CUBISM AND FASHION : A Fortunate Cross Over

Jean Paquin – Robert Delauney –


The influence of art on fashion styles dates back to the early years of the 19th century and will continue to “impress”  fashion design throughout the 60’s, and beyond. More precisely, in the years that followed the birth of the Cubist movement (1908), much of this fortunate “crossovers” between art and fashion is to be abscribed to a few artists who aimed to extrapolate art from the bidimensional representation on the canvas. If Sonia Delauney’s Atelier Simultané and Giacomo Balla’s futurist Antineutral Suit are fine examples of artists who engaged directly in fashion applying their artistic theories, cubists and the surrealists indirectly influenced fashion design creativity through the principles applied in their works.

CUBISM AND FASHION (1998) follows the FASHION AND SURREALISM (1987) by Richard Martin, curator of the Custume Institute of the Metropolitan Musuem of Art.


Paul Poiret dismissed with the snap of his creative fingers, decades of constraining corsets.  He anticipated the times, preannouncing with his liberating shapes, the transformations that WWI would induce in the fashion style of the new “machine age” woman,  the Garçonne.  Meanwhile, in the parallel art universe, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, experimented innovative forms, deconstructing and reassembling objects and bodies in unexpected concepts, unaware that they will be translated in fashion.

Cubism is a prime cause of fashion‘s modern forms. CUBISM AND FASHION was published to accompany the exhibition held in 1999 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. According to Richard Martin the radical and periodical transformations in fashion cannot be sufficiently explained from the social changes point of view. In connection to the relevant innovations in fashion style between the end of the Edwardian era and the end of the Roaring Twenties, Martin writes:

We could argue that it is the art of Cubism and a specific, if never codified, suite of aesthetic principles that changed the world of fashion. Both more plausible and more practical is the likelihood that it was not the art of Cubism per se but the culture of Cubism that influenced fashion, just as the culture of Cubism might be said to align it with new ideas in theater, literature, and eventually, movies…Cubism was a systematic process of seeing.


IN 1919, the traditional annual costume Chelsea Arts Club  Ball held at the Royal Albert hall was known as the Chelsea Arts Club’s DAZZLE BALL.  The theme was inspired by the wartime-dazzle painted ships, a cubist inspired camouflage to avoid the enemy’s air-reconaissance.  Ships where painted in a series of broken colored – black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue— stripes and intersecting geometric shapes to ‘dazzle’  submarines’ periscopes or airplane pilots making it difficult to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction.  Contemporary journalists branded the dazzled ships a “futurist’s bad dream” and “floating Cubist paintings”. 

In any case, “Dazzle” was a visual success, its patterns were absorbed in fashion.

“If they want to make an army invisible at a distance, they only have to dress their men as harlequins.” Had he participated at the Ball, he would have been surprised by the black and white checks that were starting to invade textile design in the period.” Picasso to Cocteau


Between 1908 and the end of the 1920s a fashion revolution occurred with the contribution of Paul Poiret, Madeleine VIonnet, Chanel, Patou.

“It was almost inevitable that the planes, cylinders, mutable optics, and dynamic motion of Cubist art would engage fashion.” Richard Martins

Gone was the indisputed domination of crinolines and bustles. The new forms responded to the new dynamism of women’s lifestyles. Collage and overlaps substitute folds, flatness squashes plasticity.  The supremacy of volume, layering, stratification is overthrown by the cubist inspired flatness of planes. The S shape of Victorian and Belle Epoque styles that enhanced a woman’s silhouette, is being dethroned.  The cubist vocabulary of cylindric, two-dimensional, flat and dynamic shapes replace it.


Beauty doesn’t follow form anymore. It follows movement. Clothing in the post-war period is conceived for the active woman. In World War I women where engaged in all kind of jobs that where previously reserved to men, therefore they needed mens’ clothes to have the job done. They drove trucks, ambulance, tractors, flew airplanes. Most of them worked in factories. The Belle Epoque fashion for the static woman engaged in knitting and afternoon teas, was over. More importantly, fashion forms changed forever.

The post-war fashion embraced cubist and futuristic principles of movement, dynamics, velocity. It reflected the “machine age”.  Women exuded unstoppable energy, exhuberant  élan vital.  Refusing to go back to pre-war lifestyles, they kept on driving cars, enjoyed playing sports, danced the nights away on the Charleston move. To a certain extent, they now had the freedom to move. To move beyond conventions. The new apparel needed to respond to this dynamicity. The dated, rigid forms did not allow the modern woman to embrace these new opportunities.

In short, the same indeterminacy of forms that Cubist fostered in painting, sculpture and collage, obtains in fashion during the same years of innovations, albeit’s fashion process is more attenuated…The Cubist aesthetics in fashion had to allow for movement and the workable surround of a three-dimensional human being , even while it expressed the forms of Cubism.”


Fashion absorbed the core of cubist painting: layering, geometric contrast of shapes, color blocking, clean cut lines, flatness. The following are two examples by Chanel and Vionnet. Chanel embraced cubist principles of airy layerings, juxtapositions, abstraction of planes or the Cubist arcs while Vionnet applied interlocking patterns and linear divisions .


Cubism had an influence also on how fashion was represented. The book explores the new advertising styles that embraced the modernist graphics.  The most eloquent illustrations of the new avant-guarde styles belong to the Italian born artist Ernesto Henry Michahelles, better known as Thatyat. In his fashion illustrations he sets the model in a detached manner from her background that reminds Japanese ukiyo-e prints style. The  model is surrounded by “moving circular lines, suggesting a swirling motion, an energy field”. A new graphic device that was immediately employed by Vionnet.

Cubist influence went beyond the the 1920s, a cubist vocabulary still persists in contemporary fashion.

Cubism has persisted. Although its major accomplishments were articulated during the first decade of the century, Cubism has remained a pictorial system viable through at least half the century and vivid throughout the nearly one hundred years since its inception… . Cubism is the device by which fashion was flattened; it will always be remembered in any era of flat dresses. The most recent era of flat dresses was the late 1960s: Courrèges, Cardin, and paper dresses all testified unequivocally to the obvious forms of Cubism, promoting an overt geometry, often banal, in dress. The quintessential dress of the era was Yves Saint Laurent’s “Mondrian” dress, just slightly displaced art-historically from the flatness of Cubism.” Richard Martin

All images are extracted from the book ” CUBISM AND FASHION” except the Dazzle Ball and Yvonne Gregory.

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