“Fame, Fashion, and Fiction: Dress and the Bright Young People in Interwar Literature”, Charlotte Nicklas, compte-rendu journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012

Fame, Fashion, and Fiction: Dress and the Bright Young People in Interwar Literature

by Charlotte Nicklas, University of Brighton

In London between the wars, the escapades of the ‘bright young people’ amused, titillated, and shocked contemporary society. Authors of gossip columns and magazine articles delighted in describing these men and women as they dined, drank, and danced. Notorious for their outrageous fancy dress parties and elaborate practical jokes, this gilded youth was constantly in the public eye.

Social historians, particularly D. J. Taylor, have discussed the bright young people in recent publications, paying special attention to their newsworthy antics and their challenging of contemporary societal norms. The dress of these men and women has received less scholarly attention and this paper will begin to address that absence.

Newspaper reports and magazine features often included detailed descriptions, as well as images, of the dress of the bright young people. These sources will be discussed, but the primary resource used in this paper will be a set of novels about, and in many cases by, these individuals. For both literary and financial reasons, some of their number increased the publicity already enjoyed by publishing works of fiction that were often not far from the truth.

In their representation of dress in the social and cultural context of the world of the bright young people, these novels provide a valuable source to explore the uses and meanings of dress for a particularly visible group. This paper will focus primarily on three novels: Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924), Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), and Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931). It will examine fashion leadership, social and private life, social class, and generational conflict through discussions of dress. This research adds to a growing body of scholarly work investigating dress and fashion in fiction (Aindow 2010, Hughes 2006, Koppen 2009, Kortsch 2009, McNeil et. al. 2009).

As in newspaper and magazine reports, individuals characterized as bright young people were often praised for their fashionable clothes and their leadership in fashion. All three authors present ‘chic’ as a desirable goal for female characters. Although rarely defined with precision, chic sets these women apart from their contemporaries and, for the authors, helps to define their characters.

The daily details of dressing and undressing, as discussed in these novels, provide insight into the work that clothing did in the social lives of the bright young people. From private shooting parties to public restaurants, dress allows these men and women to conform or rebel. By choosing appropriate or inappropriate clothing, the characters expose and sometimes challenge social convention.

Many of the bright young people were members of distinguished, even aristocratic, families and others were from middle-class backgrounds. Their social positions, however, did not necessarily guarantee that they were financially able to clothe themselves in the way they wished. In their references to dress, Arlen, Mitford, and Waugh explore the tensions within and between social classes, as well as the mismatch between position and income.

These authors also explore generational conflict through dress. The significant changes in fashion after the First World War, especially the youthfulness and loosened silhouette, firmly demarcated this era from pre-war Edwardian formality. For the young characters in these novels, dress is a visible way in which they define themselves against the tradition and stuffiness of their parents’ generation. This self-definition comprises part of a larger effort of identity formation in the wake of the social and political cataclysm of the war.


-Aindow, Rosy. Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

-Arlen, Michael. The Green Hat. 1924. London: Capuchin Classics, 2008. Print.

-Beard, Madeleine. English Society in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

-Breward, Christopher. Fashioning London: Clothing and the Modern Metropolis. Oxford: Berg, 2004. Print.

-Breward, Christopher, Evans, Caroline, and Ehrman, Edwina. The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

-Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

– ———. The Decline and Fall of the English Aristocracy. London: Yale, 1990. Print.

-de la Haye, Amy, and Mendes, Valerie. 20th Century Fashion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Print.

-Graves, Robert, and Hodge, Alan. The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939. 1941. London: Cardinal, 1991. Print.

-Hughes, Clair. Dressed in Fiction. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2006. Print.

-Koppen, Randi S. Virginia Woolf, Fashion and Literary Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Print.

-Kortsch, Christine Bayles. Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

-McNeil, Peter, Karaminas, Vicki, and Cole, Catherine, eds. Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film, and Television. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2009. Print.

-Mitford, Nancy. Highland Fling. 1931. Feltham: Hamlyn, 1983. Print.

-Mowat, Charles Lock. Britain between the Wars: 1918-1940. London: Methuen, 1955. Print.

-Owen, Elizabeth. Fashion in Photographs, 1920-1940. London: Batsford, 1993. Print.

-Pringle, Margaret. Dance Little Ladies. London: Orbis, 1977. Print.

-Pugh, Martin. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.

