The Hussies & Gentlemen of Interwar Poland
small, The Hussies & Gentlemen of Interwar Poland, Taking a walk in the open air in Zielonka, near Warsaw; May 1928; photo: archives of J. Fil / Forum, full_moda_warzawa_forum_770.jpg
Between the World Wars, Poland experienced a burst of creative activity – which, of course, extended to fashion. What did one wear to a five o'clock, the casino, a Charleston dance or on a Citroën ride? Culture.pl takes a peek into the imported Parisian fashion magazines and vintage wardrobes of the Second Republic's trendsetters.
The clothing styles of this period were shaped under the particular political, social and economic circumstances which swept across all of Europe after the First World War. Jewels, decorative accessories and expensive clothing vanished from the interwar wardrobe. The gentlemen and ladies of the Second Polish Republic instead prioritised simple cuts, comfort, modesty and function.
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In the recently published book, Moda w Przedwojennej Polsce (Fashion in 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. 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?
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Clothing no longer had to allude to the Belle Époque. The attire of women – as they grew independent in their professions, developing 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 top tailors were also, in fact, losing a part of their rich clientele.
A few centimetres of scandal
The year is 1925. Skirts are shorter than ever before. Lace disappears, while flowers and feathers give way to deep, modest hats that fit the head tightly. Silk blouses emerge, along with back decolletage and short haircuts – conjured up by a Polish hairdresser in France named Antoni Cierplikowski.
Elegant ladies are beginning to borrow 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.
This is what it's like in 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'. Their uncovered ankles are still somewhat sensational.
Hats of the Herse Fashion House
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A garden party in Warsaw at the house of the famously elegant Jadwiga Beck, the wife of Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Józef Beck; photo: NAC National Digital Archive
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, painting their lips a blood-red. They spent time in cafés, where they arrived on their own, without men's company. They even smoked cigarettes – going against all the rules of the period's savoir-vivre.
'Tomboys' on the tennis court
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A scene from the film 'Jadzia', dir. Mieczysław Krawicz, 1936, photo: Filmoteka Narodowa
Sztuka Ubierania (The Art of Dressing), a popular advice-book written by Jadwiga Suchodolska and quoted by Sieradzka, sports clothing should be comfortable, but first and foremost, it should abide by the rules of decency. What did that mean?
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The famous seaside resorts – Jurata, Jastarnia and Sopot – saw gentlemen arrive on beach in long bathrobes made of soft terry, paired with either straw hats or small sailors' caps. Ladies promenaded along the seashore 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, however, tanned skin also became stylish, 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:
Vintage Beaches of a Pre-War Poland
It looks best when made from woollen tricot. If the bathing suit is used on the beach, we can also purchase a similar bathrobe to go with it, a rubber cap, or a big hat, as well as rubber or rafia ribbon slippers. The bathrobe should not be too flashy, it should be wide, long, and warm.
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Beach-goers taking a dance class, 1930, photo: NAC National Digital Archive
Some time later, short skirts also emerged, but two-piece bathing suits only made it to Baltic shores in the late 1930s. The first models, along with espadrille-styled slippers, were presented at the Summer Fashion Ball at the Warsaw Europejski (European) Hotel in June 1939.
Let's take a look now 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 lace-up shoes, to which skating blades could be attached. A similar style could be observed on tennis courts.
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Women automobile drivers would take rides in leather jackets, wearing air-filtered gloves (with many openings) and tight, so-called 'pilot-hats' (pilotki in Polish). Women who took part in races showed up in one-piece jumpsuits.
'Legs have lost their charm'
The Wall Street crash and subsequent economic crisis of 1929 collides with the return of femininity to the realm of fashion. Hair is done up in meticulously shaped curls, buns, waves and perms, and long dresses once again underscored feminine shapes. An exoticising fascination with African and Asian cultures also echoes in fashion, with many details and colours inspired by the traditional batik costumes of Balinese dancers.
In 1930, the painter and portrait maker Stefan Norblin enthusiastically advertises two types of evening dress in Świat (World) magazine, commenting on this long-awaited transformation in women's fashion:
Pagan Fashion Designs of the Pre-War Period
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 blasé 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.
In the interwar period, stars of the silver screen would attend famous fashion balls at the Hotel Europejski, dressed 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 awarded 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.
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Now, let's look into the wardrobes of the masculine icons of interwar elegance…
A flower in the buttonhole
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Zofia Batycka as Iza Brenton and Aleksander Żabczyński as the lawyer Farr in a movie scene, 1931, photo: NAC National Digital Archive
Men's fashion didn't undergo as radical a transformation as that of women. Polish gentlemen still looked up to the men of London, with 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 featuring a precious pearl were preferred instead.
From Sieradzka, we learn:
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.
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Celebrations of 20 years of Poland's independence in Cieszyn, pictured: President Ignacy Mościcki, photo: National Library / Polona
The most distinguished clothing was a tailcoat; lacquered ballroom slippers were worn with it at dancing parties, along with a small white flower in the buttonhole of the tuxedo. It was inappropriate 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 tailcoat, not even in the summer, and a black top hat was required, as well as a special coat with silk lining.
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The know-how of dressing was strictly observed not only in the diplomatic and political milieu, but also among literary and artistic circles. An option for the less wealthy was found in evening-attire rentals. The poet Jan Lechoń was one such customer.
The artistic and political elites 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 at 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 with 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 Hers, – famous for importing creations directly from Paris – also limited its activity. By 1936, it sold only carpets...
In the classroom, at the 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 the 'matura' matriculation exam at the end of high school.
Our analysis of children's attire 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 as well. 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.
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In the 1920s, a wedding dress would have a fashionably lowered waistline and uneven frills, the costume completed with a long veil made of tulle or lace. A decade later, wedding dresses became longer, in accordance with the general trend. Reaching to the ground, they were most often made out of shiny silk, while the veil was attached to the top of the head.
The men unchangeably wore tailcoats – unless they wanted to underscore their aristocratic heritage. In such a case, they would wear a robe, a żupan (Polish aristocratic apparel) or their military uniform.
Tricots, tulls, corsets & 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 nightgowns became shorter. Bras were made from thin canvas, tricot and tulle. In the 1930s, shiny, long and deep-necked nightgown came to look more like evening dresses, rather than lingerie.
Fashion in Poland After World War II
Satin robes imitated Japanese kimonos. Elegant men looked after their hair by wearing cotton nightcaps.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Legierska; translated by PS, 16th Oct 2014
the Herse Fashion House
Sources: 'Moda w Przedwojennej Polsce' ('Fashion in Prewar Poland') by Anna Sieradzka, PWN; 'Historia Mody' ('The History of Fashion') by Francois Boucher, Arkady