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Selling Style II: The History of Fashion Marketing in the 20th Century  

Jeanne Engels in Cheruit dress

Written by Cameron Walker | Cover image: Actress Jeanne Engels, dress by Louise Chéruit, photographed by Adolph de Meyer in 1921

In the second installment of a three-part series on the history of fashion marketing, we take a look at how style was sold in the 20th century.

The Catwalk

At the turn of the last century, a pair of redheaded sisters launched themselves into Edwardian-era English society — and fashion was never the same. Provocative novelist, scriptwriter and magazine columnist Elinor Glyn popularized the concept of the It Girl — a young woman with both the innocent intrigue of the ingenue and the sex appeal of the siren. The It Girl has been exemplified over the years by Clara Bow, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Edie Sedgwick, Kate Moss and others.  

Lady Duff Gordon
Lady Duff Gordon. Photo by Arnold Genthe. Arnold Genthe Collection, Library of Congress

Glyn’s sister, Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, was a star — a self-publicity powerhouse and fashion pioneer (and later, notorious survivor of the Titanic disaster). As the head of Lucile Ltd., she dressed the It Girls and costumed the movie stars in her signature flirtatious styles, with low necklines, slit skirts, layers of lace and chiffon, and other lingerie-inspired looks. Importantly, she made fashionable the uncorseted silhouette, a look that freed women’s waists from hundreds of years of bone and metal cages. 

Duff-Gordon showcased her designs with a “mannequin parade” of live models — tall, beautiful young women she bestowed with romantic names like Arjamand and Gamela, who became almost as famous as the designer herself. These models were celebrities in their own right, blazing a path for supermodels like Twiggy, Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Karlie Kloss and Gigi Hadid. 

Through a series of endorsement and merchandising deals, she built a prêt-à-porter empire — including accessories, cosmetics, perfumes and a mail-order enterprise with Sears, Roebuck and Co. — that captivated the fashion world for decades. The fashion house of Lucile crumbled as her designs were eclipsed by the sleek styles of the Jazz Age, but she left a triple legacy behind: the prototype of a ready-to-wear brand, the enduring sex appeal of modern fashion and the catwalk.

Two women dressed in sultana skirts and harem pants designed by Paul Poiret.
Two women dressed in sultana skirts and harem pants designed by Paul Poiret. Published in L’Illustration, 1911

Her contemporary, Paul Poiret, is perhaps most associated with the corset-free silhouette. Known as the “King of Fashion” in America and “Le Magnifique” in Paris, he designed the hobble skirt, the harem pantaloons and linear looks reminiscent of caftans and kimonos. Like Duff-Gordon, he also hosted fashion shows — although his were elaborate, high dollar affairs like the 1911 “Thousand and Second Night” party, in which guests who arrived uncostumed were asked to change into designs from his latest collection. This marketing stunt made his guests the models in an audience-participation fashion show, and was the talk of the fashion world for some time.

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel, born in 1883, is one of the most influential designers of the 20th century because she made comfort fashionable, and by doing so, made fashion a lifestyle. Known for legendary looks that have become wardrobe staples, she introduced the influencers of the time to simple, classic, elegant looks made for people who move. She opened her first shop in 1913 in the seaside town of Deauville, in northwestern France; it was there she introduced the simple, but high quality, jersey knit dresses for which she became famous. In 1919, she opened a boutique in Paris and her star quickly rose. Chanel became a lifestyle brand and household name. 

Young Gabrielle Chanel in one of her signature looks.
Young Gabrielle Chanel in one of her signature looks.

In 1921, Chanel introduced her signature scent: Chanel No. 5. The timeless bottle features a logo she created herself, the bold, interlocking “c”s that are still stamped on the design house’s bags, belts and earrings. Her blend of comfort and chic made for powerful branding, from her menswear-inspired looks and the little black dress (early 1920s) to the Chanel suit (1925) and the quilted Chanel bag (1929).

“With a black sweater and 10 rows of pearls, Chanel revolutionized fashion,” said Christian Dior, whose 1947 “New Look” also revolutionized fashion, ushering in an age of nipped-in waists and full skirts. 

Fashion Week

In 1903, New York City dry goods store Ehrich Brothers put on one of the first fashion shows, hoping the spectacle would attract middle class women to the Sixth Avenue store. By 1910, many department stores had followed suit. A decade later, the fashion show had spread nationwide, drawing crowds in the thousands to each show; these shows were usually held in department store dining rooms and were intended for consumers, often including elaborate themes like “Monte Carlo” (including roulette tables and fake gardens) and “Napoleon and Josephine.” Higher end American fashion houses also hosted viewings of their designs worn by live models, but the audience was the press and the focus was the clothing — no themes, no faux greenery.  

