KNITWEAR: Chanel to Westwood Exhibition
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Knitwear embraces structure and form, as well as fashioning textile and garment simultaneously. The ‘KNITWEAR: Chanel to Westwood’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textiles Museum demonstrated this, by displaying influential 20th Century designer’s work. The perception of knitwear is said to have been redefined by the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, Zandra Rhodes and Julian Macdonald.
I enjoyed how Sandy Black curated this exhibition, displaying fashionable knitwear chronologically, giving one an incite to inspirational vintage and contemporary knitwear during the 20th century. We were taken from 1920s sportswear and the restrictions of WW1, to Elsa Schiaparelli’s influence on fashion during the 1930s along side Coco Chanel, right through to 1970s Bill Gibb, into the 1980s/1990s designers like the intriguing Vivienne Westwood, finishing with beautifully intricate knitwear produced by Julien Macdonald.
Although the gallery was small and therefore only a certain number of pieces could represent each era, it was displayed elegantly. The pieces were exhibited in small wooden boxes dispersed around the room- each box held its own with a different style of knitwear displayed inside it, presenting information about the designers and what it was like at that time.
Knitted fashion became popular in the 1920s, where young people embraced their new found freedom after the restrictive years of WW1. Knitwear became of high demand for sport, such as; swimming, skiing and tennis as it responded well to the need of movement and fit. Sporting fashion included garments such as; sweaters, swimming costumes, vests and pullovers, which were simple with little or no embellishment. ‘Fair Isle’ sweaters became immensely popular, as the Prince of Wales (later known as Edward VIII) wore these sweaters in public during golf matches in The Fair Isle in Scotland making this design an incredibly desired look.
I enjoyed looking at the sportswear, as I felt that at this period in history it was important for people to carry on with their lives after the devastation of WW1, and sport clearly helped people to do so. The significance of knitwear in this era was essential.
Chanel had a huge influence on the 1920s, producing striped and checkered jersey twinsets inspiring a generation of designers. Although her neutral coloured knitwear grew popular with the designers around that time and still to this day, these garments remain understated classics of the 1920s.
Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian couturier, began to knit sweaters introducing witty touches to serious fashion during the 1930s. Schiaparelli noticed how sweaters lost their shape, quickly creating a ‘sloppy appearance’, resulting in her producing sweaters with a ‘double layered stitch’. This enabled her to produce a jumper with a ‘steady look’. She also incorporated geometric and abstract shapes into her garments, that were said to be inspired by surrealist artists. Schiaparelli secured her fame in the fashion industry by designing a sweater with a white bow placed round the collar, which she had knitted into the sweaters.
Another early exhibit introduced us to the restrictions of WW2 and how women had to be creative during this era. Women would unravel the yarn from old sweaters to make new, original, multi-coloured jumpers using a variety of wool. Knitwear was used as a practical way of recycling materials and producing new clothes.
The first few years after WW2 might be seen as the period of transition. People began to feel more free within fashion, especially during the 1950s, as they didn’t feel as if they had to conform to a certain look. The ‘wandering waistline’ became a phrase most women were familiar with; as some women favoured the tight-fitted Dior dresses, whereas others enjoyed wearing dresses with no waistline- ‘sack dresses’. Therefore a variety of shape and structure to dresses were available at this time allowing women to have the freedom on what to wear.
Clothing from the 1920s also became popular within 1950s fashion, such as; Coco Chanel’s jersey sweater. Chanel also became well-known in the knitwear industry for her 1950s knitted suit; which is now considered a classic. Resurrecting looks from the past, as well as continuing the new found freedom with fashion choices changed people’s outlook on fashion, and innovative and inspiring creations were made. The knitted cardigan featured in the exhibition, carefully placed over a sleeveless white dress. The decorative elements scattered down the lining at the front of the cardigan with beads gave the outfit a glamorous touch.
Here we can see knitwear in the 1920s being of practical use, to knitwear becoming a statement in the 1950s; knitwear had become more elegant and chic as the decades past. The popularity of knitwear was huge during this decade, due to it being favoured by Hollywood stars and worn by famous designers- everyone desired this newly glamorous look.
As the 1950s rolled on, cocktail dresses and silk skirts were later embellished with sequins, lace, rhinestones and beads; knitwear was not only seen on pullovers and sweaters, but dresses and skirts too. One piece that caught my eye was the 1950s, gold, hand knit, Rayon Dress- I thought the sparkle in the gold stitching gave it a subtle and sophisticated touch and the use of different stitching made the dress more decorative. It had a 1920s feel, as the same stitching was used and neckline was incredibly similar.
