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