A Golden Age with less myth, more fashion and set in France: La Belle Époque (1871-1914). Characterised by the relatively stable political situation between the Franco-Prussian War and World War One, this period defined itself through a French society bustling into the open air, engaging in consumerism and enjoying the blossoming culture. Paris thrived as the centre for the wealthy and prosperous, becoming the hotspot for creatives from around Europe.

Amongst the elite in Paris, the artistic impetus gained its vigour through an aestheticised reaction to old traditions. In particular the Impressionist style was rejected, leading artists to develop Expressionist, Symbolist and Modernist techniques. With these stark shifts in the visual arts scene, fashion was all but bound to follow suit.

Marking the beginning of the fashion of La Belle Époque most distinctly was Jacques Doucet, who opened up his ladies’ attire salon in 1871. Uniting art with fashion in his occupation as art collector and designer, the gowns he developed expressed the ethos of the era’s cultural scene – radically new, yet nostalgic. In particular they exemplified how change in fashion, like art, isn’t linear and simple, as his famous gold gown of 1898 was produced after the almost futuristic, abstract gown in black and white. The old and the new clashed, fused and defined La Belle Époque.

“change in fashion, like art, isn’t linear and simple”

Designers, designs and endless detail

Similarly influential was the House of Lucile, opened by Lady Duff Gordon in 1891. Particularly active in the early 1900s, the fashion house established itself as another major pioneer in the industry with its creative introduction of the “Gowns of Emotion”. These were given names such as “The Sighing Sound of Lips unsatisfied” or “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower”. Sexuality exerted its influence on the elaborate dresses as subtle sensuality became more accepted and attractive; sex sells, even in La Belle Époque.

“sex sells, even in La Belle Époque.”

Evidently, the epoch was not marked by a single distinct style but by an ongoing metamorphosis of dress that enveloped the women in continually shifting silhouettes. Best to exemplify this is the House of Worth, founded by the English designer Charles Frederick Worth in 1858 in Paris. Primarily, Worth’s designs exhibit a longing for the fashion of the past. With luxurious fur trimmings, gold ornamentation and the use of feathers, tassels and pearls, he emphasised the beauty of indulgence. Joining Lucile in the incorporation of female sensuality into dress, Worth opened up the cuirasse bodice into a more plunging neckline, unapologetic in its lavishness.

“the epoch was not marked by a single distinct style but by an ongoing metamorphosis of dress”

Yet, besides fashion as art, the early 1900s brought about a rise in fashion as a commercial industry, with clothes draped on the body of models – a practice introduced by the Callot Soeurs (Callot Sisters) – and fashion shows held for the first time. Rather than producing on a client by client basis, dresses were made for the masses (to be adjusted later) thereby introducing productivity and efficiency into the artform. These innocent and progressive advancements built the foundation of the fast fashion that now fills our closets and defines our understanding of the modern fashion industry.

Orientalist dreams and newfound ‘simplicity’

Regardless, the beauty of fashion, its artistic value and capacity for diversity remained in focus. House of Worth kept its position as a leading figure in fashion up until 1950. Being at the forefront for decades and contributing towards changes of style, the collection of historical designs of the fashion house illustrates the shifting silhouette from before to after the fin de siècle. For instance, the 1912 House of Worth dress with the butterfly wings and peacock ornamentation combines the exoticism and orientalism we see in this period, notably developed by Poiret. During the 1910s, designer Paul Poiret was significantly influenced by the orientalism that became popular in France, resulting in Eastern-inspired designs, including Kimono jackets as well as Turkish-style tunics.

Emphasising simple lines and relatively boyish silhouettes, Poiret ventured as far as bringing the Turkish harem trousers into women’s wardrobes. The new shapes deviated from the pompous designs made so famous by Worth and others, as he toyed with naturally falling fabric enhanced by detailed ornamentation. Many of his designs were not made to hug or cinch the body into shape yet nonetheless radiated with elegance and femininity that affirmed the beauty of the female body regardless of the silhouette.

“we cherish La Belle Époque for its appreciation of the aesthetic and hedonistic”

Holding on to an essence of what used to be

Delving into La Belle Époque is like entering a fantasy, or a mythicised country of fabric and embellishment. Naturally, contemporary designers indulge in La Belle Époque’s fashion dreams as we do, flipping through the books of fashion history to gain inspiration for current collections. For instance, many dresses in the Marc Jacobs 2014 Spring Collection are evidently inspired by the Paquin dress from 1902. Furthermore, the orientalist desires and intercultural momentum has not left us since, as we may recognise in the ‘Cruise Collections’ by various luxury brands. This is presented once a year as an ‘inter-season’, ready-to-wear collection to be worn by wealthy, jet-setter costumers during their trips to the Mediterranean or Middle East. Beyond this generalised indicator of the persisting obsession with the beauty of the foreign, the Chanel Cruise Collection 2014/2015 in particular was strongly inspired by the Middle East. Set in Dubai, perfected with harem trousers, shisha pipes and long, straight-lined dresses, the designs bear a stark resemblance to Poiret and his Asian homage.

“a persisting obsession with the beauty of the foreign”

The development of serious haute couture introduced a new realm of fashion, in which frequent change and increased production formed the foundation of the ideological approach of consumer and designer. Fashion is to be bought, worn and replaced, season after season. Nonetheless, we cherish La Belle Époque for its appreciation of the aesthetic and hedonistic – pleasure in life. Fashion made steps to develop into an industry, losing its charm but amplifying its appeal and significance in society. It explored the limits of time and place, influenced by nostalgia for the grandiose past and longing for distant countries. The present was enriched by places that seemed foreign. The result is beautiful.