Barbier: Fashion and Gender in the 1920s

Beautiful, brightly coloured fashion plates were one of the main sources of fashion information as early as the late eighteenth century and into the 1920s (Tortora & Eubank 330). These fashion illustrations sold the ideals of luxury and consumption by communicating the latest Parisian fashion trends. They were designed to quickly disseminate such trends to a mass audience (Tortora & Eubank 331). While most of the illustrations found on fashion plates did not reveal a lot about the details of the garments themselves (e.g., the texture of the fabric), they still depicted and promoted a fashionable, upper-class lifestyle (Tortora & Eubank 331). The investigation of historic objects, such as fashion plates, can help one uncover the surrounding culture and times in which they existed (Prentice 993).


1920 “La guirlande des mois” with silk bound cover, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives, photo: Shelley Haines

Through this procedural and analytical process, historical objects are treated as evidence, as their physical characteristics are described, their purpose is deduced, and their greater importance is speculated (Steele 329-331). Here, by carefully observing and examining a 1920s almanac containing fashion plates, monthly calendars, poems, and fictional articles written and illustrated by cultural figures of the period, I will go beyond the fashion trends depicted to explore the role of fashion in shaping the cultural landscape of the 1920s.



1920 “La guirlande des mois” with illustrated dust jacket, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives, photo: Shelley Haines



1920 “La Guirlande des Mois” with illustrated slip cover, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives, photo: Shelley Haines


The historic, 1920 almanac in question, titled “La guirlande des mois” (The Garland or Wreath of Months), is from a series of five almanacs illustrated by George Barbier between 1917 and 1921 currently held at the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. With just over 130 pages, this miniature, lightweight book easily fits in the palm of a hand. It is bound in silk with a picture of a fashionable woman on the front holding a basket of fruit that she is delicately offering to two cherubs. The almanac is covered in a dusk jacket and stored in a slipcase, which depicts a woman wearing a red jester’s costume. Broken down into four seasons, the almanac begins with a calendar of January 1920 followed by a lighthearted passage with well-wishes for the new year. Each proceeding month follows a similar trend with a monthly calendar and fictional text. In May, however, the first fashion plate appears, titled “Le retour longtemps désiré” (The Long Desired Return), which portrays a fashionable woman kissing another feminine-looking figure, wearing a military uniform. Despite its lack of gender clarity, this scene is likely referencing the return of many men from World War One. The illustration is preceded by the poem “Matin de mai” (May Morning), which details many positive feelings associated with the various colors of a spring morning in May.


“Le retour longtemps désiré” from the 1920 La guirlande des mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines


The second fashion plate appears in June. Titled “Le Printemps” (Spring), this illustration shows a short-haired woman catching a cherub with a green net. In the distance, a man in a tan-coloured suit casually observes with his hands in his pockets. In the foreground, a distressed doll lays discarded on the ground. “Le Printemps” is followed by a poem written by Barbier about the love of pleasure and the pleasure of love. In the poem, Barbier writes that “love is not something other than a fire lit subtly in our veins that seeks to be spread.” The poem is immediately followed by the third fashion plate titled “L’Été” (Summer; see image below). The illustration shows a woman in an oriental-inspired dress and hat, perhaps from another, exotic world, shading a naked woman with her umbrella. Both women are playfully glancing to the side, while a naked woman onlooker emerges from the water. The two naked women in the illustration are facing each other, which may suggest they are more than friends. The written material for July and August contain cheerful predictions about the days to come, including flourishing gardens following an anticipated three-week drought in June.


“Le Printemps” from the 1920 La guirlande des mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines



“Les Fureurs du Tango” from the 1920 La guirlande des mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines


The fourth fashion plate, titled “Les fureurs du tango” (the Fury of the Tango) depicts two flapper women dancing with men in black tuxedos. The illustration is shadowed by a cryptic message written by the French novelist and playwright Alexander Arnoux. Titled “L’homme qui tua les dieux” (The Man Who Killed the Gods), the passage begins with a recollection of a communication between the author and “the gods,” who he remembers as cleverly hiding in holes in the wall (lost in translation, perhaps?). About half way into Arnoux’s story lies a fashion plate titled “L’Automne” (Autumn), which portrays two women, one in a feminine, floral, pink dress, and other in a white two-piece suit. The women are enjoying apples picked from a tree in the background. The final fashion plate in “La guirlande des mois” depicts the final season, “L’Hiver” (Winter), with a man in a suit and top hat and a woman in a fashionable fur-lined overcoat out for a walk in the snow. The almanac concludes with a section for notes.




“L’Automne” from the 1920 La guirlande des mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines



“L’Hiver” from the 1920 La Guirlande des Mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines

After analyzing the physical features of the 1920 almanac, some trends among Barbier’s fashion plates emerged. First, in addition to depicting current trends, Barbier’s fashion plates include obvious influence and inspiration from other eras and worlds. For example, the depiction of a court jester is reminiscent of Medieval and Renaissance times and the two figures picking from an apple tree in “L’Automne” appear to draw upon Greek mythology. Finally, the clothed woman in “L’Eté” is reminiscent of the courts of imperial China and Japan.

