Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | November 15, 2016
Jean Patou’s Modern Sportswoman
Recently, I was lucky enough to recieve a copy of Emmanuelle Polle’s beautiful tome on French Couturier Jean Patou. Thumbing through the pages of exquisite gowns and designs, one image in particular struck me: that of American model Lilian Farley, ‘Dinarzade’, elegantly posed next to a painting by Bernard Boutet de Monvel in Patou’s new Coin des Sports (Sports Corner) in February 1925. The accompanying text informed me that this was a marketing image, used alongside an illustration of Boutet de Monvel’s painting to advertise Paris’ newest sportswear department. The trend for chic yet informal daywear is a well-known component of 1920s fashion, however of most interest to me is how the image of the ‘modern woman’ was disseminated throughout the decade through the fashion press. This image raises an interesting debate on the distortion that existed between popular imagery and the reality for women of the 1920s.
In the photograph, Dinarzade’s outfit consists of a belted crepe-de-chine dress with coordinating bow collar and a fine wool coat, perfectly suited for the upcoming spring season. A silver and leather belt, neat-fitting cloche hat and sturdy clutch bag complete the ensemble. She looks contemplative and quietly assured; every bit the elegant emigre. To her left is the dynamic painting of a woman golfer by Boutet de Monvel which would be reproduced for the advert. The muscular contours of the woman’s leg are clearly visible beneath the skirt’s fabric; toe to torso forming one, harmonious curve. Her face is serious and concentrated on the task at hand charging the image with a professional air. The two figures are turned to face each other but look beyond the frame of the photograph leaving the viewer free to admire the elegance of their poses and Dinarzade’s fashionable outfit. Taken at the entrance to the ground floor customers would recognise the large painting immediately as they entered, setting the tone for the chic yet comfortable fashion to be found inside.
By the time the Coin des Sports was open Patou had achieved international fame for designing outfits for professional sportswoman, most notably the tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen. The women who would see Patou’s fashions and advertisements in magazines had no need to chase a ball, dance or play golf. While there was a proliferation of articles keen to promote the benefits of exercise inline with contemporary medical thinking there is no doubt that women’s primary driver in adopting the new look was to appear ‘modern’. Patou's clothes were suitable for everything and nothing in particular and engaging in sporting activity was of secondary importance to the illusion of partaking in such activities.
Magazines were integral to promoting the myth of the modern woman-cum-sportswoman and needed a strong image with which to identify the new trend. On its own, de Monvel’s illustration made a clear and bold reference to the streamlined qualities of the new mode and of a body in motion. In the photograph with Dinarzade, we are presented with even more qualities that journalists were now associating with the sportive woman: grace, strength, suppleness, beauty and femininity. The appeal of these qualities can be traced back to antiquity and Patou was clever to make the connection to this most classic and enduring of beauty while reinforcing the appeal of the new.
With her youthful appearance and tall, lean figure, the model Dinarzade can be seen as bringing to life the stature of the stylised golfer. As an American, she embodied the ‘physical standards’ French women were encouraged to aspire to with an active lifestyle following the end of World War I. Like models of today, her proportions were not indicative of the population of women as a whole and, as is evident by looking through contemporary magazines and photographs, this did not go unnoticed. The same magazines that featured Patou’s collections and advertisements were likely to feature articles on dieting and innovative new corsetry that could help achieve the gamine figure needed to achieve the desirable streamlined silhouette. This being said, aspirational images such as this were imperative in order to persuade Parisiennes to adopt the sporty look, throwing their sartorial weight behind the new mode and in turn, confirming Patou's position as one of the premiere couturiers in Paris.
(1) Emmanuelle Polle; Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life, pg.70
(2) Mary Lynn Stewart, For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen pg. 169
(1) Polle, Emmanuelle; Jean Patou: A Fashionable Life (Flammarion, 2013)
(2) Stewart, Mary Lynn; For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)
Natalie Tilbury, Costume Society Ambassaso