1900 - 2000

Iconic Designs: Fashion and Style of the 20th Century

Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin

Explore the rich collection of 20th century fashion highlights at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin

Iconic Designs: Fashion and Style of the 20th Century
Worth, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace: The “who’s who” of seminal fashion designers has been convened at the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum. Couture clothing, from designers such as Jacques Doucet, Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret began arriving at the museum in the 1970s. With the acquisition of one of the world’s most important private fashion collections formerly owned by Martin Kamer und Wolfgang Ruf in 2003, the collection was expanded by 280 articles of clothing from 50 renowned European and American couturiers–key items of the 20th century. Including the collection of historical garments of the 18th and 19th century, the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin houses one of the most comprehensive collections in Germany.
Fashion at the turn of the Century
By 1900, an S-shaped silhouette with a so-called “sans-ventre” line became fashionable. In order to achieve this extreme profile the corset pushed the chest forward, laced the waist particularly tight and simultaneously shoved the hips back.

Embroidered Corset with Stocking Garters
France, ca. 1900

This elegant, hip-long corset has a nearly straight, crafted blank billet (planchette) which is drawn downward to restrain the belly and push the chest forward, thus achieving the S-shaped sans ventre silhouette popular around 1900.

Lilac Walking Dress
Karlsbad, ca. 1900

This elegant strolling dress impresses with the tone in tone appliqué of shimmering silk taffeta in an Art Nouveau-inspired pattern of winding acanthus. The waist-length jacket has a fashionable S curve with extended breast section, which simultaneously pushed the buttocks back.

The hemline has a high decorative border made of satin appliqué.

Fashion in Spring 1902
Publishing house of Bazar-Actien-Gesellschaft, Berlin

Illustration of the S-shaped sans ventre silhouette popular around 1900.

Les Robes de Paul Poiret
Paul Iribe, 1908

Feminists, physicians and artists strove to reform the unnatural style of the S-shaped sans ventre silhouette, but it was Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) who achieved the breakthrough. He forwent the corset by combining and proposing the high waist of the Empire with the loose shapes of Japanese garb.

Woman in Dress by Poiret
Paul O'Doyé, ca. 1910

Under his influence, fashion developed away from a laced artificial figure toward a natural form supported by a brassiere.

Henry Fournier, 1912

Tango fashion, which adorned long, mermaid-esque dancing gowns with knee-high slashes on the sides, emerged in 1912 as a result of the introduction of the Argentinian tango.

Evening Gown with Tango Train
Paris/London, ca. 1912

This dress, with elevated waist and an asymmetrically formed skirt, is typical of the tango style popular in 1912.

Tailor and draper John Redfern (1820-1895) became established on the Isle of White in the 1850 , opened establishments in London and Paris in 1881, and later more in New York and Chicago. In 1888 he became a court supplier to Queen Victoria.

"Boissy" Evening Gown
Jeanne Paquin
Paris, spring/summer 1912

This model, which combines pre World War I luxury and sophistication, is typical of Jeanne Paquin’s (1869-1936) style in its indulgence in tastefully coordinated pastel tones. The skirt, converging conically downward, reflects the high waist with siren line that was popular around 1912.

The tunic itself consists of three lengths fabric. A rose bouquet holds the bunch of fabric.

La Mode, par Paquin
Les Modes, May 1912

Title page of the journal Les Modes advertising the evening gown “Boissy” by Jeanne Paquin.

Evening Turban with Aigrette
Camille Roger
Paris, 1910–12

The 1910 Paris performances of Serge Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes” inspired both fashion designers and dressmakers and served as a model for oriental-style dresses and hats such as that seen here.

World War I: Stylistic Reorientation
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, women replaced the men, who were fighting on the front lines, in all economic sectors, management and public works. Attire adapted to these activities, becoming more functional and comfortable. Women employed in factories began wearing trousers. Soft, smooth fabrics in subdued colours came into vogue. By the end of the war in 1918 it was not longer possible to imagine that women were not a part of social life. As female secretaries, saleswomen and telephone operators, they constituted a new professional sector of employee.

Formal Gown with Rose Trim
Madeleine Vionnet
Paris, autumn/winter 1922/23, model: 1264

This new social standing gave rise to a stylistic reorientation: Skirt hems slid upward, dresses became plain and straight. This youthful, slim line negated the chest and waist while accenting the legs. Brassieres, union suits and skin-coloured silk stockings completed the new, athletic appearance. Bobs and clinging cloches became commonplace.

The February 1922 edition of the French Vogue reported that: “Vionnet triggered a revolution two years ago … she has proposed clothes to us that not only have no lining, but are closed and that you pull at will over your head …”.

