Icons of Female Fashion Design

‘Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.’ —Diana Vreeland

With the approach of London Fashion week between February 14th-18th, we’re excited about the future of fashion in an environmentally conscious and forward thinking decade. But looking to the past for visual inspiration never hurt, and we’ve spotlighted a few icons of women’s fashion design through history.

Marie-Jeanne ‘Rose’ Bertin (1747-1813)
Milliner and dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette (1755-93) and her Children, 1787 (oil on canvas) / Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842)

Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin, born in Picardy in 1747, was a French milliner and dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette. She is celebrated as the first French fashion designer and credited with the introduction of haute couture to France. Having trained under successful milliner Madmoiselle Pagelle, who made use of the elegant tastes of her aristocratic clients, Bertin had good relations with ladies of the court. She was able to acquire large orders and eventually became Pagelle’s business partner, opening her own dress shop, Le Grand Mogol, in 1770. Though records show evidence of more than 1500 clients, she soon found high-profile customers in the ladies of Versailles, including the Queen Marie Antoinette, who Bertin would present with new creations twice a week, spending hours with her discussing the designs.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1755-93) Queen of France, detail, 1775 (oil on canvas) / Jean-Baptiste Andre Gautier D’Agoty (1740-86)

Bertin is hailed as the first fashion designer to be prized as much for her skill and innate talent as for her materials. Hair poufs and ostentatious gowns became, for the Queen, a mode of self-expression, and styles often were used to make commentary upon current events and social mores, from vessels in support of the American Revolutionary War to olive trees for wisdom. The size of some Bertin’s dresses meant the female wearer could take up as much as three times the size of their male counterparts. Bertin’s name was synonymous with the sartorial extravagance of the French court, and her pieces garnered high prices, remaining Marie Antoinette’s trusted milliner even during her imprisonment.

Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936)
One of the first women to gain international recognition as a fashion designer

Evening dress, designed by Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936), from Les Modes, 1916, France, 20th century / Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936) / French

French designer Jeanne Paquin, born more than a century after Bertin, is often heralded as the first woman to gain international celebrity as a fashion designer. With a distinctive style and notable business acumen, Paquin made a veritable name for herself in the late 19th and early 20th century international fashion scene. Already head of an atelier in her own right, in 1891 she married Isidore René Jacob, with whom she launched the independent House of Paquin. Initially favouring pastels, then moving on to more striking reds and blacks, Paquin successfully altered public attitudes to sartorial trends, combining techniques of light, colour and texture to form a spectrum of design from the ethereal to the striking and chic.

Afternoon dress, 1910 (front view), Silk velvet, silk satin, silk lace / Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936) / French

She had a penchant for lavish furs and heavily embroidered, visually delicious garments, layering materials of different thickness, colour and feel to build garments of visual profusion and opulence. Pacquin became renowned for her innovative use of black, previously reserved for mourning garments, and her signature pink accents. Though impressive and often extravagant, Paquin’s designs also placed an emphasis on comfort and practicality.  She was a model of her own designs, often wearing a functional ankle-length suit for work, paradigmatic of the modern, active woman. With the innovations of Paquin, restrictive and uncomfortable styles became a thing of the past; ease and artistry were no longer mutually exclusive.

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973)
Fused artistic merits of fashion and visual art

Model Schiaparelli by the French painter Jean Gabriel Domergue, 1889 – 1962 Drawing published in the magazine Plaisir de France in 1936 / Photo © Collection Gregoire / Bridgeman Images

Often named an artistic visionary, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s iconoclastic bravery and originality in her design is a reputation that endures to this day. Fusing together the artistic merits of fashion and visual art, she made manifest the idea of fashion design as artwork and the inextricable link between the disciplines. Coco Chanel allegedly referred to her as ‘that Italian artist who is making clothes’. Born into aristocracy, her designs never seem to lose sight of the extravagant glamour of her ancestry. Tumultuous early years, including the publication of a collection of erotic poems, a whirlwind marriage with a professor and a hunger strike all contributed to a sense of rebellious defiance in her design, and a concerted refusal to submit to established norms.

French advertisement for a peach coat by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937 / PVDE / Bridgeman Images

Rocketing to fame after the opening of her atelier in 1927, Schiaparelli was a veritable innovator of fashion. In 1930, her primary designs for the first ever wrap dress were drawn up, taking inspiration from aprons to create a design that would prove flattering and wearable for all body types. She is also credited with designing the first garments with visible zips in the same year, becoming a feature of design rather than a hidden fastening. Though advocating comfortable fashion, Salvador Dali and other surrealist artists proved some of her most significant inspirations and partnerships, out of which was born such eccentric pieces as a ribbed skeleton dress and a shoe-hat. Though her clients famously came to include such Hollywood names as Mae West as her brand spread to international fame, she failed to update this style in the post-war period to appeal to the sartorially updated public, and unfortunately her House suffered for it.

Gilbert Adrian (1903-1959)
Visionary costume and couture designer

FASHION: COSTUME, c. 1940 Costume designed by Gilbert Adrian for a Hollywood film production, c. 1940. Granger / Bridgeman Images

MGM costumer Gilbert Adrian, born Adrian Adolph Greenburg but widely known as simply Adrian, was an American costume designer whose credits include The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Women (1939). His designs, and their transmission from film into the American every day, demonstrate the rising impact of cinema on society during the early years of film and the emphasis upon the new, modern career woman in 1940s and 1950s U.S.A. Originally trained as an artist, Adrian arrived in Hollywood in 1924, working with the biggest celebrities of the day, including Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. His work on Cukor’s The Women demonstrates his skill in the designing of evening gowns, of which many copies were made.

