Several weeks ago I posted about how in the early decades of the 20th century, designers were very much influenced by the Orient. When the decade of the 1920s started, the world had just been through some very rough times. Europe had been left devastated by WWI, and soon after, the world was in the grip of a horrible flu epidemic. Fashion was understandably somber through this period. But when the world started to return to a more normal existence, exotic fashion blossomed.
Although Egyptian themes had already been popular due to an Egyptian exhibit at the Louvre in 1911, the biggest craze for Egyptian-inspired fashion began in 1922. That was when Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the kings. The photographs of artifacts found in the tomb had a vast impact on fashion and popular culture as hieroglyphics and designs such as scarabs and lotus flowers became common motifs for clothing, accessories and jewelry.
These motifs were a great fit with the Art Deco style, which placed an emphasis on geometric shapes and stylized shapes from nature.
There were lots of other ethnic influences in the 1920s, perhaps brought about by a world becoming “smaller” due to improvements in transportation and mass communication. Middle and upper class people were traveling to Europe and Asia, and bringing home folk costumes as souvenirs.
These became so popular that they were imported for sale into the United States, and needlecraft companies published how-to books so women could make their own “authentic” European needlework. There was also a continuing fascination with the Ballet Russes and other performing groups that dressed in European folk fashion.
It’s also likely that world events played a role, with the ending of the Russian Revolution and the death of Lenin drawing attention to Russia, the rise of Ghandi and the Indian independence movement drawing attention to India, and the Turkish War of Independence drawing attention to Turkey and Eastern Europe. China was often in the news, with the death of Sun Yat-sen and the rise to power of Chiang Kai-shek.
Orientalism could be seen throughout the decade in both fabric design and in the shape of garments. A craze for kimonos led not only to the shape being used in women’s coats and loungewear, but also determined the motifs used in fabric design, especially that of chrysanthemum flowers. Lightweight kimono-shaped dressing robes became the robe of the 1920s, as seen in magazine photos and silent movies as well as in mass marketing catalogues.
Firms such as Liberty of London and Babani of Paris led the way with Oriental-styled textiles. There were also companies such as the Pohoomull Brothers of India who exported Oriental textiles to the West, and even set up shops in areas where tourists would be shopping. The coat above was bought in Egypt by a tourist from Pennsylvania. But it isn’t Egyptian in origin; it’s Indian Shisha mirror work. The world had indeed become a multiculturally fashionable place!