Satin Top Hat
Berlin, ca. 1925

Slim, fitted top hats supplemented the fashionably short hairstyles of the 1920s.

Evening Bag with Egyptian Motif
USA/Europe, ca. 1922

The 1922 discovery of the grave of Tutankhamen by English archeologist Lord Carter launched a worldwide fad for all things of Egyptian fashion. This evening bag, made from the finest glass beads, is an excellent example thereof.

A crowned Pharaoh in purple garment is depicted upon a black background. Brown strips with hieroglyph-like characters run the longitudinal sides of the highly rectangular bag.

Dress with Chevron Motif
Gabrielle “Coco" Chanel
Paris, 1925/26

The designs by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) were the epitome of this “New Objectivity”-conforming fashion. She successfully borrowed from men’s clothing, manufactured jersey materials and, in 1926, created a type of garment that has yet to lose its fascination and appeal: the “little black dress”.

In October 1926 American Vogue reported that: “Chanel has her fingers on the pulse of the time. She has a knack for creating simple, yet extraordinary garments … that express the style of the moment”.

Coco Chanel

French Model Dresses in the Charleston Style
Paris, 1927

The short evening dresses, lavishly adorned with pearls and sequins, stood in contrast to the practical day dresses and were particularly suited to the wild motions of the fashionable dances of the time—the Shimmy and the Charleston.

“Sorrente“ Dance Gown
Jeanne Lanvin
Paris, ca. 1927/28

This dress of delicate silk is covered with loosely fluttering, pointed oval leaves that progress in size and eventually form the scalloped dress hem.

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) had worked as a milliner since 1890 and founded her couture house in 1910. She created ingeniously designed dresses with virtuoso technology.

A strong blue with a light mauve tint was among the favourite colours of Jeanne Lanvin. She had discovered the colour in the work of early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico and thereafter used it again and again in different nuances and colour combinations. Here it receives special radiance as a result of the lustre of the sequins.

Buckled Gold Lamé Pumps
Switzerland, ca. 1925

Clasp shoes were ideal for the wild dances, such as the Shimmy and the Charleston, that were popular in the 1920s. Instep edge and instep clasp of these elegant evening shoes are both offset with smooth gold coloured leather. A highly rectangular rhinestone buckle forms the closure.

The 1930s: Unmatched Elegance
Around the end of the ‘20s, the hems of the evening dresses dropped once again and following 1930 a slim, elongated feminine silhouette was generally established. Gowns of unmatched elegance emerged and film stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were the icons of fashion.

Evening Gown with Bolero
Attributed to Madeleine Vionnet
Paris, ca. 1933

The bias cut, masterfully executed by Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) since the early 1920s, was the ideal medium for the realisation of this new streamlined form.

The unusual execution of the cut and fine tailoring suggest an attribution to Madeleine Vionnet.

A short cape, open at the back and cut in the round, closes in the back with a wide band of fabric. This, like the dress, is simply pulled over the head.

Champagne Coloured Evening Gown
Attributed to Jacques Heim
Paris, ca. 1935

Jaques Heim (1899-1967) knew the possibilities of the bias cut and used it here to create a sophisticated play with the blunt bodice and matte reverse of champagne coloured crepe marocain.

Born in Paris, Jacques Heim took over the fashion house of his parents in 1925 and continued it successfully with his innovative ideas. He specialised in contrasting textures.

The Elegance of the 1930s

Gold Lamé Evening Gown
Attributed to Elsa Schiaparelli
Paris, ca. 1933

Italian native Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) began her career as a fashion designer with cubist sweater patterns. In contrast to her rival Coco Chanel Schiaparelli wanted her models to cause a stir.

She was friendly with artists such as Salvador Dalí, whose surrealism influenced her work strongly. In 1933, Schiaparelli presented models with pagoda sleeves, which anticipated the wide shoulder of the 1940s.

The real eye-catchers of this form-fitting dress are the shoulders, which are accented in thick arches and below which fall the puffed, top-stitched sleeves.

World War II: The Broad-shouldered Silhouette
World War II brought about rationing measures in all of the countries of Europe and led to a shorter and more succinct silhouette with broad shoulders. National Socialist racism eliminated Jewish couturiers and tailors in Germany and the occupied nations. Under the leadership of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958), however, Parisian haute couture successfully fought against National Socialist plans to relocate them to either Berlin or Vienna.

Afternoon Dress
Robert Piguet
Paris, ca. 1942

This afternoon dress reflects the typical shorter, fabric-saving silhouette of the 1940s. The masculine, wide shoulder is balanced by feminine draping and ruffles.

