Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | September 4, 2016
Hippie Chic: An Overview of the Peasant Blouse’s Role in Fashion
Today, the peasant blouse is a go-to garment whenever fashion trends take a Bohemian or Romantic turn, thanks to the hippie and ethnic styles of the 1960s and 70s. However, it should not be forgotten that the style is a descendent of the shirt or chemise, with origins in underwear. Its history, rooted in both fashionable and folk dress, makes the peasant blouse an ideal garment in the study of the cyclical nature of dress history.
We can think of the peasant blouse style in today’s fashion as the gradual exposure of the first layer of dress. As far back as medieval times (and possibly even further) the chemise was a simple shift for both men and women that sat next to the skin and, as a consequence, it was the only garment to be washed regularly. In Renaissance paintings the chemise can sometimes be spotted peeking out of the collar of a dress or bodice, but it largely remained invisible - as we keep our underwear hidden today.
However, in 1783 Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun depicted Marie Antoinette as La Reine en Gaulle. The gaulle was a light, floaty muslin gown, dubbed the chemise à la reine; it was considered so simple in comparison to contemporary dresses that it was likened to a nightdress or underwear. Perhaps this was the first example of the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend? For Marie Antoinette, the style was a philosophical choice that expressed her desire for a simpler existence, a concept that was considered scandalous to the people of France and resulted in her being subject to much ridicule. The same ‘back to nature’ philosophy seems to be behind the appeal of the modern off-the-shoulder style of peasant blouse too.
For peasant folk, the chemise or undershirts rules of exposure didn’t hold in quite the same way as those of their noble counterparts. Their hard-working lifestyles permitted the informality of wearing only the shirt without the fussy outer layers, which were kept for church or festive occasions. This increased exposure could be one possible explanation for the development of embroidered decoration on the blouse. Another reason could be that shirts in fashionable dress were also embroidered and peasants were only copying and developing these styles in their own manner.
In some regions, the decoration on the blouses became very elaborate and the motifs represented everything from age and social status to region. The Romanian blouse is one of the most famous regional blouse styles due to its intricate geometric embroidery, made even more ostentatious by the volume of the sleeves. Some beautiful examples can be seen today at the Horniman Museum’s exhibition, Revisiting Romania: Dress and Identity.
In 1940s America wartime shortages led to an increase in garment imports from Mexico. As ‘cheap and cheerful’ Mexican dirndl-style skirts were extremely popular, peasant blouses were worn to match. 20 years later, during the 1960s, it was the hippie movement that revived the trend for loose, embroidered blouses with wide sleeves. As international travel opened up, people gained a taste for different cultural styles. They brought back locally-sourced garments from their travels, thus creating a bottom-up fashion movement that eventually filtered into the couture market. Yves Saint Laurent is just one example of a couturier who has taken inspiration from Romania, saying of the blouses in his 1981 collection, ‘the Romanian blouse does not belong to any period. All the peasant clothes are passed down from century to century without going out of fashion.’ (1)
Today, the peasant blouse in fashion is often detached from any ethnic roots it may once have had and the end result is a hybrid of various styles. The significance of those embroidered motifs are forgotten. Some more serious cases involve accusations of direct copying and cultural insensitivity - such as Isabel Marant’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Personally, I feel that the long history of the blouse can take us beyond these issues when trying to understand what makes the blouse so popular for women’s fashion. Femininity, non-conformity and comfort all have their part to play too.
REFERENCES: (1) ‘How Romanian Blouses Became an International Style’, Milena Paraschiv for Artefact Magazine / link
FURTHER READING: (1) James Snowden, The Folk Dress of Europe, (Mills & Boon, 1979)
(2) Lauren Whitley, Hippie Chic, (MFA Publications, 2013)
Olivia Gecseg, Costume Sociey Ambassador, 2016