The Genteel
March 2, 2021


Illustrations from early 20th-century French fashion magazine, Journal des Dames et des Modes, feature in a new exhibition at Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library. © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library.

Vogue is widely considered to be today's international style bible; yet a century ago, that was not the case among the elite of Paris, who lacked their own version until 1920. Instead, in the early 1910s, as the Belle Époque was coming to a close, well-to-do citizens in the City of Light turned to the Journal des Dames et des Modes: a high-quality, exclusive and limited-edition magazine that showcased the fashion of the day while also providing a lifestyle guide in each of its issues.

Now, Dublin's Chester Beatty Library is paying homage to the short-lived but influential magazine with the special exhibition Costumes Parisiens, Fashion Plates from 1912-1914, on display through until the end of March 2014.

The special exhibition demonstrates that upper-class women were required to follow specific rules of dressing, with outfits for every different occasion. Here, artist George Barbier presents the magazine’s readers with an evening gown in his illustration entitled “Grande robe du soir en brocart d'argent.” © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library.

George Barbier's evening gown illustration
entitled "Grande robe du soir en brocart
d'argent". © The Trustees of the
Chester Beatty Library.

The institution, which houses the private collection of the American-born mining magnate of the same name, organised the exhibition in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of the Journal des Dames. The magazine, which took its name from an earlier journal, published 79 issues between 1912 and 1914, before it was discontinued at the outbreak of World War I.

During its brief lifespan, the Journal des Dames catered to Paris' upper class, printing 1,250 copies of each edition - a small number when compared with the tens of thousands being circulated by American Vogue at the time, noted Costumes Parisiens curator Dr. Jill Unkel when speaking with The Genteel.

The Journal des Dames presented a lifestyle - one which Unkel says is "of really the upper echelons" - and disseminated trends, with a mixture of articles, advertisements and fashion illustrations in every issue. Unlike its mass-produced counterpart in the United States, however, the Journal des Dames was a subscription-only publication printed on handmade paper and featuring limited-edition illustrations as inserts.

Now 127 of these 175mm by 110mm artworks hang in frames on the walls of the Chester Beatty Library's special exhibition room. Entering the space, visitors are immediately struck by the contrast with the permanent exhibition areas, which feature dark walls and dim lighting to protect Beatty's international collection of rare books, manuscripts, scrolls and calligraphy.

Related: Fashion Illustration is Making a Comeback

The single room housing Costumes Parisiens, however, is modern and inviting, with its walls painted in a grey-purple tone with pale pink accents to create a "subtle and quite feminine" atmosphere, according to Unkel. In the middle of the room, black-and-white French Pathé archive footage dances on a screen, while next to it sits a rectangular display of late 19th- and early 20th-century costumes borrowed from the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

Little did they know then that their sacred tradition of finding inspiration and aspiration for one's style and lifestyle in the pages of a magazine would live on long after their beloved fashion bible, the Journal des Dames, printed its final issue.

The illustrations are the main feature of the exhibition. Among them, visitors can view trends that have since changed, like a one-piece, thigh-length bathing costume, as well as those that could arguably have been taken from today's red carpets, such as a draping, gold evening gown with a revealing neckline and cinched waist. Together, the diverse illustrations communicate the trends and conventions of the period, when women's fashion was changing drastically.

"It's a really key era in fashion," Unkel explains. "In terms of what the dresses look like, it is a real change. There's a huge influence coming in with the arrival of the Ballets Russes [in Paris], and the oriental styles really impact the fashion world too. You're moving away from that really corseted S-curve of the Edwardian period, of the Gibson girl, with loads of underclothing, and you're moving much more toward the importance of draping."

In addition to documenting this change in the fashion aesthetic and desired female physique, Costumes Parisiens presents the era's conventions for dressing, especially the need to have specific outfits for different occasions. For example, along one wall visitors are exposed to the ankle-length dresses needed for dinner at home, before moving on to extravagant evening gowns, masquerade ball ensembles, sporting gear and even the relatively revealing bathing costumes - all key wardrobe essentials for the fashion-savvy woman.

Mining millionaire Chester Beatty and his family were part of the wealthy, fashion-conscious group that would have adhered to such rules, although they primarily resided in the United States, England and Ireland, rather than in France. "Both his wives [Grace (Ninette) Rickard and Edith Dunn Stone] were absolute fashionistas of their day," Unkel comments. "We have the 1910 expense records for his first wife for the household and it lists all the shops that she went to and the amount of money that she spent. The equivalent would have been unbelievable, something to the effect of €250,000 in today's money on clothes - not including jewellery - for the year."

The Costumes Parisiens exhibit not only presents women’s fashion trends of the time but it also shows off the work of renowned female illustrators, including Gerda Wegener, who created this work “Veste de soie ecossaise,” for the June 1, 1914 issue of the magazine. © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library.

 Renowned female illustrator, Gerda 
Wegener created "Veste de soie ecossaise"
for the 1 June 1914 issue of the magazine. 
© The Trustees of the Chester
Beatty Library.

It's also believed that second wife Edith may have introduced Beatty to the Journal des Dames, as she was a collector herself and, according to Unkel, travelled to Paris to purchase art as well as fashion. It's for this reason that Unkel has featured Edith very prominently in Costumes Parisiens by way of a life-size black-and-white photograph in which she, dressed in a trendy cocoon-style coat, personifies the illustrations that surround her.

Among those fashion plates is the work of some of the greatest illustrators of the day, including George Barbier, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, and female artists Marie-Madeleine Franc-Nohain and Gerda Wegener. Each plate is the product of a very detailed and time-consuming process; the illustrators created their sketches using pen, ink and watercolour, and then engraved the outlines onto a copper plate. Next, skilled printers produced copies of the outlines, while others were responsible for making stencils for the coloured areas. Yet another person was charged with the final task of adding the colour by hand.

Given that many of the magazine's illustrators also worked as designers with Paris' haute couture houses, the resulting plates were always considered to represent real trends, Unkel emphasises. As such, when each issue of the Journal des Dames arrived to its subscribers, they would take inspiration from the illustrations. As Unkel continues, they then used the fashion plates as models for their dressmakers to copy or went out into the streets and shops of Paris to find something similar - or sometimes the exact ensemble - to add to their always-expanding wardrobes.

Little did they know then that their sacred tradition of finding inspiration and aspiration for one's style and lifestyle in the pages of a magazine would live on long after their beloved fashion bible, the Journal des Dames, printed its final issue.

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