-Scott, John. The Upper Classes: Poverty and Privilege in Britain. London: Macmillan, 1982. Print.

-Stevenson, John. British Society 1914-1945. London: Lane, 1984. Print.

-Taylor, D. J. Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation: 1918-1940. London: Vintage, 2007. Print.

-Waugh, Evelyn. Vile Bodies. 1930. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.

-Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Rev ed. London: IB Tauris, 2005. Print.


“A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930’s London.”, Cheryl Roberts, compte-rendu journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012

A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930’s London.

by Cheryl Roberts, PhD research, University of Brighton

This interdisciplinary material culture analysis, ‘A Price for Fashion: A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930s London’ will investigate the design, manufacture, retailing and consumption of fashion for a working class woman in the 1930s. This paper will explore a young working class woman’s fashion interests and purchasing power probing the influences of issues such as modernity, peer group cohesion, leisure and related dress, along with the reactions of their parents and peers. As Todd notes, ‘as rising numbers of young women worked in larger factories, shops and offices, so workplaces increasingly became a venue for friendship and for disseminating information on fashion and appearance.’ In the context of work, income, family and gender expectations, this study will thus explore the life, work and aspirations of a young working class woman in the 1930s through the contents of her wardrobe.

Key Themes: Three key themes will be acceptability, accessibility and affordability. Accessibility will discover the influences on a young working-class woman in her purchasing choices with reflection on magazines; cinema; mass manufacture and ready-to-wear; peers and parents. Affordability of fashion will research where the young working-class woman of London in the 1930s would have been purchasing her clothing by investigating high street retail; mail order catalogues; the tallyman; the pawn shop; markets; home-dressmaking and the power of window shopping. The final key theme, acceptability, unravels where a young working-class woman in London would have worn the clothing in her wardrobe, be it to work in the office, the factory or in the retail sector; for leisure activities, such as dance halls or sport; and to church.

Research Methodology: Written testimony at The Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which records British social history in public surveys from the 1930s onwards, will be explored along with editorials and advertisements from period magazines such as Mabs, Home Chat, Picture Post and the Picturegoer. Documentary photography from pioneers Humphrey Spender and Edith Tudor Hart along with amateur photographs will be closely assessed. Film analysis will explore both the influence of the cinema visit and amateur film footage will be applied as a tool into researching material culture. Object-based study closely assess surviving dress in collections at Worthing Museum, Walsall Museum and the University of Brighton Teaching collection.

Critical Debate: In the interwar years a young woman’s role and status within the working class household underwent significant change. As Selina Todd writes, ‘The rise in the working-class standard of living from the mid-1930s is frequently viewed as diminishing the importance of young wage-earners into the family economy, but their earnings were in fact largely responsible for the increase in working-class leisure and luxury consumption.’ The impact of growing new media such as magazines and the influence of the cinema may have reflected in the aspirations of a young working-class woman, with the affects becoming apparent in her fashion choices. Paris fashions were still reported to be a consideration yet so were opinions closer to home. The growth of the synthetic textile industry and light-weight ready-to-wear women’s apparel retailers contributed to the accessibility and affordability of a young woman’s clothing, However, the Mass Observation archive reveals that for many young working-class women the contents of their wardrobe was symbolic of their social position; ‘I look in shop windows and discuss my choice with the family before making the purchase. These are two of many similar responses to the Clothing and Personal Appearance directive, that reveal for many young working-class women, their selection of garments was dictated by the fear of not being accepted amongst peers and relatives and to the detriment of her respectability.

“There is in England …no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.’”. Fashion Education in Paris and London in the twenties and thirties”, Marie McLoughin, compte-rendu journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012

“There is in England …no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.’”(Hodgkin 1932). Fashion Education in Paris and London in the twenties and thirties.”

by Dr. MARIE McLOUGHLIN, University of Brighton 

1930 was an important year for fashion education. In September of that year the École Superièure de la Couture, the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture  was opened.[1] A few months later the Royal College of Art in London awarded its first diploma in fashion design to a young woman, Muriel Pemberton, who was to go on, in 1931, to lay the foundations for the Fashion Department at St Martin’s School of Art, which is still the one of the largest and most successful Fashion Schools in the world.