ZIEGFELD GIRL, 1941 Left-to-right: Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner in a scene from the film ‘Ziegfeld Girl,’ 1941, wearing costumes designed by Gilbert Adrian.

He believed the materials a woman wore had a significant impact on how she carried herself onscreen, and applied this sentiment to his own designs. The copies permitted by MGM to be created of Adrian’s work were of lower quality, but maintained the essence of his designs that were widely sought after by the American public. The films themselves offered a distraction from the dreariness of the Great Depression, while the accompanying garments provided a playful sense of joy that was ostensibly amiss in the cultural milieu. Adrian’s efforts to bring grace and haute couture to Hollywood gained him international acclaim, and led to a worldwide fashion revolution sparked by the ‘Adrian silhouette’ idiosyncratic of his style.

André Courrèges (1923-2016)
Geometric fashion design for a modern age

Leather barrel-shaped skirts with suspenders and cowl necked blouses designed by Andre Courreges, 1965. Photo: CSU/Everett Collection

André Courrèges was a graduate in engineering before his first foray into fashion. Famed for his geometric styles and futuristic designs, Courrèges’ refused to hark back to any particular era of fashion, but invented its own, propelling the international fashion scene into the aesthetics of the space-age.  After working for Cristóbal Balenciaga throughout the 1950s, in 1961 Courrèges opened his own fashion house, establishing himself as one of the most notable couturiers in Paris. His early 1964 collection was an exposition of drastically new styles, featuring revolutionary cut-outs and angular suits and mini-dresses.

French couturier Andre Courreges presenting a geometric dress July 19th, 1983 / Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

Matched with astronauts’ flat boots and helmets, the strikingly cut shapes and light, silvery colour-scheme earned Courrèges the epithet: the ‘Space Age’ designer. He was a strong advocate for comfort and freedom within fashion, and his designs came to represent shifting attitudes towards expectations for women’s fashion. He was the first to design trousers for women intended for every day and smart wear, and is widely credited with bringing the introduction of the miniskirt to public attention. Stark white colouring interrupted with occasional flashes of neon became his trademark as he did away with nostalgia to engage with his iconic futurism. His complete detachment from established traditions allowed him to indulge in the use of more unconventional materials, such as plastics like vinyl and fabrics such as Lycra. Superfluous ornamentation was studiously avoided in Courrèges’ designs, the rare exception being a recurrent daisy motif, symbolic of the youth and newness that permeated Courrèges’ work.

Andre Courreges with two models wearing his creations on January 26, 1968 (photo) / Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Popularised sporty, casual chic as new ‘feminine standard’ of style post WW1

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, French fashion designer, 1935 (b/w photo), George Hoyningen-Huene (1900-1968) / Bridgeman Images

Coco Chanel is the founder and namesake of the Chanel brand. Today, she is recognised as one of the first designers to liberate women from the constraints of the ‘corsetted silhouette’ popularising a sporty, casual chic which remains incredibly popular to this day. The brand name immediately evokes her distinctive interlocked C monogram logo design which was created by Chanel herself. Her influence extended beyond couture clothing, and her aesthetic was carried over to jewellery, handbags and fragrances. In particular, the signature scent Chanel No. 5 has become an incredibly iconic product in its own right, showcasing versatility and finesse in the brand.

Jersey suit, models by Gabrielle Chanel published in magazine “Les elegances parisiennes”, March 1917 / PVDE / Bridgeman Images

Chanel is the only fashion designer listed in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 1931 and 1932 she designed costumes for MGM movies, and at the height of her influence in this industry both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became private clients. She did not, however, feel like her design translated well to film, and declined to work in the industry further as she felt Hollywood was not well suited to her tastes. She had an intense rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli, whose innovative designs, full of playful references to surrealism made Chanel feel her career was slightly threatened. At its height in 1935, the House of Chanel employed 4,000 people.

Vivienne Westwood (1941- )
British Fashion Designer

Vivienne Westwood – portrait of the British fashion designer sitting on a chair, 2000. Born 8 April 1941 © Lilian Birnbaum / Bridgeman Images

Dame Vivienne Westwood is regularly referred to as the embodiment of British fashion. Revelling in infamy, clashing against hippie styles of the 1960s, Westwood’s personal brand has always had an inflammatory charm that has allowed it to remain at the centre of the British fashion scene for decades. The ‘Queen of Punk’ rose to prominence during her partnership with Malcolm McLaren when in 1974 they renamed their King’s Road shop ‘Sex’, catering for more deviant, ‘underground’ styles that harked back to the not too distant past of rock and roll.

Coat (Witches Collection) / Vivienne Westwood (b.1941) / Malcolm MacLaren (1946-2010) / English

Intended to shock and aggravate, the clothes had a reactionary as well as revolutionary purpose. T-shirts were ripped and written on by hand, with fastenings and sleeves shown on the outside; there is no place for perfection in Westwood’s designs, and her distinctive style seems to be in active avoidance of it. Her brand relies on the act of statement-making, demonstrated by her fierce political activism, such as her surprise protest against climate change at the London 2012 Paralympics Closing Ceremony. She famously received her OBE from the Queen in a sheer black dress without underwear. Ushering into public view styles such as Punk and New Romantic, Westwood’s impact on fashion has been broad and lasting.

Dress (Buffalo), Autumn/Winter 1982-1983 (cotton) / Vivienne Westwood (b.1941) / Malcolm MacLaren
(1946-2010) / English

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