This piece illustrates the romantic-dramatic style cultivated by Robert Piguet (1901-1953). Born in Switzerland, he founded his Paris fashion house in 1933 after training as a bank clerk.

Straw Hat
Berlin, 1930–40

This sporty straw hat displays the influence of menswear on ladies’ headwear. It is a Trotteur with a small, conically tapered crown and a narrow brim that is slightly turned up in the back.

Suit Dress
USA, 1941–45

Gilbert Adrian Greenburgh (1903-1959) was chief designer for Metro Goldwyn Mayer from 1929 to 1941. The broad-shouldered silhouette he developed in 1932 for Joan Crawford in the film “Letty Lynton”, which would influence fashion up until the end of World War II, was particularly significant.

In 1941, he founded his own Couture house, “Adrian Ltd,” with ready-to-wear line in Beverly Hills. Although he now concentrated on models for working women, he knew how to lend an elegant glamour to strict cuts, as displayed by this piece.

The tailored jacket is high-necked and has a small, rounded turndown collar. A band of natural coloured wool, a simple yet striking military-like accent runs diagonally from the left shoulder to the right side, ending at waist level in the back. The band is adorned with three groups of five brass buttons.

Brown Turban
Paris, ca. 1945

Hygiene considerations initiated by World War II prompted women across Europe to protect their hairstyles with headscarves decoratively into turbans. This was taken up here by Paris milliner Davis and fashioned into a durable model of brown felt.

Berlin fashion designer Gerd Hartung reported that it was common, particularly among fashionable women, to tie an empty tin can beneath as additional support for taller decorative turbans.

Post-war Years: The “New Look”
In 1947 French couturier Christian Dior (1905-1957) revolutionized the masculine broad-shouldered style of the war years with his "Ligne Corolle" collection. Typical features included round shoulders, an accentuated chest, wasp waist and a long, wide skirt and brought about the return of a conservative female image.

Dressed in the “New Look”
Elli Kowalski, 1951

This style, aptly deemed the “New Look” by the American press, shaped women’s fashion for a good ten years. Along with Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), Pierre Balmain (1914-1982) and Hubert de Givenchy (1927), followed by Coco Chanel (1883-1971) were the leading couturiers that helped Parisian haute couture once again attain international relevance.

Coat Dress
Christian Dior
Paris, 1948

The one-piece coat dress, with narrow waist, exaggerated hips and wide swinging skirt, illustrates the line launched by Christian Dior in 1947 and now called the “New Look”. It revolutionized post-war fashion and, after years of a masculine-influenced clothing, initiated a return to femininity, luxury and opulence.

The "New Look"

Shawl collars were a favourite motif of Christian Dior: they flattered the female form and varied the curved lines of bust and hip.

Velvet Cap
Christian Dior
Paris, ca. 1955

Small, often asymmetrically designed caps became fashionable in the 1950s and supplemented the scanty, short-wavy hairstyles. Here, a simple round head part is combined with a big lateral ornamental element with bow.

Two-piece Evening Dress
Jean Dessès
Paris, ca. 1950

This dramatic evening gown combines a waist-length bustier with a long form-fitting skirt that opens wide at the knee.

Jean Dessès (1904-1970), born in Alexandria, opened his own couture house in Paris in 1937 and during the 50s he was a much sought-after designer among royal European families.

The figure enveloping skirt is adorned with a multistage valance at the knee, the lowest stage of which is bell-shaped.

Afternoon Dress
Gérard Pipart for Jacques Fath
Paris, spring/summer 1955

The dress was presented in the 1955 summer collection, the first to appear after Jaques Fath’s (1912-1954) death.

This piece comes from the possession of singer, Lily Pons, who was one of the most prominent members of the Metropolitan Opera of New York from 1931-1961.

The severely tailored bodice reaches down to the hip, where the ingeniously designed skirt begins. Here the length of fabric is transversely processed, beginning in the rear centre and is guided once loosely around the body. The plethora is thereafter gradually gathered and conceals the skirt neck with a twisted sculptural ribbon.

Silk Taffeta Ball Gown
Cristóbal Balenciaga
Paris, 1955

In March 1955 l’Officiel described the new, slightly shorter, Balenciaga evening gowns thus: “The new length of evening gowns is unexpected. A length that gracefully flatters the silhouette and brings out the ankles”. Cristóbal Balenciaga drew inspiration from historical models and here offers a modern interpretation of the late 19th century bustle.

The gown comes from the possession of Elisabeth Firestone (1897-1990). She was voted bestdressed woman of the year several times and counted amongst the long-standing customers of the house of Balenciaga.

