What would one wear to a five o'clock tea, the casino, to do the Charleston, or on a Citroen ride? Culture.pl's brief guide to the everyday and evening fashion of the interwar period takes a peek into the imported Parisian fashion magazines and wardrobes of the Second Republic's trendsetters.
The fashion of this period was shaped under the special political, social and economic circumstances which swept across all of Europe after the First World War. Jewels, decorative accessories and expensive clothing disappeared from the interwar wardrobe. The gentlemen and ladies of the Second Polish Republic placed emphasis on simple cuts, comfort, modesty, and function. In the recently published book, Moda w przedwojennej Polsce (Fashion in a Pre-War Poland), Professor Anna Sieradzka writes "After all, only a few years earlier, it was not only the working women taking over men's jobs who dressed in this way – as office workers and conductresses, while the men fought on the frontlines. Aristocratic women also set an example of rational modesty and a patriotic stance during the tough years of the war. Everyday garments from the early 1920s reminded all of this time, with items such as heavy woollen suits in khaki shades." The author also takes the chance to note what various savoir-vivre guides stated at the time, and flipping through diaries and the very first illustrated women's magazines, she takes her readers on an abundantly illustrated journey. What kinds of trends reigned during this time?
Clothing no longer had to allude to the belle epoque. The attire of women, growingly independent in their professions, with a taste for dance and sport, began to ignore the bust and waist for the first time. Legs were uncovered, corsets and garter belts chucked out. Night pyjamas were now popular, as well as short hair-dos. The famous tailors were also in fact losing a part of their rich clientele.
A Few Centimetres of Scandal
The year is 1925. The skirt becomes shorter than ever before. Lace disappears, while flowers and feathers give way to deep, modest hats that tightly fit the head. Silk blouses emerge, back decolletage and short hair cuts, conjured up by a Polish hairdresser in France, Antoni Cierplikowski. Elegant ladies begin borrowing from men's wardrobes – simple coats and neck ties are now more and more trendy. The zipper makes its debut in the saloons, along with Scottish wool, muslin, and silk stockings. The most popular attire is now a classic suit with geometric patterns, usually in black and white, and inspired by the avant-garde painters and art deco. And there is also, of course, Coco Chanel's iconic "little black dress", best worn with a string of pearls.
That's what it's like in the morally and artistically liberated Paris. At the same time, interwar Poland hosts one of the very first fashion shows, during which famous actresses advertise a choice hatmaker's studio called "Madame Henriette". And their uncovered ankles are still somewhat sensational.
The writer Magdalena Samozwaniec shows lots of humour in her reminiscences of when this bold new style emerged. In her book titled Maria i Magdalena, (Mary and Magdalene), she writes:
Ewa Kossakowa, the wife of Jerzy, travelled to Vienna, and returned completely changed. Was that still the same woman? She was wearing a very wide skirt made of navy wool, extremely short – as one could see the entire shoe from underneath it – and a semi-long coat which underlined her slim little figure. She was wearing a large, flat, red hat, which was titled a little to the side. The mother was terrified, "How are you going to go out into the street like this, my dear Ewa? People are going to point their fingers at you!" "But all of Vienna now walks about in such short and wide dresses" (…) Very quickly, all of her friends had their tailors sew similar kinds of skirts."
According to Anna Sieradzka, the fashion of the 1920s kept pace with women's emancipation. Women underscored their independence with strong make-up. They accentuated their eyes with dark eyeshadow, and painted their lips a blood-red. They spent time in cafes, where they arrived on their own, without men's company, and they even smoked cigarettes, going all against the rules of the period's savoir-vivre. They also played sports…
Emancipated "tomboys" in tennis courts, the ice rink and the automobile
In a book quoted by Sieradzka, Sztuka ubierania (The Art of Dressing) , a popular advice-book written by Jadwiga Suchodolska, one can read that sports clothing should be comfortable, but first and foremost, it should abide by the rules of decency. What does that mean?
The famous seaside resorts – Jurata, Jastarnia and Sopot – saw gentlemen arrive on beach in long bath robes made of soft terry, wearing either straw hats or small sailors' caps. Ladies promedaded along the sea shore in exquisitely embroidered pyjamas made of silk. Bathing suits were decorated with frills, and heads bore elaborate turbans. Multicoloured Japanese paper umbrellas provided protection from the sun. Soon, tanned skin also became the fashion, following the trendsetting Coco Chanel. With the tan's popularity, the bathing suit underwent a gradual metamorphosis, exposing more and more of the body. Fashion advice books from the period state:
"It looks best when made from woollen tricot. If the bathing suit is used on the beach, we can also purchase a similar bath robe to go with it, a rubber cap, or a big hat, as well as rubber or rafia ribbon slippers. The bath robe should not be too flashy, it should be wide, long, and warm."
Some time later, short little skirts also emerged, but two-piece bathing suits only made it to Baltic shores in the late 1930s. The first models, along with espadrile-styled slippers, were presented at the Summer Fashion Ball in the Warsaw Europejski (European) Hotel in June, 1939.
Let us now take a look at the popular winter resorts of the Zakopane, Wisła, and the Hutsul regions. Skirted women skiers disappeared from the slopes to make room for new attire – sweaters up to the neck, 'pump' pants with woollen socks, and elegant little hats. Ice rinks saw the reign of short pleated skirts, socks worn on top of warm stockings, and laced-up shoes, to which one would attach the skating blades. A similar style could be observed on tennis courts.
Women automobile drivers would go on their rides in leather jackets, wearing air-filtered gloves (with many openings), and tight, so-called 'pilot-hats' (pilotka in Polish). Women who took part in races showed up wearing one-piece jumpsuits.
