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Haute Couture in the 1920s

Haute Couture is a French phrase, literally translating to ‘high dressmaking’ but generally refers to clothes that are custom designed and tailored for the elite, by the finest designers and couture houses.

In the 1920s women’s desires for their position in society had dramatically changed following the First World War, becoming more rebellious and empowered. Women’s fashion was evocative of this societal change, representing freedom of choice and feminism. A new type of feminism arose with women wanting to be socially equal as opposed to politically equal. The cultural production of Haute Couture in the 1920s was a driver of this change, generating the meaning of discontinuity among women in the middle to upper classes within the Western developed world. This was particularly so with Haute Couture designers coming to prominence in this decade as creators of the new woman such as Coco Chanel, Edward Molyneaux and Jeanne Lanvin, among others.

For examples of the beautiful creations of these and other haute couture designers from the 1920s, please visit my Pinterest page.

Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret (1879– 1944) was a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century. His parents wanted to cure him of arrogance so they apprenticed him to an umbrella maker.


Poiret established his own house in 1903, and made his name with his controversial kimono coat and similar, loose-fitting designs created specifically for an un-corseted, slim figure. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect for the boyish flapper silhouette.

“I freed the bust,” boasted Poiret, “and I shackled the legs.”

Poiret was particularly noted for his Neoclassical and Orientalist styles, for advocating the replacement of the corset with the brassiere, and for the introduction of the hobble skirt, a vertical tight-bottomed style that confined women to mincing steps.


Jean Patou

Jean Patou (1880 – 1936) was a French fashion designer. In 1912, he opened a small dressmaking salon called “Maison Parry”. His entire 1914 collection was purchased by a single American buyer.

Patou served in World War I, returning to Paris following the war to open a design house that was known for women’s sports wear including daring sleeveless tennis dresses and swimsuits.He also created the first suntan lotion. He was also famous for his fragrances, including Joy.



Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) was a French fashion designer and business woman. The House of Chanel was famous for popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. Chanel’s success as a fashion designer funder her success as a business woman.

In 1918, Chanel purchased the entire building at 31 rue Cambon, which was situated in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. In 1921, she opened what may be considered an early incarnation of the fashion boutique, featuring clothing, hats, and accessories, later expanded to offer jewellery and fragrance. By 1927, Chanel owned five properties on the rue Cambon, encompassing buildings numbered 23 to 31.

More information about the glamorous and controversial life of Coco Chanel can be found here. 


Callot Soeurs

Caollot Soeurs was founded by sisters Marie Callot Gerber, Marthe Callot Bertrand, Regina Callot Tennyson-Chantrell and Joséphine Callot Crimont and was one of the leading fashion design houses in Paris during the 1910s and 1920s.

The Callot Soeur sales room in 1910

In 1900, they were featured at the Paris World’s Fair. That year, they had a staff of two hundred and did two million francs in sales. By 1901, they had tripled their workforce and doubled their sales.


Edward Molyneux

Edward Molyneux (1891 – 1974) was a London-based fashion designer. Molyneux opened his own fashion house in Paris at 14 rue Royale in November 1919 (later, 5 rue Royale), expanding to Monte Carlo in 1925, Cannes in 1927, and London in 1932. The designer quickly became known for an impeccably refined simplicity.

Quote “Molyneux was the designer to whom a fashionable woman would turn if she wanted to be absolutely right without being utterly predictable in the Twenties and Thirties”

Molyneux abhorred exaggerated decoration and preferred the minimalist fashion style, actually banning anything superfluous that he did not like. His military self-preservation and Irish/English background made him more spartan in the world of French Couture.


Jeanne Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin (1867 – 1946) established one of the earliest French fashion houses. In 1897, she gave birth to Marguerite Marie-Blanche, her only child. Nothing was too beautiful for Marguerite.

The little girl became the first source of inspiration for Jeanne Lanvin, who designed her an incredibly sophisticated wardrobe from a very early age. The mother and daughter never left each others’ sides. It wasn’t uncommon to catch sight of Marguerite meandering around the hat shelves in the store, and her elegance was well noted. A new opportunity then presented itself to Jeanne Lanvin, who decided to delve into children’s clothing. The mother-daughter look quickly caught on.

Lavin was about clothes that were pretty rather than fashionable but she was successful because they gave women confidence. No Lanvin gown ever overwhelmed the women wearing it and, in that brittle ‘20s world, when chic was all, that was quite an achievement. Whereas Chanel pared down, Lanvin added decoration because she knew that it appealed to women who wished to look smart but not like a fashion plate.

Lanvin was not just a creator. She was also a very shrewd businesswoman who knew how to place herself in the burgeoning couture market in the early 1920s. Interested in Medieval and Renaissance art, along with Egypt and antiquity, she created a soft but vibrant blue, guaranteed to flatter most skin and hair types. Called Fra Angelico blue, it became almost a trademark.
By 1927, when she launched Arpège, one of the world’s most successful fragrances even today, she commissioned one of France’s top architects to design the black glass ball which was its bottle.

Madeleine Vionnet

(1876 – 1975) Vionnet trained in London and in Paris with the Callot Soeurs before establishing her first fashion house in Paris in 1912. Although it was forced to close in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, it re-opened after the war and Vionnet became one of the leading designers in Paris between the Wars (1919-1939). Vionnet was forced to close her house in 1939 and retired in 1940.

“without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces”

Called the “Queen of the bias cut” and “the architect among dressmakers”, Vionnet is best known today for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and for popularising the bias cut within the fashion world and is credited with inspiring a number of recent designers.

Alongside Coco Chanel, Vionnet is credited with a move away from stiff, formalised clothing to sleeker, softer clothes. Unlike Chanel, Vionnet had little appetite for self-promotion; her retirement in 1940 marginalised her contribution to the wider movement. Madeleine Vionnet is quoted as saying that “when a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her”.


  1. Tammy G Keefer says:

    Love reading articles on fashion.

    1. Thanks, Tammy. The Twenties were such an exciting time in fashion- the styles really fit what was happening with women. More freedom, lots of flash, more independence, dancing (you really can’t do the Charleston in a corset!). I have lot ofs fashion on my Facebook page and my Pinterest boards. Cheers… Sherilyn

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