Roaring Into Fashion

It's an open secret in Parisian fashion circles that when designers need inspiration for new embroidery motifs to adorn their haute couture gowns, they turn to the 60,000 historical samples in the "library" of François Lesage's Parisian atelier. These samples date back to before 1924, when Lesage's father, Albert, bought the workshop and established himself as a collaborator of the star designers of the era, including Madeleine Vionnet and Lucien Lelong. Today Lesage's technicians employ the same handmade artisanal techniques his father championed, creating stunning pieces teeming with pearls, crystals and beads, some taking as long as 2,500 hours to complete. "It is a work of passion and devotion," says Lesage.

These fine embroideries are among the many highlights of "Les Années Folles," the dashing new exhibit at Paris's Musée Galliera (through Feb. 29). A celebration of the fashion of the roaring '20s, the exhibit recounts the birth and development of Parisian haute couture from 1919 to 1929—a period that was also marked by the birth of jazz, the rise of the motorcar and the emancipation of the female form, thanks in part to leading stylist Paul Poiret, who "declared war" on the corset. But above all, the show is a powerful reminder that in the world of fashion, no bigger design revolution has taken place since.

A sensory feast of color and texture, the exhibit features 170 restored dresses from legendary fashion houses including Vionnet, Poiret, Lanvin and, of course, Chanel, as well as 200 accessories, 50 perfumes and cosmetics, sketches, film documentaries, music excerpts and photographs that evoke the fabulous decade. There are peach-pink and lilac- hued flapper-girl dresses from the Charleston era, when Josephine Baker shocked and delighted her audiences by dancing provocatively; glittering tiaras and fans bedecked with ostrich feathers; and late-'20s tongue-in-cheek reinterpretations of 18th-century French ball gowns announcing the arrival of Marie Antoinette-inspired "drag queen" fashion.

The freeing of the female form in couture reflected the changing status of women. "The Great War had resulted in women taking up occupations which were traditionally reserved for men," says Sophie Grossiord, head curator at the Galliera. "After the war they didn't suddenly abandon all this." In keeping with women's increased liberation, sleeves were removed, necklines plunged and dress cuts were increasingly tubular, adorned with floating panels and fringes. As Parisian ladies danced to the rhythm of the Charleston, their hemlines grew shorter. As they sunbathed in Biarritz and skied in Chamonix, their swimsuits grew more flamboyant and revealing, their ski suits more streamlined. And when they drove the first cars and sought the intoxication of speed, they donned expensive tweed coats; one in the exhibit is entitled "100 Kilometers Per Hour."

These bespoke garments were destined strictly for high society. "Unlike today, prêt-à-porter [ready-made fashion] did not exist," adds Grossiord. "This was quite simply elitist fashion. Moreover, it is quite simply Parisian fashion." As evidenced by one Lelong dress on display, handcut and hand-sewn in exquisite detail, with crystal embroidery and floating muslin panels, garments were no longer simply about covering a woman's body but about caressing it. The vintage Lanvin "Robe Bijoux," an absinthe green dress from 1925, is so heavy with stones that a mannequin cannot support it.

The exhibit pays particular homage to Chanel's consecration as the inventor in 1926 of the Little Black Dress, a synthesis of elegance and sobriety. "Until then, black was reserved as the color of mourning," says co-curator Cathérine Join-Diéterle. "In the hands of Chanel it became the symbol of chic."

But the 1920s also announced the age of unisex fashion and the advent of the "garçonne," the androgynous figure that symbolized rebellion against traditional and archetypal notions of femininity. With their masculine silhouettes and short hair, Parisian garçonnes smoked, drove and heralded the advent of modern lesbian culture. They accessorized with monocles, walking sticks and cigarette holders, and gathered in the Parisian cafés of Montparnasse and Pigalle, setting tongues wagging. They wore masculine perfumes with leathery undertones, like the bottle of Le Sien on display. The term "garçonne" comes from the 1922 bestselling novel of that name by Victor Margueritte, whose heroine abandons herself to debauchery and drugs in the name of gender equality. Its publication caused a scandal, and Margueritte was thrown out of France's prestigious Légion d'Honneur for "bearing affront to French women's rectitude." The same year the French Senate denied women the vote.

As the exhibit makes clear, today's fashion designers still seek their inspiration from the notion of modernity first engendered in the '20s. Paco Rabanne's futuristic creations look like the direct descendants of an anonymous knitted metal coat, on display near the end of the exhibit. Leading stylist Lelong, who led the années folles fashion movement, proclaimed in a 1926 issue of Vogue that he "made modern dresses for modern women." "One cannot imagine Schiaparelli without Vionnet, and one cannot imagine Dior without Schiaparelli," says Lesage, carefully inspecting a piece of finished embroidery that will soon grace a Lacroix gown. "Fashion will always look to its past." And, more than ever, to the magical decade that was the '20s.