As if momentarily swept up, pink silk taffeta drapes in luxuriant transverse shirring over a strapless corsage bodice with narrow waist and crinoline-like petticoat stiffened with synthetic ribbons.

Two-piece “New York” Cocktail Dress
Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior
Paris, spring/summer 1958

After the sudden death of Christian Dior in 1957, his assistant Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) took over as artistic director of the legendary fashion house. He achieved critical success with his first collection. Following the tradition of the house he called it the “trapezoid line” in keeping with its silhouette.

This two-piece cocktail dress illustrates this loose line that does away with the waist and combines a simple, square top with a flared skirt.

”Escale” Summer Dress Suit
Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior
Paris, spring/summer 1958

This simple, knee-hugging dress has a bodice of double-pleated glass batiste with wide, round neckline and short sleeves. The waist-length jacket is straight and has an oversized shawl collar.

Olivia de Havilland in the Dior summer ensemble laying flowers at the grave of Margaret Mitchell
May 1958

This dress was formerly in the possession of the US-American actress Olivia de Havilland (1916), who celebrated one of her greatest successes in 1939 with the film Gone with the Wind, which was based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949).

”Artemise” Dress for a Short Evening Ensemble
Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior
Paris, fall/winter 1959

In a 1959 issue of the New York Herald Tribune American fashion journalist Eugenia Sheppard simply summed up the 1960 fall/winter line by Dior thus: “Hobble skirts are revived by Dior”. To do so Yves Saint Laurent combined a simple corsage bodice with a sculptural, tulip-shaped skirt, as seen in this model.

The 1960s: Democratisation of Fashion
Paris itself had to admit, however, that the times of exclusive fashion for a select clientele were over. A democratisation of fashion had established itself, it required stylish clothing at affordable prices for the general public. Contracts with department stores were signed and licenses were issued around the globe. Youth movements of the 1960s called the exclusive leading role of Parisian haute couture increasingly into question. These youth became a fashion symbol and promoted a style free from social bondage, no longer oriented toward the strict seasonal stipulations that came out of Paris.

Collection Overview of Models by André Courrèges
Trude Rein, 1965

In the face of this new set of needs young designers came to Paris and established the first prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear, lines. André Courrèges (1923-2016), Pierre Cardin (1922), Paco Rabanne (1934) and Emanuel Ungaro (1933) belonged to the 1960s avant-garde and in 1967 Yves Saint Laurent achieved worldwide acclaim after opening his rive gauche boutique. At the same time, fashion centres were being founded in Milan and New York.

Blue Suit with Blouse
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel
Paris, ca. 1965

In 1954 Coco Chanel, then 71 years old, re-opened her fashion house, which had been closed since 1939. Although Europeans estimated the first collection as “old-fashioned”, the American fashion press reacted positively.

The suits introduced by Chanel became a particular success. This informal elegant style, which stood in stark contrast to the rigid corset-stiffened creations of other French fashion designers, helped Coco Chanel make her comeback a success.

The Chanel Suit

This knee-hugging suit at the Kunstgewerbemuseum has all the hallmarks of a typical Chanel suit: a slightly fitted jacket with four patch pockets and collar and lapels that form a deep V-neck.

The hemlines of both jacket and blouse are weighed down with a gold coloured curb chain that guarantees a perfect fit.

Evening Gown with Abstract Pattern
Michel Goma for Jean Patou
Paris, ca. 1965

This full-length princess cut evening gown impresses with its clear contour that emphasises the graphic print.

The company founded by Jean Patou (1880-1936) in 1919 was continued after his death by members of his family and with the help of fashion designers including Marc Bohan (1954-1958), Karl Lagerfeld (1958-1963) and Michel Goma (1964-1972).

”Rib Cage” Cocktail Dress
Pierre Cardin
Paris, ca. 1969

Pierre Cardin (1922) has characterised his designs thus: “Haute Couture is a creative laboratory where forms and volumes can be studied. The immensity of the universe and microscopy of the cell, computers and geometry: these are the sources of my inspiration. The garments I prefer are those I create for tomorrow’s world”.

Cardin, Andrè Courrèges (1923-2016), Paco Rabanne (1934) and Emanuel Ungaro (1933) belonged to the 1960s avant-garde.

The navel-deep neckline is rimmed by an eye-catching, sculptural stainless steel application that documents Cardin’s interest in technical innovations.

Acrylic “Glass” Hat
Harvey Nichols
London, ca. 1968

During the 1960s the hat became an increasingly less important aspect of headwear. This model, with its unusual material, recalls the futuristic trends of that time and offers an amazing contrast to the basic classic form of the high semi-circular crown with wide brim.

