The evolution of women's fashion 1880-1920

The evolution of women's fashion 1880-1920

  • Family portrait, the artist and his family.

    LAURENS Henri (1885 - 1954)

  • Racetracks; characters.

    LEMOINE Henri (1848 - 1924)

  • Portrait of the artist.

    DUFAU Clémentine Hélène (1869 - 1937)

  • Young woman solo at the Romanisches Café in Berlin.


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Title: Family portrait, the artist and his family.

Author : LAURENS Henri (1885 - 1954)

Creation date : 1923

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 165 - Width 184

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans website

Picture reference: 87-001695 / RF1981-28

Family portrait, the artist and his family.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans

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Title: Race fields; characters.

Author : LEMOINE Henri (1848 - 1924)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Aristotype.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 00-009611 / Pho1987-20-10

Racetracks; characters.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Portrait of the artist.

Author : DUFAU Clémentine Hélène (1869 - 1937)

Creation date : 1911

Date shown: 1911

Dimensions: Height 181 - Width 70

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Dufau Hélène-Clémentine © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 92-000590 / RF1978-40

© Dufau Hélène-Clémentine Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Young woman solo at the Romanisches Café in Berlin.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais All rights reserved

Publication date: September 2007

Historical context

On the threshold of XXe century, the silhouette of the woman changes radically. The effect of this transformation appears not only in the models, but also in the practices: that of thinning in particular, the bodies being less hidden. The couturier Poiret dared to abolish the corset around 1905: he designed dresses that revealed shapes. It is on this evolution that the beauty of XX beginse century, a “metamorphosis” that began between the years 1910 and 1920: stretched lines, greater freedom of movement. This development is clearly perceptible through the four chosen works.

Image Analysis

The nostalgic Family portrait painted in 1923 by Paul-Albert Laurens recalls that previously the crinoline was essential, even in midsummer. His wife's outfit is reminiscent of those painted by Claude Monet in Women in the garden (1866) or by James Tissot in the Picnic (1875).

Henri Lemoine’s photograph, taken from one of those family albums that bourgeois and aristocrats keep in numbers, sets another fashion, typical of the worldly life of the Belle Époque. We come to show ourselves on the racetracks. Town toilets, with a small lace collar, hide the body from the ears to the feet. There is then a real passion for the very expensive ostrich feathers, from which we make boas like the one worn by the woman under the parasol, on the left in the background. The hair is pulled up on the head and the hat is planted forward, as if to balance the figure pulled back by the train. Despite appearances, the feminine toilet is much lighter than it has been for a long time, but the bodies are all corseted.

It was around 1910 that the real revolution took place, of which the self-portrait of Hélène-Clémentine Dufau (1911) is revealing. The artist paints herself in an oriental-inspired turquoise evening dress, adorned with gold facings and topped with an emerald headband. This feminist thus looks at us with an air of pride and awareness of this revolution in which she is participating and which originates in particular from the wave of Orientalism sparked by the success of the ballet. Scheherazade.

From Laurens's painting to Dufau's, the woman’s allure slips from the image of the flower to that of the stem, from the letter "S" to the letter "I". In the early twenties, the silhouette became tubular, but the dress has not yet shortened. In 1925, for the first time in the history of modern Europe, she discovered the knee. It is a real scandal. With this Young woman solo at the Romanisches Café in Berlin, the photographer shows the new type of woman who was born, seeking, in parallel with this liberation of the legs, to emancipate herself from the traditional status of women. The boyish cut appears, without which it is impossible to wear the cloche hat. And the clothes erase all the curves of the female body that have enchanted previous centuries.


When the textile volumes that swelled the female body collapse, it is not fashion that changes, it is a cultural revolution that is taking place. Some see it as "the crash of beauty", when Zola, more lucid, writes: "The idea of ​​beauty varies. You put her in the sterility of the woman, with long and slender forms, with narrowed sides. »The models of Vogue or from female, in 1920, are unrelated to those of 1900: “All women give the impression of having grown up. "Far from being only formal, this graceful lines also claims to reveal their emancipation, illustrating a profound transformation of society. What the magazines of the Roaring Twenties say in all simplicity: “The woman in love with movement and activity demands an appropriate elegance, full of casualness and freedom. "

The look of women is not just a play on pictures or words. It had meaning in the interwar period: "Who will be made to believe that the feminine aesthetic is not one of the most striking symptoms of the evolution of civilization? », Insists Philippe Soupault. It extends a quest: to compete with the masculine? conquer his freedom? The fluidity of the silhouette would thus illustrate the emergence of a "new woman": "The illusion of having won rights. The one at least to refuse the corset. That of long strides, that of shoulders at ease, of the waist that is no longer tight. The reality of emancipation is evidently more complex in the mundane days.

  • Belle Epoque
  • feminism
  • women
  • fashion
  • beauty


Geneviève FRAISSE and Michelle PERROT (dir.), History of women in the West, volume IV, "The XIXth Century", Paris, Plon, 1991. François-Marie GRAU, Costume history, Paris, P.U.F., 1999. James LAVER, History of fashion and costume, Paris, Thames & Hudson, 2003.Georges VIGARELLO, History of beauty, Paris, Le Seuil, 2004.

To cite this article

Julien NEUTRES, "The evolution of women's fashion 1880-1920"

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