During the autumn 2019, the little city of Loudéac in Northern Brittany paid a vibrant tribute to Jeanne Malivel, a woman born in that capital of linen in the old days.
Who was she? A former nurse, graduated from the Fine Arts Academy of Paris and an ardent supporter of the Regionalist Breton Group (GRB).
She died in 1926 aged thirty-one but her short life had shed a dazzling light of her creative mind on the world of fashion.
Earlier, Jeanne Malivel had become famous as a co-founder of a Breton cultural movement, the Seiz Breur (The Seven Brothers in Breton language), small in size but influent thanks to its numerous creations. This cultural grouping revolutionized architecture, sculpture, painting, the design of furniture or daily life items, to start with ceramic and their original decoration.
This Breton wave fed on both ancient Celtic tradition and modern style at the time of the Bauhaus art school in Germanic countries and of the surrealist wave from Prague to Paris.
The spark that ignited it all, if I may say so, was fashion.
In September 1923, Jeanne attended with René-Yves Creston the Pardon of Folgoët (in Finistère), a “Pardon” being the feast of the patron saint of a church or chapel. This friend of hers was both a painter, a graphic designer and an ethnologue based in Saint-Nazaire (near Nantes). The principle of freedom that drove the two of them saw Creston, surviving Malivel, later involved in the Paris resistance movement during the nazi occupation of the 1940s.
Anyway, in the course of that Pardon, both of them were amazed by the splendour of the garments worn by members of the procession. Many women were draped in black, mourning their men killed during the atrocious World War ended five years earlier.
Yet their costumes were shining due to beadwork, embroidery and new-style laces.
To top it all, the two artists could not fail to compare the heritage Celtic style to the garments worn by urban women of those Année Folles – the Roaring Twenties – who had come to see the Pardon.
This is how sprang to their minds the project of preserving those traditions while modernizing clothing, menswear and above all womenswear in the modern life of the 1920s. A life to enjoy to the fullest after the European war and a new world encouraging speed with the motorcar and the aeroplane. A world opened to contemporary knowledge thanks to wireless radio and cinema. An urban planet where one wiggles at the rythme of charleston and jazz, where free women comb their hair à la garçonne (tomboy haircut). Then the French writer Colette published her novel Le blé en herbe (‘The Green Wheat’,1923), a love story between a teenager and a mature woman near Saint-Malo, an encounter resulting from the meeting between tourists and the local farming and fishing population.
The Seiz Breur, a fashion trigger
Likewise, at the time the surrealist poet Saint-Pol-Roux drove with his daughter Divine, around the roads of Brittany with his six-cylinder sports car and wrote La randonnée, a dissertation on how time shortens as speed increases: “Folly of a reckless driver: arriving before leaving. Still better: arriving before starting off. Since nothing has been seen, it is just as well to stay put.”
Consequently, to accomodate old style garments to the modern world, Malivel and Creston conceived the idea of launching a fashion magazine (Ar Mod in breton), which would offer their readers drawings of garments and embroidery patterns to trace.
Suzanne, René-Yves Creston’s wife and the painter Jean Guinard joined the project.
As her biographer Olivier Levasseur explains Jeanne was all the more interested because at the time her position as a fine arts teacher included the studies and crafting of embroideries and laces (Jeanne Malivel - www.coop-breizh.fr).
Unfortunately, for lack of funds the magazine of Breton modern fashion Ar Mod never saw the light of day.
Yet this initial team formed the embryo of the Seiz Breur movement founded a little later at the small fishing harbour of La Turballe, as a grouping of Breton artists and artisans who played a role of interior designers. Therefore, it was ironically born thanks to its least known facet: clothing design.
Meanwhile famous Parisian fashion designers drew inspiration from Brittany.Take the case of Paul Poiret (1879-1944) a forerunner of Art Déco (a vision of refined style shared by the Seiz Breur) and chairman of La Chambre de commerce de la Haute Couture (French fashion council).