Attributed to Paco Rabanne
Paris, ca. 1968/70

This sandal embodies an attempt to express the factual tendencies of the 1960s through making visible both the material and process of construction.

The sole and heel are hewn from one single continuous metal sheet.

The 1970s: Stylistic Diversity
During the 1970s a stylistic diversity was prevalent that ranged from the romantic look and the hippie to folklore fashion. Trousers were finally designed for women.

Evening Pant Suit
Giovanna Ferragamo
Italy, ca. 1970

Elegant and at the same time youthful, this evening pantsuit combines a smooth decoratively trimmed knee-length tunic with embroidered trousers.

Giovanna Ferragamo (1943), second daughter of the Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1960), presented her first Prêt-à-porter collection in 1967 at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

Two-piece Evening Gown
Madame Grès
Paris, post 1973

Madame Grès (1899-1993), the “Sculptress of fashion designers”, was famous for her skilfully draped clothing. Since the 1930s founding of "Alix", her first company, each new collection presented new variations of her draped pieces. She presented the bare midriff for the first time in 1973 in the form of pleated dresses with separate tops.

The top of this dress consists of a 280 cm long and 160 cm wide length of the finest jersey. The skirt has a narrow gathered waistband that contains the abundant fabric—a total length of 850 cm. The fine and densely gathered jersey lends sculptural quality to the flowing folds.

Hot Pants
Paco Rabanne
Paris, spring/summer 1974

Paco Rabanne, born in Spain in 1934, studied architecture in Paris and initially designed accessories for Balenciaga, Givenchy and Dior. In 1967 he founded his own haute couture house.

This waisted jumpsuit with cropped legs is an example of Rabanne’s approach, and documents his renunciation from conventional materials.

The hot pants are entirely made of equal sized, silver coloured aluminium disks and synthetic red and black disks arranged horizontally.

The so-called hot pants, which became fashionable in 1971/72, were controversial because—like the miniskirts—a flawless figure was the single key to an aesthetic appearance.

Women’s Pumps
Manolo Blahnik
New York, ca. 1975

These ladies’ pumps of black patent leather with white platform sole and high covered white heel were a perfect match to the hot pants fashion. This is an early model by cult New York designer Manolo Blahnik (*1942).

The 1980s: The “Power Dress”
The “power dress”, so called for its overly broad, straight shoulders and boxy appearance, emerged during women’s liberation in the 1980s. Women successful in the corporate world could therein demonstrate powerful authority and a touch of sensible femininity.

Cocktail Dress with Asymmetrical Trim
Yves Saint Laurent
Paris, spring/summer 1988

Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) founded his maison de couture in 1962 and, along with Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, is considered to be the most important fashion designer of the second half of the 20th century. Many of his inventions have written fashion history. He dedicated his 1988 summer collection, with brilliantly embroidered pieces, to artists George Braque and Vincent van Gogh.

Asymmetrical lines and densely ruffled valances at the neckline and hem offer the dress a highly dramatic effect.

Evening Sandals
Dolce & Gabbana
Italy, ca. 1990

This festive, high-heeled sandal plays with the duality of the delicate straps that form the upper shoe and the compact platform sole that merges into a strongly, yet thin inwardly shifted wedge heel. Heel and heel cap are embroidered with stylized branches.

The 1990s: The Human Body
By the end of the 20th century, the human body increasingly became an object for fashionable transformation. Attempts are being made to more closely approach the desired ideal with the help of makeup, piercings and tattoos and with the growing popularity of surgical correction.

Evening Gown with Safety Pins
Gianni Versace
Italy, spring/summer 1994

With this form-fitting dress in column cut Gianni Versace (1946-1997) has combined the classical form with the most modern of materials and quoted punk fashion. The use of heavy, double rayon fabric, a cloqué in creased crinkle look, testifies to his great refinement and expertise in material finishing.

The side seams are moved to the front and held together, as is the navel deep neckline, by thirteen oversized gold and silver coloured safety pins which are embellished with Medusa heads, the logo of the house.

Actress Liz Hurley caused an international sensation in 1994 in another model from this collection at the premiere of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

”Stir My Blood” High-heeled Sandal
Jan Jansen
Amsterdam, 1995

This high-heeled sandal with tapered closed toe has a raised heel cap that ends in a loop at the back of the leg. The platform sole, bevelled at the toe, and the high inward-set curve of the heel lend the shoe a sculptural appearance.

Dutch shoe designer Jan Jansen (1941) produced the “Stir my blood” model several years and in various materials.

Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Christine Waidenschlager in: Fashion Art Works, Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg 2014

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Merle Walter

Translation: allround Fremdsprachen GmbH von der Lühe, Berlin

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum

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