In-store model at Burdine's store
In-store model at Burdine’s store: Miami, Florida, March 15, 1929

The first unofficial fashion week, called “Press Week,” was held for fashion buyers and members of the press in New York City in 1943. Paris was occupied by the Nazis, money and materials were scarce, and society was upended by World War II as troops shipped overseas and women went to work. Although the wartime mend-and-make-do spirit was strong on both sides of the Atlantic, consumers still clamored for the diversion of couture. 

Fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert organized the event and invited journalists — offering to pay their expenses herself — to the Big Apple to see the best American designers. Lambert, who championed the careers of Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston and others, has been credited with putting American fashion on the map. She also created the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the Met Gala and the International Best Dressed List.  

New York Fashion Week (NYFW) was the first of the “big four” fashion weeks, which take place every February and September; the cities of Milan, Paris and London hosted their own official inaugural fashion weeks in 1958, 1973 and 1983, respectively. Initially, NYFW shows were held in venues scattered all over the city, but the shows were all moved in 1994 to a tent at Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library. From 2010-2015, the shows were held in Lincoln Center, and in 2016, NYFW moved to Clarkson Square, a SoHo event venue. The modern audience is made up of fashion buyers, the press, celebrities, social media influencers and the general public.

Model Josephine Skriver on the Milly runway at NYFW.
Model Josephine Skriver on the Milly runway at NYFW. Source:

There are now myriad other fashion weeks, including resort wear-heavy Miami Fashion Week, April bridal shows in New York, men’s fashion shows in the big four cities in January and July, China Fashion Week, Fashion Week Zanzibar, Los Angeles Fashion Week, Bangalore Fashion Week and more.          


Fashion magazines came into their own in the 20th century. Vogue Magazine launched in 1892; the first issue of the weekly New York fashion and society journal cost 10 cents. Publisher Condé Montrose Nast purchased the magazine in 1909, turning it into one of the top authorities on style and the iconic monthly magazine we know today. 

Vogue has published almost 3000 issues over its more than 125 years, but has only had seven editors-in-chief, all female: Josephine Redding, Marie Harrison, Edna Woolman Chase (also the founder of Fashion Group International, she served from 1914-1952), Jessica Daves, Diana Vreeland (previously fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar), Grace Mirabella and Anna Wintour, who has helmed the magazine since 1988.  

The publication launched a wave of competing and sister fashion magazines in the last century, including many country-specific Vogue editions, Women’s Wear Daily (initially a trade publication for the clothing industry), Vanity Fair, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Marie Claire, W and more, as well as a tsunami of lifestyle, men’s magazines and niche publications.

One could argue that magazines both democratized fashion, as anyone could pick them up at the newsstand or have them delivered by post, and rarified fashion, as each issue was carefully curated to show flawless models adorned with increasingly extravagant styles — and the models, designers and photographers became celebrities as their work was captured in the magazines’ pages.  

Vogue cover May 1917
Vogue cover May 1917, illustrated by Georges Lepape.

Fashion Photography

Vogue was fronted by illustrated covers until the 1930s; cover artists included Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the Gibson Girl — an athletic young lady with upswept hair and leg-of-mutton sleeves, the precursor to the 1920s flapper), Eduardo Garcia Benito, Georges Lepape, Ethel Wright and even the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The magazine covers ranged from sweet and whimsical to chicly bizarre, from a breezy scene with a woman and a colorful cloud of butterflies to a desert landscape featuring a figure with a bouquet for a head and the bones of a grounded ship in the background. 

However, the immediacy of photography soon made it the preferred medium for magazine covers and the pages in between.  

Vogue hired Baron Adolph de Meyer as their first official photographer in 1913. However, two years earlier, Edward Steichen took what are considered to be the first fashion photographs: a series of gowns designed by Paul Poiret that he photographed for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911. Steichen worked as a photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938. He went on to serve in both World Wars, joining the Photography Division of the American Army Signal Corps during World War I, and in his sixties, directing the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit during World War II. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, fashion photography was inspired by surrealism, an art movement that challenged perceptions of reality in ways both amusing and disturbing. The American photographer Man Ray (born Emanuel Radnitzsky) made his living from commercial fashion photography, from 1920 until his retirement from the genre in 1940. His work often featured close-ups of body parts (especially hands), double exposures, the use of shadows and models who rarely faced the camera to create an otherworldly and mysterious quality in his work.

Mainbocher Corset by Horst P. Horst. Appeared in the September 1939 issue of Vogue magazine.
Mainbocher Corset by Horst P. Horst. Appeared in the September 1939 issue of Vogue magazine.

The German-born Horst P. Horst was similarly inspired by surrealism, mixing it with neoclassicism to create striking images like “The Mainbocher Corset,” a black and white photograph which juxtaposed the soft curves of a woman wearing a corset with the hard lines of a marble shelf.  He was most well-known for his fashion photography, capturing three decades of Chanel designs on film. His first credited pictures were in the December 1931 issue of French Vogue, launching a career that spanned six decades. A student of architecture, his mysterious, sophisticated aesthetic focused on form, light and composition.