"Legs have lost their charm. A man's stance towards feminine legs has now become merely friendly"
The Wall Street crash and the economic crisis of 1929 collided with a return of femininity to the realm of fashion. Hair was done up in meticulously shaped curls, buns, waves and perms, and long dresses once again underscored feminine shapes. A fascination with African and Asia exoticism also echoes through fashion, with many details and colours inspired by traditional batik costumes of dancers from Bali.
In 1930, the painter and portrait maker Stefan Norblin enthusiastically advertised two types of evening dress in the "Świat" (World) magazine, commenting on a long awaited transformation of women's fashion:
"We finally see a return of the long dress and we rejoice upon seeing how triumphantly it parades, shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow and aniline, long, wavy, spreading the charms of femininity. How it seduces up with the harmony of its line, the softness of each move, the grace of each pose. How, in a delicate embrace, it encapsulates the hips, and how, in an embarrassed gesture, in covers over with its dreamy waves the treasure of feminine legs. (...)
We're fed up with those exposed limbs, and have long become blase about their frequent view. Ever since the era of the caveman, no masculine generation has been granted the view of so many feminine legs as we have had to stare at for the last few years. Legs have become too popular, too banal and available to the eyes. Legs have lost their charm, the woman an important asset in the game of love, and the man – many a delightful illusion. A man's stance towards legs has become merely friendly.", Norblin further complained.
In the interwar period, stars of the silver screen would attend famous fashion balls at the Hotel Europejski dressed up in crinoline, sequins and silk. A King and Queen of the ball would be elected, and the event was always widely commented on by the press. The distinguished titles were awared to Nina Andrycz, Vera Bobowska and Zula Pogorzelska, and among the gentlemen, the title of King was presented to Fryderyk Jarossy and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, among others. Let's now look into the wardrobes of the prewar masculine icons of elegance…
A flower in the buttonhole
Men's fashion didn't undergo as radical a transformation as that of women. Polish gentlemen still looked up to the men of London, in their grey, black, or brown suits and neatly combed side partings. They avoided jewels – at the time of the crisis, neither pendants, rings nor precious stones seemed suitable. Discreet tie pins with a precious pearl were allowed instead. In the book, we find out that:
"Leather gloves were an indispensable accessory of men's elegant attire, as well as a silk scarf in the summer, and a woollen one – though not crocheted – in the winter. On rainy days, gentlemen would use large, black umbrellas with a solid wooden handle (…) Older men were keen on walking around with a stick, with either a silver or ivory head"
The most distinguished clothing was a tail coat, and lacquered ballroom slippers were worn with it at dancing parties, along with a small white flower in the buttonhole of the tuxedo. It was not appropriate to touch the dance partner with a bare hand, and the gentlemen always had to have a pair of white silk gloves with them. It was never permitted to walk out onto the street in a tail coat, not even in the summer. A tail coat required a black top hat, as well as a special coat with silk lining. The know-how of dressing was strictly observed in the diplomatic and political milieu, but also among literary and artistic circles. An option for the less wealthy was provided by evening dress rentals. The poet Jan Lechoń was one of the rental's customers.
The artistic and political elite of prewar Poland were keen to support national industries. President Mościcki's wife, known for her elegance, promoted the silks manufactured in Milanówek near Warsaw. Less expensive and fashionable apparel was available in the Dom Towarowy "Bracia Jabłkowscy" (Trading House of the Jabłkowski brothers), which began to deliver goods by post even before the First World War, and also had a branch in Vilnius by the time of the interwar period. Men were supplied wth impeccable tail coats and tuxedos from the renowned Zaremby tailoring company. During the time of the crisis, the oldest and most exclusive fashion house on Polish territory, dom mody "Bogusław Herse", – famous for importing creations directly from Paris – also limited its activity. By 1936, it only sold carpets….
In the classroom and at the wedding altar
The most popular children's clothing of interwar Poland was a costume spotted in England – the white and navy blue 'sailor' outfit. Boys would wear it up to junior high school, and girls wore it even longer, through to the "matura" matriculation exam at the end of high school. Our review of children's wardrobe starts with a loose jumper. A triangular decolletage was finished off with a tie and a large square collar. Loose pants were worn with it, or, in the case of girls, pleated skirts and knee-high socks or stockings. Navy blue aprons had to be worn to school. Hair was most often cut "na pazia" (meaning "like a pageboy"), and on special occasions, the top of a girls' head was also decorated with a huge taffeta bow.
In the 1920s, a wedding dress would have a fashionably lowered waist line and uneven frills, and the costume would be completed with a long veil made of tull or lace. A decade later, wedding dresses became longer, in accordance with the general trend. They would reach to the ground, and were most often made out of shiny silk, while the veil was attached to the top of the head. The men unchangeably wore their tail coat, unless they wanted to underscore their aristocratic heritage. In such a case, they would wear a robe, a żupan (Polish aristocrats' apparel) or their military uniform.
Tricots, tulls, corsets and nightcaps
After the first World War, the biggest revolution took place in the sphere of… women's lingerie. The long-serving, stiff corset made room for light, airy silks, laces and hemstitch. Day- and night-gowns became shorter. Bras were made from thin canvas, tricot and tulle. In the 1930s, shiny, long and deep-necked night gown came to look more like evening dresses rather than lingerie.
Satin robes imitated Japanese kimonos. Elegant men looked after their hair by wearing cotton nightcaps.
Author: Anna Legierska, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 16/10/2014. Sources: "Moda w przedwojennej Polsce" (Fashion in Prewar Poland), Anna Sieradzka, PWN, "Historia mody" (The History of Fashion), Francois Boucher,.