This paper will examine and compare the various ways a prospective fashion designer in the 1930s could learn the trade. It will look at the curriculum of the Chambre Syndicale as set out in a 1931 prospectus held in the Brighton design archive; the RCA curriculum written by Pemberton who graduated in 1931, a curriculum she later introduced at St Martin’s; The various private schools advertised in Vogue at that time, one of which Pemberton attended; and the review of all fashion education in London produced by the British Board of Education in 1936. All of this will be compared with the traditional apprenticeship in fashion design, undertaken in the 1930s by that Parisian Englishman Charles Creed, whose family had had a couture house in both Paris and London since the nineteenth century.

London County Council had funded trade schools from the beginning of the twentieth century. These specialist schools, usually found in working class areas, took children from 13+ and taught them the skills needed for the workshop or workroom; For boys furniture or the leather trades and for girls dressmaking, embroidery, millinery or similar trades. There was no college funded by the industry itself, as in France. Before 1930 designers would have come either from within the industry, like Creed, or from the middle and upper classes, like Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, and Hartnell, one of a group of Cambridge aesthetes which included Cecil Beaton. All were people of ‘taste’ and their friends and peers were also their customers. There was no possibility of making the transition from the trade school, via the workroom, to the design studio.

Local art schools also took children from 13 but, unlike trade schools, they also had classes for older children and exceptional students could gain a scholarship at 18 to the ‘National’ school, the Royal College of Art in London. Here social mobility was a real possibility. When Pemberton got there in 1927, a graduate of the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem, part of Britain’s industrial heartland, it had talented students from all over the country irrespective of class or wealth. However it did not teach fashion design. This paper will discuss how she was able to change this, forging links with such upper class strongholds as court dressmaker, Reville and Rositer and the private fashion academy of Katinka, whose principal had trained with Lelong.

This paper will look at the similarities of Pemberton’s RCA, and subsequent St Martin’s, curriculum of drawing, cutting and historical studies and compare it to that outlined in the prospectus of the École Superièure de la Couture in Paris. The education that Charles Creed undertook before he was allowed to design for the family firm, one which took him to Vienna and New York, provides a fascinating counterpoint to these early exercises in fashion education.

[1] This is the date given in an English report written in the 1940s. The website of the École Superièure de la Couture cites 1927 as the date of its creation.



Ashwin, Clive. Art Education. Documents and Policies 1768-1975. London: Society for Research into Higher Education, 1975.

Bell, Quentin. The Schools of Design. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1963.

Breward, Christopher, Edwina Ehrman, and Caroline Evans. The London Look : Fashion from Street to Catwalk  London, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Creed, Charles. Maid to Measure.London: Jarrolds, 1961.

Hodgkin, Eliot. Fashion Drawing. London: Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1932.

Reynolds, Helen. Couture or Trade. An Early Pictorial Record of the London College of Fashion. London: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. Copyright London Institute 1997.

Journal Articles, magazines and newspapers

Grosvenor, Ian. “ ‘The Art of Seeing’: Promoting Design in Education in 1930s England.” Paedagogica Historica Vol. 41, Nos 4 & 5, August 2005. Pp 507-534.

UK Vogue 1920s-1930s


Brighton Design Archive

Box 78: File 357. Training, miscellaneous. Contains the 1931 syllabus of École Superièure de la Couture, the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. The school opened on 15th September 1930.

Central St Martin’s (Museum) Archive


St Martin’s School of Art, Committee of Managers Minute Book 1922-1937

The National Archive. Kew                                                                                        

Board of Trade papers.

BT 57/13/218

Dress Committee 1938. Council for Art and Industry. This file contains a copy of the report together with the evidence assembled in its preparation. There is also a (rare) copy in the University of Brighton Design Archive.

BT 57/15/259

Includes Discussion on Dress Design. Some discussion, pre 1938, following letter from Lennox Lee Calico printers in response to suggestion from Frank Pick at CoAI, on inviting designers from Paris to set up businesses in the UK.

Board of Education papers.

ED 46/151

This file contains a response to the proposed Board of Trade Report on the Dress Industry.

It has a review of all London art school classes for designers and all trade school classes for workroom hands.

Board of Education minute dated 23rd May 1936. The subsequent Board of Education Report was dated 29th June 1936.

RCA Library

Cunliffe-Charlesworth, Hilary. “The RCA: Its Influence in Education, Art and Design 1900-1950.” Unpublished PhD Thesis. Royal College of Art, 1991.

