Abigail Field Brings Early 1900’s Female Fashion to Life

            On September 8, as part of the Mattapoisett Museum’s Annual Meeting, Abigail Field gave a presentation on the ever-changing world of female fashion with a focus on the decade between 1910 and 1920. Field, dressed in vintage clothing, including a corset she confessed to wearing, was an authentic representation of that classic image of womanhood from 1914.

            Field, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth studying history, has researched fashion trends over the centuries. During this presentation she noted that one fashion great, Paul Poiret, designed women’s clothing that allowed the woman to dispense with wearing a corset. “However,” Field said, “don’t be fooled. The corset became the girdle.”

            During and right after WWI, due to the ravages of war, France lost its hold on the fashion industry. The U.S. quickly filled the breach. As more and more women were needed in jobs outside the home, clothing needed to adapt to women’s changing roles in society.

            Field pointed to occupations women were doing, occupations that required a uniform, such as nursing or driving. Some jobs even saw women wearing pants! Field said that this trend towards militaristic fashions was a direct influence of war and infiltrated into clothing designs that had nothing to do with military service. “It was believed to be patriotic,” she said.

            According to Field, during this decade the evening gown became a canvass for fine art leading to fabrics and embellishments that were stunning in evening lighting. Early and mid-1900’s fashion designs were also borrowed from Russian peasant clothing. Tunics became a trend worn over long skirts, and Field said, “The silhouette of the Edwardian age gave way to slim skirts that fell to the top of shoes.”

            One of the most famous fashion mavens of the 19thand 20thcenturies was Charles Frederick Worth, Field stated. His contributions included turning the creation of clothing into an industry while also transforming women’s clothing for better comfort.

            Field discussed the wearing of mourning jewelry, pieces of wearable art often woven from the hair of a deceased loved one or containing the hair of someone who had passed away. Such keepsakes had for many decades been a common highly acceptable practice. Highlighting this point, she wore a black and silver necklace as part of her ensemble. It, however, did not contain hair.

            On the subject of mourning clothing, Field said that during this period of time people began to turn away from black for the purpose of demonstrating grief and began wearing white, as Field explained, “To quell the anxiety brought on by war.” To feed this new fashion trend, the U.S. became a primary exporter of cotton to the European markets.

            When asked if she thought the suffragette movement had an impact on fashion, Field’s response was no. While women were generally migrating towards clothing that didn’t inhibit physical movement the way large-layered Victorian and Edwardian clothing had, the quest for voting rights was not a factor in her estimation. Field does feel strongly, however, about the role of men versus women in the fashion industry, an industry she says is dominated by men. “If men make clothing, they are designers. If I embroider fabric, I’m a crafter – it’s not fair,” she stated. “It an all-boys club.” 

            Field is clearly in command of her subject matter. She also exudes a celebratory feeling towards clothing and the entwined history of societal conventions and fashions. She is clearly in her element when it comes to historical fashion. Her enlightened approach to the world of fashion is a fresh take on how the female form has been adorned since the earliest days of the houses of couture. You’ll have a chance to hear more when Field returns to the museum in October when she will continue her discussion of women’s clothing and the fashion industry. Visit www.mattapoisettmuseum.org for further details.

By Marilou Newell

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