Another, perhaps less apparent, theme among Barbier’s fashion plates is the depiction of female couples or females interacting in what would typically be seen as male-female roles. In line with this observation, some scholars have noted that males appear infrequently in Barbier’s work and they suggest that instead, masculine figures may be women dressed in drag (Morris). Alternatively, it may be the case that Barbier represented men with feminine attributes. For example, in “Le retour longtemps désiré,” the character dressed in a typically masculine military uniform has long, slender legs and appears to be wearing blush and lipstick. The masculine figures in “Les fureurs du tango” also have slender legs, delicate feet and appear to be wearing blush. Whether or not these figures are feminine men or women dressed as men, Barbier may not have intended for these characters to be the stars of his fashion plates. As Morris aptly stated, when these characters appear alongside fashionably dressed women, “they are usually abject slaves of haughty or indifferent females, or mere props, such as the husband or lover blithely ignored by the gorgeously and provocatively dressed, utterly self-absorbed creature.” Interestingly, this perspective suggests that Barbier felt that women’s fashion was superior to that of men. The masculine figures in his drawings may have simply been supporting the leading women dressed in the latest fashions. From a more practical perspective, Barbier may have used seductive characters and scenarios to generate desire among consumers. Consumption and fashion are inseparable, and fashion can be used to manipulate consumption (Tseëlon 215-216). Thus, seduction can also serve as a mechanism to manipulate consumption by replacing the rationality, utility, and functionality of fashion (Tseëlon 223). Through seductive imagery of powerful, fashionable women, Barbier’s fashion plates may have represented a unique, revolutionary approach to marketing the latest trends to the masses. However, these illustrations, with distinct difference from commercial fashion plates designed to sell couture house designs and found in luxury publications, such as the Gazette du Bon Ton, may have had an alternative purpose. For instance, instead of a commercial tool, Barbier’s art may have served as a social commentary of the 1920s.


“L’Été” from the 1920 La Guirlande des Mois, Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archive, photo: Shelley Haines

At a personal level, Barbier’s use of atypical male characters may have been a resistance of traditional gender roles and potentially his own non-conformity to binary gender norms. Rather than being born a particular gender, feminists regard gender as evolving through a repetition of acts that are expressed through the stylization of the body (e.g., the way we dress or behave; Butler 519). Individuals either subscribe to a particular gender or protest the one they feel they have been prescribed (Butler 529). Born into a bourgeois family, Barbier lived an unconventional lifestyle in Paris, where he was a known homosexual. Often described as fashionable and flamboyant, his preference for bright colours, detailed fabrics, and playful embellishments were reflected in his art (Morris; Sommerville 98). It may be the case that Barbier aimed to resist prescribed gender norms through his art by experimenting with signifiers of masculinity and femininity.

Finally, if the individuals in Barbier’s fashion plates are women dressed in typically male gendered garments, he may have been commenting on the roles that women began adopting in the 1920s. Following World War One, traditional gender roles for women were altered as they gained increasing independence. For instance, women gained the right to vote and began leaving their domestic roles inside the home and entering the workforce along side men (Roberts 661; Tortora & Eubank 422). These changes in lifestyle were reflected in dress. Women’s clothing shifted from confining garments, such as corsets and hobble skirts, to liberating, comfortable and practical garments, such as shorter skirts, shirtwaists, and blouses, which complemented their new routines (Breward 186; Roberts 676; Tortora & Eubank 422). During the 1920s, some women expressed their liberation from the constraints of the previous centuries through the persona of the risqué flapper girl. As depicted in Barbier’s “Les fureurs du tango,” these women had short hair and wore backless shift dresses (Breward 186; Owen 35). Barbier may have chosen to depict women with typically masculine characteristics as an exaggeration to reflect the changing landscape of women during the 1920s. Similarly, depicting men with feminine characteristics may have reflected the reduction in dominance experienced by men in the same period.

Overall, my observation and analysis of the 1920 almanac, “La guirlande des mois,” revealed that Barbier’s sophisticated and forward-thinking illustrations not only depicted upper-class Parisian fashion, they also unveiled a window into his personal and social surroundings in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think are the most likely motives behind Barbier’s illustrations?
  • Is there a link between Barbier’s sexuality and the content of his illustrations?


Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion: A New History of Fashionable Dress. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1998): 519-531.

Morris, Roderick Conway. “Forgotten Art of French Illustrator George Barbier is Rediscovered at Fortuny Museum Show.” The New York Times 14 Nov. 2008. Web.

Owen, Heather. “Beyond the Flapper: The Problem of “Snapshot” History.” OAH Magazine of History 21.3 (2007): 35-40. Web.

Prentice, Deborah. “Psychological Correspondence of Possessions, Attitudes, and Values.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53.6 (1987): 993-1003.Web.

Roberts, Mary Louise. “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France”. The American Historical Review 98.3 (1993): 657- 684. Web.

Somerville, Kris. “George Barbier: The Knight of the Bracelet.: The Missouri Review 29.3 (2006): 89-99.

Steele, Valerie. “A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag.” Fashion Theory 2.4 (1998): 327-336.

Tortora, Phyllis G., and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress. 5th ed. Fairchild Books, 2010.

Tseëlon, Efrat. “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern Fashion as the End of Meaning,” in Thinking Through Fashion. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016.

About shelley.haines