« Des sociétés d’échantillonnage établies à Paris participent de la fabrication des tendances de mode durant l’entre-deux-guerres » Thierry Maillet, Compte-rendu journée d’étude 15 juin 2012

THIERRY MAILLET – doctorant, maître de conférence Institut d’Études Politiques

« Des sociétés d’échantillonnage établies à Paris participent de la fabrication des tendances de mode durant l’entre-deux-guerres »


« En 1840, Monsieur Bilbille allait de Paris à Leipzig en passant par Mulhouse et Saint-Gall et à chaque fois il vendait et achetait des échantillons de tissus. »

 Au XIXe siècle, le commerce indépendant d’échantillons de tissus a commencé à s’organiser entre Paris, réceptacle et émettrice des modes, les villes de production, Mulhouse et Saint-Gall et la principale ville de foire est-européenne, Leipzig. Un siècle plus tard une économie de l’échantillonnage s’est développée : Paris est son centre (son antre pourrions nous-dire), les acteurs restent peu nombreux mais toujours aussi peu connus des historiens qu’ils le furent de leurs contemporains.

La première société d’échantillonnage, Jean Claude Frères a été fondée par un nommé Jean Claude. Vosgien d’origine il est dessinateur textile à Paris et il répond à des commandes d’un fabricant alsacien : lui adresser des échantillons de nouveautés qu’il sélectionne à Paris. De nouveaux acteurs vont s’établir durant le XIXe siècle et au lendemain de la première guerre mondiale nous connaissons quatre maisons : Jean Claude Frères, Bilbille, la Société des Nouveautés Textiles, Homo & Cie (Héritiers de Gerlioz). Leur activité est d’adresser à une fréquence régulière des échantillons de tissus, classés par catégorie de produits (laine, coton, zéphyr, soie, cravates). Si nous disposons de peu d’informations sur leurs conditions de travail nous savons qu’elles étaient toutes établies dans les quartiers centraux parisiens pour être à proximité des magasins de dépôt des fabricants provinciaux, des grossistes parisiens (rue du IV septembre) voire des couturiers. Leurs caractéristiques sont communes : elles ont toutes été fondées par des hommes, ce sont des petites structures indépendantes et elles n’ont pas cherché à se rapprocher pour atteindre taille critique et économie d’échelle.

A partir des années 1920 ces entreprises sont contemporaines de deux journalistes américaines installées à Paris qui envoyaient des informations sur la mode ou la couleur à leurs clients d’outre-Atlantique (Blaszczyk, 2007, p. 23, Stewart, 2008, p.112). A partir de 1931 l’activité évolue dans trois directions : le contenu s’enrichit de commentaires, la création esthétique est recherchée et enfin de nouveaux acteurs arrivent. Des commentaires prédictifs en quatre langues (français, anglais, allemand, espagnol) sont joints aux échantillons.

« Les idées généralement admises comme devant inspirer la mode de l’été prochain se ressentent toutes du changement se préparant dans la forme des robes souples qui vont s’élargissant vers la jupe cloche, et nécessiteront ainsi l’emploi de tissus souples et légers (…) » (Livre d’échantillon Q, Fonds Archive Carlin International).

Le livre d’échantillon devient le support de créations élaborées inspirées par des expositions artistiques. (Textile-Argus en 1935).  Enfin le fils d’une famille de soyeux lyonnais s’établit à Paris où il développe à partir de 1937 une activité de conseil en création textile (Maillet, 2009). A la veille de la seconde guerre mondiale une activité de conseil en style a émergé à Paris. Si ses acteurs n’en n’ont pas le nom (Bureau de Style) ils ont posé les bases de ce qui sera une importante contribution future à l’émergence du prêt-à-porter

Programme journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012, « Femme et mode dans l’entre-deux-guerres: regards croisés franco-anglais » de 9h à 17h30, IHTP

Le 15 juin 2012, comme nous vous l’avions annoncé, le séminaire sur l’histoire de la mode de l’Institut du temps présent organise une journée d’étude franco-anglaise « Femme et mode dans l’entre-deux-guerres » de 9h à 17h30.

