February 5, 2011

Ladies' jackets in history, part 1

After all the posts about the jacket I want to make, I thought I'd try and put the garment in its rightful place in fashion history.

My dictionary (the Oxford guide to the English language, to be precise) defines a 'jacket' as 'a short coat usually reaching to the hips; outer covering'.
Going by that definition (which seems true enough anyway. Although, now that I think about it, it would, to me, also have made sense to make a distinction between jackets and coats in terms of thickness) jacket for men have been around since the late Middle Ages. And indeed, most fashion histories will describe it that way. The men's jacket we still know today has changed surprisingly little since the Victorian era. The jackets which became wardrobe staples back then, were, in themselves, merely much more sober versions of coats and jackets which had been around for much longer.

I don't think it would come as a surprise to anyone that jackets entered the lady's wardrobe as practical pieces 'borrowed' from menswear. Mostly, these were for riding or travelling.

Interestingly, women would have these items made by male tailors, who, after all, specialised in making this kind of item, while their dresses were made by female dressmakers. This distinction, although without its clear-cut gender separation, continues until this day in the workshops of traditional couture houses where the 'ateliers' are divided into 'flou' (=dressmaking) and 'tailleur' (=tailoring).

Victorian fashion sometimes flirted with elements borrowed from menswear and the separation of bodice and skirt in fashionable dress must have made this easier. Edwardian fashion pushed this a little further, with some ladies wearing actual dark suits with shirts and stock collars as day wear. However, the silhouet remained highly feminine until after the First World War.

The roaring twenties brought a new kind of woman. A woman who wasn't afraid to show her legs, to smoke, to laugh in public and who was, in many countries, now getting more rights as in individual and a citizen. She didn't just wear flapper dresses. She would also wear suits, though still with skirts.

Just look at the lady in the center of this picture.
Doesn't that look a lot like a smoking?

The 1930's with their return to a more traditional feminine silhouet, saw another kind of ladies' suit become a daywear staple. Just look at the lady on the right: it's a suit but it has a defined waist and a long sleek skirt.

At the same time, this lady shocked many with this her look.

This is Marlene Dietrich. Of course, she's famous for wearing suits. This is a typical men's style, clearly tailored to fit her perfectly. The funny thing is, I knew the story better than the picture. When I was looking for pictures for this post, and came across this one, it surprised me how much woman this lady was. I guess (even though I'm not that interested in the whole celebrity-culture and I work with real women's sizes and shapes) I'm so used to the view of super-skinny celebrities that I subconsciously assumed that this movie-star in her suit would look more like the woman in the Helmut Newton picture.
I really like Dietrich's suit. What I hope to make in the coming weeks should end up looking pretty much like it. I believe it's still a timeless piece, even after 80 years.

I think this is a good point to end this post. I'll be back later with the jackets of the 1940's and onwards.

I hope to make some progress on my jacket this weekend, but I'm not sure I'll have the time for it. I've had a nasty cold all week and I've been very busy with work.


  1. I'm not sure whether this is a proper distinction; but I've always thought of jackets as being about hip length, or shorter (as described in the definition), and coats as being longer, anything from hip length to floor length really.

    Very interesting post, thank you for researching this so thoroughly!

  2. Hi Lauriana!
    Are you still interested in making gloves? I put something on my blog today, to see if anyone else wanted to join us, perhaps we could start in a few weeks? How is your schedule looking, and when would you have time to start a project like this?

  3. I love these fashion history lessons!

    I HOPE you end up making Dietrich's suit. It's classy and totally timeless.

  4. Hmmm...as a matter of fact. Jacket started way from the 13th century and derives from the French word "Jaquette". Dig in further into the history of fashion and you'll see the changes ^^