Monday, June 3, 2013

Robe de Style: The Alternative Silhouette of the Roaring Twenties

Robe de Soir de Worth by George Barbier
June, 1921, La Gazette du Bon Ton
by Abigail Cucolo
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

With the recent release of Baz Lurhmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s renowned novel, The Great Gatsby, there will inevitably be a surge of interest in the fashion of the Roaring Twenties. People will once again be enamored with the fringes, bobs, and beaded, boyish silhouettes of the vivacious Flapper. Because, of course, when most think of the fashion of the 1920s, the Flapper is the first (if not only) image that comes to mind. Her look was dynamic and flashy, but, for most, was work to achieve. Women, who just years before were sculpting their bodies into an über-feminine hourglass, hadn’t suddenly evolved to skip puberty simply because fashion called for it, and not every lady could, or wanted to, mold their girlish curves to fit the flat chest and narrow hips of the Flapper figure. For those more romantic at heart (or organic in physique), an alternative design was consistently present throughout the 20s in the form of the Robe de Style (pronounced steel). Influenced by the sumptuous style of the 18th century, the Robe de Style was primarily an evening silhouette whose most distinctive feature was a full, bouffant skirt that jutted out at the hips like panniers. Also referred to as the “picture dress,” Robe de Styles were beloved for countering the boyish shifts by evoking nostalgic images of a feminine shepherdess.

Illustration by Erté 
Ranging in length from just below the knee to ankle, the gowns were typically made from luxurious fabrics like silk taffeta, organdy, velvet, chiffon, or satin. More subdued fullness in the skirt could be created through gathering, pleating, and shirring; however, many styles still required support from actual pannier-like underpinnings (wire basket-like supports). During the early 1920s, the waist placement was natural, with a close-fitting, sleeved bodice having a scooped or boat neckline, but as the decade progressed, variations of the Robe de Style with a sleeveless, deep-V neck bodice and dropped waistline appeared. Though a more modest silhouette than that seen on the Flapper, it was still a brainchild of the Roaring Twenties. In keeping with the flash and luxury idolized by Jazz Age fashion, the gowns could be lavishly trimmed in glitzy beads, sequins, lamé, diamante, and paste.
Here at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, we are fortunate enough to have a Robe de Style in the costume collection and on display. A sweet little number, it is made from black silk tissue taffeta trimmed with ivory embroidered chiffon at the collar and sleeves. The skirt, accented with shirring, has fullness supported by built-in wire panniers, creating the characteristic shape of the Robe de Style. To complete the charm, the waistband culminates in a large bow at back, and is decorated at the front with a colorful jewel toned velvet floral appliqué.

The Robe de Style was a stark contrast to the straight sheath of the popular style; a unique substitute that was beloved by designers Jeanne Lanvin and Lucile, and often featured by iconic illustrators Erté and George Barbier. While it may have been considered the “safe” choice by some fashion elite, it was nevertheless an elegant classic and perfect Dress of Style

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