A night out in Prague, in the early 20th Century

Česká Pozice

Fashion as an art form has often been displayed at Prague’s Decorative Arts Museum. Now organizers are taking a step back to look at the fashion houses that produced such couture from 1900-1948.

“Over the past ten years we’ve prepared many exhibitions surrounding fashion, specifically Czech fashion pre-World War I and pre-World War II,” said Jana Ulipová, PR manager for the museum. “This one took three years to prepare; the curator, Eva Uchalová, studied lots on fashion using private and film archives, spoke with people who worked in these fashion houses and their relatives.”

The exhibition is divided into two parts; fashion houses from 1900-1918 are located on the second floor, with the designs from 1918-1948 —overall the more interesting — in the museum’s exhibition hall. Grouped by houses, not time period, the displays show the designers’ range.

From gold sequins and sparkles to matronly work wear, it is interesting to note the widely varying styles between houses, even from the same time period. Brief biographies of the houses give an historic placement to the dresses. You learn these fashion houses were family affairs, with sons, daughters and spouses all joining in.

The largest fashion houses copied the French model. A couturier (usually the owner) headed each, setting the style of the company and managing a team of designers, illustrators, saleswomen, models, cutters, tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses. Fashion shows in Paris were visited at least twice a year, from which owners and designers brought back designs, illustrations and photographs.
They purchased the right to reproduce the designs, plus made sketches from memory after the shows. This provided inspiration for their own designs, which formed the foundations of Prague fashion.

Setting the style

Ulipová said that the Hanna Podolská Couture House and Rosenbaum Couture House were two of the most important from this time, well known among actors, singers and other famous people. Rosenbaum was founded in 1881 by Elise Rosenbaum and taken over by her son Oldřich after her death.
A master tailor, Oldřich soon turned the house into an international one, bringing in experts from Vienna, Zurich and Belgium. A European traveller, he sought inspiration not only in Paris, but Berlin, Budapest and Italy as well. Bringing back fabrics and tailoring supplies, as well as designs, photos and drawings, Rosenbaum was known for their evening wear, and international flair.

Advertising was one of the ways Hanna Podolská built up her large clientele, which included actresses and high society ladies. Regularly seen in a range of magazines, her designs were the first choice for women looking for the latest in early 20th century fashion.
Beginning in 1920, she held fashion shows for invited guests, which caught on so well, in the ‘30s she expanded to shows for professional buyers, as well as producing a catalogue. Her style conformed to the ideal of feminine elegance accented with decorative details. The whole Podolský family was involved in the company – her older son, Miloš, was in charge of furs; her younger son, Viktor, was a trained tailor, whose wife, Věra, did designs and illustrations.
The interwar period was one of the most productive. The development of high society required clothing to match as a symbol of the European ambitions of the new state of Czechoslovakia. Paris haute couture had truly caught on while men’s clothing was being influenced both by English tailoring and the relaxed style from America. “The houses, and their designs, reflected the progressive tendencies in the world,” Ulipová told Czech Position.

The postwar period brought a short boom in fashion design with the ambitions of making Prague a Central European fashion center, but the February events of 1948 marked the end of private enterprise. Most companies were converted to cooperatives and state enterprises and the fashion houses were no exception.
Fashion, meet the 20th century

In the second part of the exhibition, presenting the fashion houses from 1900-1918, the looks are quite similar: long sweeping skirts, cinched waists, lace and demure necklines. Styles don’t vary much: the difference is in the materials and colors used. Even then, it is hard to tell the difference between a dress labeled “afternoon dress” and one labeled for evening.

These houses represented a solid sewing craft that had its roots deep in the 19th century. The tradition was passed down from generation to generation and designers gained experience in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. Paris became increasingly attractive, where all the arts sought inspiration in the creative atmosphere of France.

Fashion magazines with the latest French styles were launched in Prague and haute couture began to be spread through fashion shows, magazines and the sale of ‘models’ – designs that were made to be copied. Societies and trade organizations for the profession were formed, and many of the big houses were heavily involved in the promotion of their art.

This will be the museum’s last historic fashion exhibition, but they still plan on future fashion-related shows.

“Fashion houses at that time were elegant, and the industry is part of our history,” Ulipová said. “These dresses also provide inspiration for today and for our lives; it was an elegant time, and many of the dresses here you can see in today’s styles.”