seen that they have their necessity, and that they are, for many, the charm of feminine toilettes. It’s very good. If they did away with this they would destroy this charm, they would annihilate the entire feminine charm – it would still be wrong to think of diminishing them, of annihilating them. Criticism collides with these things like the sea against rock, with equal effectiveness. The fashion for crinolines lasted twenty years – against all attacks, against all ridicule, despite the coalition of moralists, philosophers, preachers, doctors, singers, chroniclers, painters and caricaturists. This is edifying — and what else is needed to convince you that fashion intends to mind its own business, all by itself, just as it pleases? Moreover, I have already spoken of the crusade undertaken not long ago and carried out so actively against the big hats: the result is before our eyes. The reason the wise will never succeed in prevailing against the reasons of women and against the reasons of fashion — which oppose to all objections invincible force, imponderable force par excellence: the force of inertia. “Do and let say” — is the precept that inspires fashion and women. “We want little hats and monumental skirts: that’s our right. We want monumental hats and narrow skirts: it’s still our right. “Do you not like it?” Oh! but, when do we gauge the width of your trousers and the height of your hats?… Go on your way, good men, and meddle in what concerns you. And regardless of protests and anger, the hats and the skirts are reduced and widened in turn – as if they were governed by some fatality which could not fail to be accomplished. What is attempted against it, what is to be done against the adversary who refuses to discuss and who is even careful not to provide the pretext for a quarrel?
It’s quite simple: nothing, nothing at all—and this will be doubly reasonable—since we have agreed, since we even humbly proclaim that all fashions are perfect, especially those whose whole is made up of disappearances.
You are most daring – since we also know from experience that everything we would try to do would be in vain.

2 Comments on Contradictions of Fashion- the Form Fitting Dress and the Gigantic Hats of 1908

  1. Nicole
    April 2, 2022 at 9:28 pm (2 years ago)

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article! Thank you so much for going to the effort of translating and sharing it. (I don’t speak French, so I can’t tell you whether there were any corrections needed!)

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