I offer here more morsels from the Parisite (aka Elizabeth Hawes) cables mentioned in my previous post of 27th November 2013. These cables lend themselves perfectly to the blogging genre: short, pithy, colourful, amusing. And as standalone pieces in themselves, they make for entertaining snippets requiring little additional input from me.
However, before reading on, it may be worth my while mentioning here that, although short in length, these cables are extremely useful to the dress historian and serve a studious purpose beyond mere entertaining vignettes. The detailing of the specifics of Parisian fashion, which can be pinpointed to a particular day or week in history, allow for the tracking of passing and/or enduring tastes. Parisite gives us insight on favoured colours, cuts and fabrics. What I find particularly fascinating is that these cables also give the dress historian details and descriptions of the individual styling of garments, with advice – prescription, even – on how something should be worn in order to be considered truly ‘smart’. In her cable dated 26th September (1927), for example, Parisite reports that “PARISIAN HATS ARE WORN OVER THE FOREHEAD AND WITHOUT FLOWERS”. The published response to this news from Parisite’s New York-based editor (writing under the pseudonym ‘L.L.’) is as instructive. This is “something of a sock in the jaw to a girl” writes L.L. “who climbed blithely on the bandwagon of those who sponsored the off-one-eye-and-one-ear hats when they first appeared and who now realize that most women look unpleasantly flapperish in them.” Ah, the fickle follies of fashion!
The careful detailing of subtle changes in fashion styling (such as we see evidenced in the extracts above and below) may be used to open up a bigger discussion about the very discipline of dress history and its relative position in the academic hierarchy. In their focus on the study of the descriptive minutiae of clothing, dress historians have, on occasion, been criticised from other factions of the academic Establishment. (In)famously, in the early 1990s, Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold (socio-economic historians) suggested that dress history took the form of a “wholly descriptive catalogue” tradition, “which typically chart[ed] in minute detail every flounce, pleat, button or bow”. As I go about my work with the Parisite cables, then, I remain mindful of the need to strike a balance between ‘the catalogue’ and ‘the critical’ (for want of a better way of putting it). As well as offering valuable and valid descriptions of the fashions of the day, Parisite’s cables also hint at, and are constitutive of, the ‘workings’ of the contemporary business of fashion, too. They supply insight on the power relativities that governed that business, the mechanisms used to communicate fashion information within it, the ‘players’ of influence (the ‘cultural intermediaries’), the nature of fashion reporting (which was descriptive rather than visual due to limitations of print technology) and the links between fashion journalism, design, retailing and consumption. These critical concerns are hidden ‘between the lines’ of these brief little cables, and the dress historian is well positioned to extrapolate them accordingly. There may well be more to this dress history lark than meets the eye. Read on.
Paris, May 6
SMARTEST WOMEN WEARING VEILS OVER EYES BUT GREAT KNEE DISPAY HAS LED TO LAUNCHING BY PREMET OF JEWELRY SETS TO INCLUDE REAL DIAMOND GARTERS STOP MIDSEASON COLLECTIONS REITERATE CHIC OF GRAY COMMA BLACK AND WHITE STOP PAY NO ATTENTION TO FACT THAT DEAUVILLE LADIES ARE TAKING UP RED IN A SERIOUS WAY – PARISITE
Paris, April 15
GUIDE YOUR FASHION LIFE SOLEMNLY ACCORDING TO FOLLOWING RED-HOT INFORMATION GLEANED FROM LEADING COUTURIERS. LOUISEBOULANGER SAYS DEEP BLUE IS ONLY EVENING COLOR. PATOU SWEARS BY OFF-WHITES WHILE PAQUIN SELLS SOFT GREEN AND ROSES. ONLY SMART EVENING MATERIALS ARE CHIFFON, TAFFETA, MOIRE, SATIN, MARQUISETTE, AND SO FORTH. BEIGE REMAINS NEW SPORTS COLOR WHILE THOUSANDS CHEER. NAVY AND BLACK STRUGGLE FOR STREET SUPREMACY FOR A CHANGE. YELLOW GREENS WERE FAVORED ON THE RIVIERA. WEAR PRINTS AT ALL HOURS AND BE SMARTLY DIFFERENT – PARISITE
And finally, before signing off, I must remember to doff my cap to academic convention by ensuring my citations are in order. The first extract (above) is from The New Yorker, 14th May 1927, p. 66, the second from 21st April, 1928, p. 68.