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200 years of NOLA fashion

With both NOLA Fashion Week and Fashion Week New Orleans falling in the month of March, it is an apropos time to turn the focus of this year’s celebration of the bicentennial of statehood to the topic of 200 years of Louisiana fashion.

Fashion and individual style express the identity of the wearer. Though in modern times we can, for the most part, wear the clothes we choose, in the not so distant past (as well as in contemporary times), clothing has served as an identifier of military rank, social standing, and religious affiliation. In more modern times fashion has become an outward manifestation of a person’s concept of self, as well as the particular social, cultural, and fashionable aspects of the wearer’s personality he or she wants to communicate with the world.

In 1812, fashion had evolved from the decadence of European styles like those of Marie Antoinette (available to view in Mary Louise Elisabeth Vigeé-Lebrun’s portrait of the French queen at the New Orleans Museum of Art) into a more streamlined look. Yet European influences — which are evidenced in the unique cultural heritage of Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans — were still present in American fashion.

According to Elizabeth McClellan in her book “Historic Dress in America 1607-1870,” at the turn of the 18th century “monthly magazines with coloured plates” of the latest fashions were sent to the Americas from London and Paris. Though not as extravagant as fashions from the preceding century, in the early 19th century, dresses with full skirts and high waistlines, full collars as well as low necklines, and large hats and bonnets all made from deluxe fabrics and complete with ruffles and other embellishments remained in vogue.

While illustrated fashion magazines provide an idea of fashion trends, portraits are also indicative of the clothing of the time. Works such as the 1836 “Portrait of Edmond Jean Forstall and Desirée Forstall” on display at The Historic New Orleans Collection’s (THNOC) Williams Research Center, act as precursors to today’s fashion portraits and photographs and evidence the popular fashions of their wearers.

Portrait of fashion-forward Edmond Jean Forstall and Desirée Forstall by Jean Joseph Vaudechamp, 1836 (The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Olga and Yvonne Tremoulet)

Though many of these portraits depict men in military garments, attention was paid to changing men’s fashions in other ways throughout the years. In a Hart Schffner & Marx spring and summer 1911 “Style Book” from Bagur’s Clothes Shop in New Orleans (available to view at THNOC), we can see a fashion “look-book” of the day, retailing men’s fashion to potential customers. In the book, detailed captions (such as “The old French market, located on the levee. Any morning the visitor will see here many picturesque sights”) beneath detailed illustrations of fashionable men participating in the bustle of city life, evidence the importance of fashion throughout history.

Moving through the jazz age-inspired clothes of the ’20s and ’30s, the glamorous ’40s and ’50s, the mod and groovy ’60s and ’70s, the big hair and punk ’80s, the grunge ’90s, and the refined retro of the aughts, after two hundred years, fashion still remains a part of Louisiana’s culture. The slideshow posted on NolaVie of photographer Jason Kruppa’s photographs from this year’s NOLA Fashion Week display some of the current fashion trends present in New Orleans designs.

Beyond fashion shows and fashion weeks, fashion has become more than just a way to express oneself or display a certain social standing. In the last half century, fashion has broken into the hallowed domain of the museum space. As evidenced by the success of Alexander McQueen’s 2011 retrospective at the Met and a host of other fashion and fashion photography-related exhibitions, our cultural guide, the museum, has recognized the significance of fashion as an art form and as an indicator of the cultural zeitgeist.

Though Louisiana museums have yet to host a major fashion exhibition, cultural institutions have had fashion-related shows, such as Nick Cave’s Sound Suits on display at Newcomb Art Gallery during Prospect.2, as well as Keesook Guyem’s wire and bead sculptures of clothing at Callan Contemporary, which evoke the history and culture of fashion and garments as well as the psyche of the wearer. These exhibitions, combined with multiple fashion weeks in New Orleans, make Louisiana part of the contemporary fashion dialogue and one that is sure to evolve over the next 200 years of statehood.

Brianna Smyk has an M.A. in Art History from San Diego State University. She lives and works in New Orleans and writes about arts and culture for NolaVie. This is the third in a series of articles written by Brianna Smyk with The Historic New Orleans Collection to honor the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood. Read more of Brianna’s articles at


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