How the theatre of fashion has evolved

As a new season of shows begin, the British fashion historian charts the history of the runway

Fashion Q+A
Caroline Evans
Caroline Evans Photography by Jess Gough

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused. 

“Some people were really hostile because they thought it was pretentious to talk about fashion in that way,” explains Caroline Evans, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, during a balmy Saturday afternoon in east London. She is referring to the early reactions in contemporary publishing to the subject of fashion history, when only a few books existed on the subject. “Fashion people were all very suspicious of anyone trying to write a history at all.” Since then there has been a definite shift, and Evans’ new book, The Mechanical Smile, marks a big development within its field, being the first book to trace the unwritten history of the first fashion shows.

Dazed Digital: Do you think that it’s odd that most people, even those in the industry, don’t know much about the origins of fashion shows?

Caroline Evans: Even I didn’t know! In the 90s, an ex-Central Saint Martins student asked me when the first fashion show was and I was really ashamed that I didn’t know. Then I went to the library and found that actually, there’s nothing really on it. That was how the book started.

DD: Is there a certain way you should observe a fashion show?

Caroline Evans: People in the fashion industry know there is a structure to it. Sometimes when I watch the Central Saint Martins internal shows, I think it’s a bit like going to church in the 19th century. You’ve got to be very impassive; you can’t make a bad face if you don’t like something and you’ve got to stay awake and watch it. So I think there is a discipline to a fashion show that’s similar to going to church. Not that I’ve ever really done that.

In the 18th century if you had your hands in your pockets it was considered really disgusting and sexual and in the 19th century it was considered working class. In the 20th century it had a chic and modern feel.

DD: Last season, some people were still sketching at shows...

Caroline Evans: That’s interesting. During the early 1900s, you weren’t allowed to sketch in the shows. You would be thrown out. 

DD: Really, why?

Caroline Evans: Because they were absolutely terrified about copyright. When I was in New York three weeks ago I was looking at knock-offs, which are basically made from these unauthorised sketches. I think one of my favourite bits from my research was finding out about fashion pirates.

DD: What are fashion pirates?

Caroline Evans: It’s really intriguing, actually. There was an American designer called Elizabeth Hawes, who was college-educated, but when she left America in 1925 she went to work in Paris pretty much as a pirate. She wrote this great book called Fashion is Spinach (1938) with these wonderful descriptions of trying to steal designs from Chanel and Jean Patou. She said the people at Chanel were definitely the scariest, and that the saleswoman had an icy stare. Fashion pirates had to look inconspicuous and have a system of notations that wasn’t drawing – she wrote that at Chanel if you were seen writing or drawing too much an arm would come over your shoulder, snatch your book away and that was it. 

Also, there was a lot of anti-German prejudice. After the war everyone was particularly against the Germans because they said they operated in teams, which is really interesting. So one person would do the sleeves, one person would do the bodices, one would do skirts and another the fabrics. What you had to cultivate as a pirate was a really good visual memory, and she writes about how you would have to rush off home to sketch something up. I only found one picture of a fashion pirate in 1925 in America.

DD: What else interests you about the early development of fashion shows?

Caroline Evans: Well, western fashion is about 800 years old and the fashion show, within that timespan, is relatively new. It’s about 120 years old. I was trying to think about why fashion shows began then. Even though it looked very Edwardian, what really interested me was the way it was prone to modernism, so it was lining up bodies to make them look identical with a kind of industrial aesthetic. I suppose I was intrigued by all of that.

DD: There's an interesting section in the book about visual seduction and the role of 'mannequins', early fashion models.

Caroline Evans: Yes, they were really glamorous but they were not respectable during this period. Jean Patou went off to America and advertised for American models in 1925 and took them off to Paris. It was a big publicity stunt that in a way paid off for him, because a year or two later one of his American models married an American millionaire in Paris and there was huge press about it. It was not a period where models were marrying out of their class and a lot of them were kept women because they were really badly paid – they couldn’t actually live without being kept by men. It was an ambivalent status because it was very alluring, it seemed very modern, but it was definitely not respectable. 

DD: You also explore the evolution of the audience... 

Caroline Evans: Yes, I got really fascinated with the idea of the audience. You know, there used to be all this academic orthodox about looking and the male gaze – but it just doesn’t make any sense. Especially when you see a picture of a female buyer from the 1950s, who is in her late 50s, slightly overweight, and she’d be looking at this beautiful woman with an amazingly calculating gaze because it’s a commercial look. She’s got to make the right purchases and her whole job depends on it.

Fashion pirates had to look inconspicuous and have a system of notations that wasn’t drawing – she wrote that at Chanel if you were seen writing or drawing too much an arm would come over your shoulder, snatch your book away and that was it.

DD: How did the walk evolve?

Caroline Evans: At the beginning of the century it was much more upright. It was partly related to underwear and partly to the design of skirts. Legs later became much more visible, as did the body, so that’s when I think the walk started to change. It was tied into the idea that if you lost the corset you’d get a different bodily stance. There were ideas about being modern, slouching and relaxed. In the 18th century if you had your hands in your pockets it was considered really disgusting and sexual and in the 19th century it was considered working class, which middle-class people didn’t want to look like, but in the 20th century it had a chic and modern feel. You know, it was actually quite a modern idea that the same gesture can mean something different at different times, so you can’t say it was just a functional thing caused by the decline of the corset or the change in the skirt. People also brought in their ideas about class and being
modern as well. 

DD: Do you think that there’s a newfound interest in the history of fashion, that wasn’t apparent a decade ago?

Caroline Evans: When I wrote Fashion at the Edge (2007) there were about five books on fashion, and now they’re just everywhere. Now they’re coming together much more, but I wonder if it’s in some way connected to what you were talking about earlier – that there’s such a differentiation of digital media, so that fashion is now image, digital and communication. Another thing that I’ve noticed recently is that fashion people haven’t kept their own archives. Places like Chanel are building their archives now and they’re having to buy stuff in. I suppose it’s a branding thing too – they’re understanding the commercial value of their own heritage.

The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900–1929 is out now, published by Yale 

More Fashion Week