Written by Ayala Istas. Reviewed by Marthe Bonnez
The 1920s, known as the roaring twenties, was a period of innovation, experimentation, and personal expression. After the First World War ended, the economy boomed, and prosperity flourished, including in Belgium, where there was a sense of progress and hope for the future. During this period, numerous new trends emerged, allowing artists to explore creative techniques that led to the birth of new art movements in Belgium. These movements included Surrealism with renowned painters such as René Magritte (1898-1967) and Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), as well as Dadaism, with Belgian artists like Paul Joostens (1889-1960), also a painter, and graphic artist Jozef Peeters (1895-1960).
Fashion changed quickly and became accessible to a broader population, particularly for women who were able to adapt to a slightly more independent financial position. But during World War I, women in Belgium had less opportunity for emancipation than women in their neighboring countries. For example, they were not called upon to join the war industry. Upper-class women could focus on so-called feminine tasks such as charity and nursing. This makes the post-war position of the woman in Belgium somewhat different from that in other countries, such as France.
Belgian fashion existed in the shadow of Paris, the fashion capital of Western Europe. Many Belgian fashion firms bought patterns, prototypes, and reproduction rights from Paris to recreate in Belgium. With buyer's cards acquired from the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, foreign and Belgian retailers and designers could also attend fashion shows in Paris that showcased new Parisian collections. This phenomenon has been analyzed in 2006 by researcher Véronique Pouillard in her paper "Aménager les échanges entre acheteurs belges et créateurs parisiens”. The close geographical proximity of Brussels to Paris allowed buyers, designers, and dressmakers from Brussels more exposure to, and thus more influence from, Parisian fashion, like the models and styles designed by Coco Chanel (1883-1971).
A truly Belgian fashion house was an exception until Norine Couture, founded in Brussels around 1915. Norine, led by the couple Honorine 'Norine' Deschryver (1887-1977) and Paul-Gustave Van Hecke (1887-1967), was the first to enter the Belgian couture market with its own–Belgian–designs. The story behind this fashion house is the focus of Nele Bernheim's research. Nele Bernheim is a Belgian fashion historian and researcher at Ghent University and the University of Antwerp. We highly recommend you read Bernheim’s work if you want to delve further into Belgian fashion of the 1920s!
Bernheim, Nele. 2015. “Norine : De Pionier van de Belgische Avant-Garde (1915-1952).” In The Belgians : An Unexpected Fashion Story, 30–37. Tielt, Ostfildern: Lannoo, Hatje Cantz.
Bernheim, Nele. 2021. “Fashion in Belgium during the First World War and the Case of Norine.” In Fashion, Society, and the First World War : International Perspectives, edited by Maude Bass-Krueger, Hayley Edwards-Dijardin, and Sophie Kurkdjian, 72–88. London: Bloomsbury. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350119895.ch-005.
Véronique Pouillard, 2006. "Aménager les échanges entre acheteurs belges et créateurs parisiens." La constitution d'une Chambre syndicale de Haute Couture belge pendant l'entre-deux-guerres., Revue belge d'Histoire contemporaine, 3-4, pp.
René Magritte, poster design for Norine, 1926. Private collection. Courtesy © Succession René Magritte, SABAM, Belgium, 2020.