Cette journée entend porter un regard croisé sur cette période particulière dans l’histoire des femmes et de la mode, marquée durablement de l’empreinte de la Première Guerre mondiale. En effet, le conflit imprime une double rupture sociale et familiale qui retentit sur le comportement des masses. Tandis que les hommes sont les premiers à subir  le traumatisme de la guerre au front, les femmes délaissent l’espace privé pour envahir l’espace  public en raison de leurs nouvelles responsabilités. Par leurs vêtements, elles acquièrent un autre statut et se « masculinisent ». Chefs de famille elles sont partout, deviennent ouvrières d’usines, munitionnettes, infirmières ou chefs d’exploitations agricoles. Bousculée par les changements intervenus dès le début du conflit et les nouvelles contraintes liées (travail des femmes, pénurie de tissus, vie chère), la mode féminine se simplifie devient pratique et rationnelle.

Dès novembre 1918, les femmes sont priées de reprendre la fonction qu’elles occupaient avant-guerre. Le repeuplement de la France est une priorité. L’image prépondérante véhiculée par les journaux féminins de l’époque est celle de la mère au foyer. L’émancipation féminine s’exprime, seule, à travers la mode. La période de l’entre-deux-guerres voit ainsi apparaître la figure de la garçonne qui contribue grandement à redéfinir la question de la beauté. Elle implique aussi un style de vie entièrement nouveau et conduit les femmes à appréhender autrement leur corps.

La journée s’interrogera sur cette période en questionnant à la fois les dispositifs de création et de représentations des modes du point de vue français et anglais. Concernant la création de mode, nous aborderons notamment le travail des couturiers Norman Hartnell et Madeleine Vionnet, et nous nous poserons aussi des questions plus spécifiques sur les modalités de fabrication des tendances et sur l’apparition des écoles de création de mode telles que la Chambre syndicale de la couture notamment. La notion de représentation sera, quant à elle, appréhendée à travers les questions du corps, des textiles et de la presse féminine principalement.

 Programme de la journée

 9h: accueil des participants

Session du matin 

9h30: Introduction de la journée par Dominique Veillon, Directrice de recherche au CNRS

 9h40-10h: JENNY ROBERTS – MA dissertation

« Ghosts of Garments Past; a biography of the Trousered Uniform of the Munition Women Workers during World War I»

10h05-10h25: SOPHIE KURKDJIAN – doctorante, chercheuse associée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France

« De la gazette au magazine de mode : approche de la nouvelle féminité dite « moderne » de l’entre-deux-guerres à travers le prisme de l’évolution des journaux de mode de luxe»


 10h40-11h: SOPHIE COURET – doctorante, fondation Yves Saint Laurent

« Corps, matières, volumes au début des années trente »

11h05-11h25: FLORENCE BRACHET-CHAMPSAUR – doctorante, responsable des archives et du patrimoine du groupe Galeries Lafayette

« Madeleine Vionnet et les Galeries Lafayette. Le mariage improbable d’une maison de couture française et d’un grand magasin parisien, 1922-1939

11h30-11h50: JANE HATTRICK- PhD research

I simply refuse to make the very short skirt”: from the Romantic robe de style to the Victorian revival, the fashion design work of the London couturier Norman Hartnell, 1921-1939”

 12h-12h30: discussion

 12h30-14h: Déjeuner

 Session de l’après-midi

14h-14h20: THIERRY MAILLET – doctorant, maître de conférence Institut d’Études Politiques

« Des sociétés d’échantillonnage établies à Paris participent de la fabrication des tendances de mode durant l’entre-deux-guerres »

 14h25-14h45: Dr. MARIE McLOUGHLIN 

“There is in England …no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.’”(Hodgkin 1932). Fashion Education in Paris and London in the twenties and thirties.”


 14h55-15h15: CHERYL ROBERTS – PhD research

“A Price for Fashion? A Young Working Class Woman’s Wardrobe in 1930s London”

 15h20-15h40: Dr. CHARLOTTE NICKLAS

“Fame, Fashion, and Fiction: Dress and the Bright Young People in Interwar Novels”

 15h45-16h05: FARID CHENOUNE – historien de la mode

“La Mode rêvée” de Marcel l’Herbier

 16h10-16h30 : discussion

 16h30: Conclusion de la journée par par Lou Taylor, Professor, University of Brighton

En raison du nombre limité de places disponibles, il est recommandé de vous inscrire en envoyant un mail à : seminairehistoiredemode@gmail.com

 Informations pratiques :

 Institut d’histoire du temps présent

59/61 Rue Pouchet, 75017 Paris

Métro ligne 13 (Brochant ou Guy Môquet)

Bus 66 (arrêt Jonquière)


Coordination scientifique:

Sophie Kurkdjian et Eléonore Testa

Contacts :