“I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes,” said photographer Irving Penn, who photographed his first Vogue cover for the October 1943 issue. Penn was known for his minimalist style, usually shooting his subjects against a plain background. His contemporary, Richard Avedon, was similar in style, and created iconic images for brands such as Versace and Calvin Klein, including the notorious “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” Brooke Shields advertisement of 1980. 

Helmut Newton, known for his film noir-inspired work in dramatic black and white, contributed for better or worse to a shift in the way women were portrayed in fashion photography — the viewer of his photographs becomes a voyeur — and opened a conversation about the male gaze and the performative aspect of fashion. 

Outside of this boy’s club came several notable female fashion photographers (many of them former fashion models), including Frances McLaughlin-Gill, who refreshed fashion photography with her signature informal, relaxed shots; Deborah Turbeville, previously a fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine, who often shot brooding, dark and dreaming photographs of groups of models disconnected from one another; Sarah Moon, whose painterly, ethereal style echoes that of the Jazz Age, who was the first woman to shoot the Pirelli calendar, and who recently photographed Keira Knightley for Chanel’s jewelry collection; Ellen Von Unwerth, known for provocative and sexy — yet playful — photographs for the Guess campaigns and others; and Corinne Day, whose documentary-style photographs of waifish young models like Kate Moss defined the age of grunge fashion.      

Ad Campaigns 

As fashion changed, so did the marketing. Advertising became big business, with teams of people dedicated to honing a clothing company’s message. Calvin Klein courted controversy — first with the aforementioned Brooke Shields campaign, followed by other racy ads like the one featuring the scantily clad duo of Marky Mark and Kate Moss in 1992. On the other hand, Nike’s 1988 “Just Do It” slogan featured an inclusive, inspiring message that still resonates today. 

The United Colors of Benetton ads by art director Oliviero Toscani are in a category of their own. Meant to provoke controversy and sometimes outrage, these images were chockablock with social commentary, rarely featured the company’s clothes and were frequently banned by media outlets. But the campaigns — from a kissing priest and nun in full regalia to a heartbreaking photo of the ailing activist and AIDS victim David Kirby and his family in a hospital room — certainly had people talking about the company each time an ad debuted.

In 1992, Levi’s came up with a subtle advertising campaign to promote their clothing. As American workers pushed for more casual dress, the company printed pamphlets featuring business casual looks incorporating their jeans and Docker’s khakis, then mailed the pamphlets to HR directors nationwide. Office workers may have Levi’s to thank for a more relaxed work wardrobe.    

Mall Mania

After World War II, with the rise of the automobile, Americans flocked to the suburbs — and they needed a place to spend their money and free time. One of the first shopping malls, Victor Gruen’s Northland Center, opened in Southfield, Michigan in 1954; for 40 years, malls popped up like mushrooms, and in the mid-1990s, they were still being built at a rate of about 11 per month. They became destinations in themselves, centers of activity that made shopping a pastime. The Mall of America takes this to the extreme; it is the largest retail shopping mall in the United States, with more than 2,779,242 million feet of retail space — plus an entire amusement park, with 24 rides including a roller coaster. 

Polaris Fashion Place mall interior
Polaris Fashion Place interior, photographed by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons.

Department stores and retailers like Gap, Wet Seal and Abercrombie & Fitch thrived as teenagers were set loose in the malls with their allowances or paychecks. This mall culture has been immortalized on film, including “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), “Clueless” (1995) and “Mallrats” (1995). But the rise of big box stores and the internet has hollowed out what sociologist George Ritzer called “cathedrals of consumption.” 

Catalog Craze

Before consumers could purchase everything on the internet, catalogs let them buy what they wanted from the comfort of home — by mailing or calling in their orders. Early versions, including Benjamin Franklin’s catalog of books, seed catalogs and Tiffany & Co’s “Blue Book,” paved the way for J.C. Penney and Victoria’s Secret catalogs; for glossy J. Crew, Land’s End, L.L. Bean catalogs, for the 1990s teen fashion juggernaut that was Delia*s. 

Catalogs, as opposed to magazine ads, were straightforward, direct-mail advertising, featuring models who, for the most part, simply showed off the clothes. The rise of the internet and online shopping, on sites like or direct from a company’s website, diminished the power of the printed catalog. Sears discontinued their catalog in 1993, and others followed suit. This form of fashion marketing is experiencing a renaissance today, but it is used in more targeted ways by ecommerce companies like Bonobos and popular retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue.

Spiegel catalog, Spring/Summer 1958
Spiegel catalog, Spring/Summer 1958

Online shopping started to cut into mall and catalog business in the mid-1990s. Amazon expanded into apparel by 2002; today, the online giant sells dozens of apparel sub-brands. Check back next month for more fashion marketing history, including the rise of online clothing retailing, social media influencers and those spooky dress ads that seem to follow you all over the internet. 

Read the first installment, Selling Style I: The History of Fashion Marketing Through the 19th Century.

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