Before the war, Poiret bought a cottage in l’Ile-Tudy (facing Pont-L’Abbé). He found local inspiration as he came across the female workers of the sardine canneries of Douarnenez, nicknamed in Breton the ‘sardine heads’ (Penn-Sardin).
In 1924, they went on strike to get better wages, and it was the first time that a woman, their leader Josephine Pencalet, got elected to a city council (whereas women did not have voting rights at the time). It is understandable that Poiret was as much inspired by the Breton women as by suffragettes fighting for the right to vote.
The Breton influence over his work is already evidenced by the design below drawn by the pattern maker Muguette Buhler for Poiret’s collections in 1922..
Around that time, in 1925, the Seiz Breur grouping was awarded a collective Gold Medal for their Breton Pavillion at the Paris Exposition des Arts décoratifs.
Of failing health, Jeanne Malivel died the following year. It was not however the end of a growing interest for a new Breton fashion. With Marguerite Gourlaouen from Douarnenez (1902-1987), Suzanne Creston founded the circle Nadozioù (‘Needles’ in Breton) based in Nantes at the home of sculptor Jorj Robin.
At the same time a new economics magazine – Le Consortium breton – was founded by Jean de Saisy de Kerampuil and the famous Breton bard and druid Taldir Jafrennou. Its motto was Ober gant hon bro unan binvidik, ‘Make our country rich’. In 1927, they organized the first Interceltic Festival with friends in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Published that same year until 1928, this montly magazine carried a series entitled La mode Bretonne, written by a certain Azyllis whose real identity I am still trying to establish.
Glancing through this well-documented magazine, one sees that Azyllis’ illustrated ideas are as relevant as ever. That journalist wished to encourage a modernization of traditional costumes or wedding dresses without mixing them with other international ethnic shapes as one may wish to do so today. In May 1927, for instance, she dealt with wedding garments and noted this example:
“Recently I had the opportunity of seeing a bride from Quimper whose white silk satin dress was ornamented with printed flowers reworked with small silver beads.
This had an enchanting effect. Flowers were well drawn but the idea of surrounding them with tiny beads was most enjoyable and led to an unexpected impression.
The apron with silver beaded tulle allowed to see through the ornamentation of the skirt underneath. I am quite convinced that one of the novelties of the season will be those painted and rebeaded fabrics.”
“Boldly create new garments”
Following the Seiz Breur, the painter, poster designer and scenic designer Robert Micheau-Vernez, who knew Creston, worked on strokes and colours. One finds again the traditional costume in his world, and therefore shimmering colours were especially blatant in his paintings and ceramic decorations (tableware and statues at the Henriot Company in Quimper) such as statues of dancing couples in their traditional outfits from all parts of Brittany.
These can inspire new creations nowadays, as shows the book published by the son of the artist and Philippe Théalet Micheau-Vernez (www.groix-editions.com).
One would find in it his studies, patterns of costumes and coiffes (headdresses) and a firework of tints. No wonder he was nicknamed the “Alchimist of Colours” when one looks at paintings such as the one of a Bigouden woman, shown beside.
On the other side, René-Yves Creston who had acquired a great renown with his illustrations, also studyied on systematically old and modern garments as an ethnologist.
He wrote a real encyclopedia, Le Costume breton (Tchou publishers, 1974), unfortunately published ten years after his death.
His friend Pierre-Roland Giot, a specialist of Celtic civilization, wrote a foreword which ends by these words talking about the Breton heritage:
“It is not a matter of artificially bringing fossils back to life. One must seek to boldly create new garments that take roots among the people, and they will not be just a passing fancy or furtive fashion, provided they appear totally different from what is invented in neigbouring cultures, being on intimate harmony with the indescribable secret genius of mankind.
Only talent and inspiration allow this to happen. Rotten apples should not fall from trees that take roots in the magnificent soil of Brittany. »