The mini skirt. The pillbox hat. Le smoking tuxedo. Although knitwear was still popular, the 1960s was about producing innovative ideas. Therefore hemline and pattern were some important aspects of knitwear that sparked the 60s. Embellishment along the neckline became a huge success, when looking at fashion in terms of knitwear. Missoni knitwear also became popular featuring a zigzag coloured print, and Mary Quant’s mini dress ranged in different materials and stitch, including jersey and crocheting.
André Courrèges presented a radical approach to fashion, using fabrics such as gabardine, which was heavy, allowing him to create angular mini dresses and trouser sets. He experimented with shape, often cutting out midriffs in his garments, as well as producing elegant backless dresses worn without a bra. He was said to have introduced the ‘space craze’ to the 1960s.
Along came the 1970s, where styling became tongue-in-cheek and had references to pop art inspired by the likes of Allen Jones, who became famous in the 70s for his ‘Woman-Splash’ and ‘Right Hand Lady’. This period in time was integral for knitwear especially knitted garments designed by Bill Gibb.
Bill Gibb was renowned for his unusual knitted garments, his impact on Vogue and his partner, Kaffe Fassett- an influential textiler at the time. Bill Gibb and Kaffe Fassett worked together to design knitted garments; one of which was made ‘Dress of the Year’ in 1970 by Vogue- ‘Baccarat’. Gibb’s dress was later described as ‘the epitome of the new emerging trend for romantic eclecticism in British fashion design’.
Models approached Gibb and asked to wear his designs, including Twiggy- who later discussed possible historical-inspired garments that she could wear. He created a Hans Holbein inspired dress known as ‘Renaissance’ that she wore to the 1970s Fashion Celebrity Dinner and in 1971 wore another one of his dresses to ‘The Boy Friend’ film première.
Bill Gibb’s designs were popular as the materials he used in knitwear were put together in unexpected but flattering combinations. He manipulated and used materials such as; feather, fur and printed leather, as well as using unusual stitching, including the ‘jacquard’ technique and multi-coloured wool.
My favourite 1970s pieces in the exhibition were the space dye knits; the colours were vibrant and this style of knitwear was copied by manufacturers around the world, showing just how popular it became. I also enjoyed studying these knits, as this style is still current now- presenting the modernisation of knitwear in today’s fashion.
Technology had also advanced, allowing people to use domestic knitwear machines at home. Chunky knits became fashionable, especially for men. Sportswear was developed further by the help of a designer called Geoffrey Beene- creating sequinned jersey gowns and minidresses, with a sporty feel to them. And finally, as the 1970s was coming to a close, knitwear was ripped, holes were made and the style of the garment was destroyed- the punk era was born.
1980s was visually stimulated with the use of colour and pattern. Sportswear became fashionwear; and the colours were becoming more garish and vibrant as the years went on. Knitting on the other hand wasn’t practiced as much, although it was still taught in schools, as it was considered old-fashioned and the mass-produced knitwear was more appealing, as it wasn’t as time consuming and became more affordable for the industry.
Men’s knitwear being neutral in colour and subtle in pattern, turned to more daring colours and the patterns became more jazzy and ‘out-there’. Sportswear also took on colour and pattern,as well as becoming unisex- it was also a sign of wealth in some regard, as some sportswear was more expensive than others. Designers like DKNY and Tom Hilfiger were popular in this era.
Punk was continued into the 1980s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren influenced this movement in fashion by creating a ‘shock-factor’ that teenagers of that time relished. Bondage trousers, the hobble skirt and the cowboy tee, were some of the garments that were welcomed by teens. The excitement of escaping and the element of DIY was favoured in that society at the time, especially with young people. 1980s was a time where people were unique in their styling.
Finally, the exhibition led us upstairs to the 1990s/ the noughties, where there were only a few pieces by the incredible designer Julien MacDonald, who revolutionised knitwear in the 1990s. The pieces were glamorous and the materials used were unorthodox, making industries perception of knitted fashion to become radically changed. In this day, knitwear has become modernised and is a type of fashion that is seen everywhere; whether it be as casual wear or worn during a night out. Julien MacDonald allowed this change to happen, by combining materials together with the use of feathers and fur and a variety of stitching to create garments with a sophisticated perception featuring on the high end of fashion.
My favourite of all his knitwear designs, was the Utopia beaded dress, although this was axe in 2014- we can see how knitwear has changed from being practical, to glamorous, to then becoming modernised through society.
Postcards from the exhibition.