How this book passed me by until now is beyond me. It came out in 2007, back when my obsession with the 1930s was still going strong. Back then I was knitting up sweaters from ’30s patterns with tiny, carpal tunnel-inducing gauges while watching Busby Berkeley movies for fashion inspiration. I liked the cute stuff mostly: bows, polka dots, crazy collars, puffed sleeves. Basically I wanted to be Ruby Keeler, only with Joan Blondell’s tough-talking, shade-throwing attitude. I still want to be more like her.
I quit trying to dress like Ruby Keeler though. Mostly because I was getting older—the bows and puffed sleeves weren’t looking so cute when I was pushing 30. Also I got bored. I wanted something new, and started gravitating towards the simple stuff that didn’t have all the trimmings. I kept watching ’30s movies (all those pre-codes and gangster flicks and Astaire/Rogers musicals: how could I not?), but not really for fashion inspiration anymore.
But then I saw photos by the Seeberger brothers. They were French fashion photographers in the first half of the last century who took photos of people at society events, basically early street style photographers. I checked out Elegance: The Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography from the library and read about how the brothers started out in the early 1900s, taking photos at horse races and at the beaches of Deauville for the society and fashion pages of French magazines. They’d take photos of stars, society women, and models, who were often planted at the big events by smart designers. In the process, the Seebergers documented the changes in fashion throughout the years. There are the frilly Edwardians and the Chanel flappers, and then there are the ’30s clotheshorses, who are my favorites by far.
They look the most modern to me, even more modern than the women in the Seebergers’ later photographs. Their clothes are so simple—straight lines and perfect cuts, no details or pieces of jewelry that aren’t necessary. The few photographs of women in puffed sleeves and extra trimmings get a side eye from one of the book’s authors: “Women in frilly, frothy dresses and great broad-brimmed hats seemed to inhabit a permanent garden party in search of a bygone era.” I don’t even want to know what he’d say about poor Ruby Keeler.