Posts in the Suzanne Lenglen category

Ariele Elia, MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles, copyright MFIT. Photo by Eileen Costa

Ariele Elia, MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT

This week we are excited to bring you an interview with Ariele Elia, Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles at MFIT. You can read her essay, “The Wardrobe of the Modern Athlete: Activewear in the 1930s,” in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Elegance in an Age of Crisis, from Yale University Press. Ariele also co-curated the current MFIT exhibition Trend-ology with MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume Emma McClendon. The show is on view now until April 30, 2014 in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery.

– What was the most surprising thing you found in researching activewear from the 1930s?

AE: I was surprised to see what an active role women played in sports during the 1930s. Athletes such as Lilí Álvarez shocked the crowds when she debuted her trouser skirt designed by Schiaparelli at Wimbledon in 1931, and Amelia Earhart became the first female to fly across the Atlantic in 1932.

Lilí Álvarez, at the 1931 French Championships, in the trouser skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli | PD-US

Lilí Álvarez, at the 1931 French Championships, in the trouser skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli | PD-US

Amelia Earhart, 1936 | Hervert & Ewing Collection, LOC

Amelia Earhart, 1936 | Hervert & Ewing Collection, LOC

– In your essay in Elegance in an Age of Crisis, you detail Jean Patou’s many contributions to fashionable resort wear and activewear in the 1930s. Why do you think the idea of the active woman resonated with him as a designer?

AE: Jean Patou was an athlete himself. He was inspired by women who played sports and wanted to create ensembles that gave them freedom of movement and would enhance their performance. He observed women playing sports to get a better idea of how their bodies moved. His brother-in-law Raymond Barbas was a French national tennis player and introduced him to Suzanne Lenglen. Patou design her famous 1921 ensemble for Wimbledon, which allowed her to leap toward the ball and swing her racket with a full range of motion.

– Are there any behind-the-scenes moments from assisting on the exhibition that stand out in your mind?

AE: I was amazed by the level of connoisseurship Patricia [Mears, Deputy Director MFIT] and Bruce [Boyer] brought to the exhibition. It was inspiring to sit and listen to them describe the details of a garment. There is so much information that can be extracted by closely examining the construction. Patricia discovered an important aspect of how Augustabernard designed. While studying a dress she observed that there were 18 pintucks sewn diagonally (with irregular intervals that varied in length and depth) on the front while there were 13 pintucks across the back; this lead her to believe this dress was shaped directly on the wearer’s body.

– Do you have a favorite ensemble from the exhibition?

AE: One of my favorite ensembles is the man’s swimsuit. It has a zipper at the waist that allows the wearer to unzip the tank portion of the suit and expose his chest. Depending on the where this man was vacationing he could adapt to his surroundings. For example people in Deauville, France were more risky and showed more skin, whereas people in New York were more conservative and covered up.

Jantzen man’s blue wool knit “crab back” swimsuit with detachable zipper, 1932, Portland, Oregon, museum purchase | copyright MFIT. Photo by Eileen Costa

Jantzen man’s blue wool knit “crab back” swimsuit with detachable zipper, 1932, Portland, Oregon, museum purchase | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | copyright MFIT. Photo by Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT

– And finally, please give us 3 words which describe this exhibition for you:

AE: Innovative, streamlined, elegant.

Today is the last day to see the exhibition in our Special Exhibitions Gallery! Come see us and tweet with #1930sFashion.

–MM

Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks. Copyright MFIT. Photo by Eileen Costa

Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks. Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT

Straight from our Special Exhibitions gallery, here is the object label text displayed next to this stunning Jean Patou evening dress:

Jean Patou was one of the great innovators of the interwar years. He is credited with leading the seismic shift from the short and boxy 1920s chemise to the long and languorous gowns of the 1930s. Like his rivals, Chanel and Lucien Lelong, Patou was a master stylist who successfully pioneered sportif clothing for women. Although Chanel is often viewed as fashion’s great modernist, Patou may have been better as both a designer and an innovator.

Jean Patou is not as well-known today as many of his contemporaries, such as Chanel. In the book Elegance in an Age of Crisis Patricia Mears, MFIT Deputy Director and co-curator of the exhibition, writes:

[Patou] was among the great talents of the inter-war years, but he is not well remembered today. An obsessively private man, Patou was a notorious womanizer and gambler who had the misfortune to die in 1936 at a relatively early age. He likely suffered from devastating psychological issues that arose after his military service during World War I…Despite his personal challenges, he also designed evening wear that synthesized the elegance of the era.
…Meredith Etherington-Smith stated succinctly that Patou was likely the more innovative creator when compared to Chanel as “every time a striped V-necked sweater is pulled down over a pleated skirt, every time real sports clothes are used as an inspiration for fashion design, Patou survives. It is no bad legacy.”

Detail, Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks. Copyright MFIT. Photo by Eileen Costa

Detail, Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks. Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT

Patou also created a line of activewear, discussed in MFIT Assistant Curator Ariele Elia’s essay in the book:

Inspired by the active woman, the French couturier Jean Patou was compelled to
create collections for this emerging new lifestyle. He debuted his first sport collection
in the summer of 1922. Meredith Etherington-Smith said that Patou’s clients
were “always adventurous with notations of being sporty or at least looked like they
played tennis or golf, even if they didn’t.” Patou, an athlete himself, understood the
needs of an activewear garment. He carefully studied sports and built construction
details into his garments designed to aid the athlete in her performance.

Patou designed a strikingly new athletic ensemble for French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, known as “La Divine” in the French press. Ariele Elia:

In 1921, [Lenglen] shocked the Wimbledon crowds when she debuted her custom ensemble by Patou, complete with a white, pleated, knee-length skirt, a white, sleeveless cardigan, and a vibrant orange headband. The length of the skirt alone was considered socially unacceptable; it was not until 1924 that skirts in general rose to the knee. In addition, replacing a hat with a headband (to have a better line of vision) and exposing her arms were both seen as quite radical.

Suzanne Lenglen in a Patou tennis ensemble, circa 1920 | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen in a Patou tennis ensemble, circa 1920 | PD-US

 Suzanne Lenglen at the French Championships | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen at the French Championships | Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD / PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden | George Grantham Bain Collection, PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen was an entirely different kind of tennis player. One of the first players to openly show personality and passion on the court, her presence was charismatic and ran counter to prior “feminine” values of restraint and propriety. As style.com notes: “She’d sip brandy between sets, break down in tears during a bad game and take to her bed with various illnesses in the off season. But before her death from pernicious anemia at 39, Lenglen not only changed the game for every woman who followed her; she won Wimbledon and the French Open six times each—records that remained untouched for almost fifty years.” Lenglen fully embodied the idea of the liberated, active woman, and her fashion choices were a visible extension of her spirit and tenacity, on and off the court.

And who better to design for her than Jean Patou? The designer was particularly attuned to the idea of the femme moderne and committed himself to crafting clothes which were not only elegant but true to this newly realized athleticism and sport.

French fashion designer Jean Patou (1880-1936), via Library of Congress

French fashion designer Jean Patou (1880-1936), via Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, PD-US

In striking accord with our last post on 1930s athletic and Olympic style, here is a photo of Suzanne Lenglen and Sonja Henie, gold medalist in singles’ figure skating at Lake Placid Winter Olympics III, together in Paris, 1932.

French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen with Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie in Paris in 1932. Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD, PD-US

French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen with Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie in Paris in 1932. Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD / PD-US

Until next time, join us in conversation on Twitter with #1930sFashion.

-MM