· How fashion museums connect us to our past ·
Close your eyes and imagine the 1920s. What comes to mind? Prohibition and speakeasies? Suffrage for women? Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio playing the tragic hero Jay Gatsby? Most likely one of the first images that comes to mind is that of the flapper, with her bobbed hair, dressed in a fringed, short-skirted dress and holding a long cigarette holder as she dances the Charleston: she is the icon of the Roaring Twenties. Visitors to the 1920s Jazz Age exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London certainly encounter the flapper. They find her in the sequined and beaded dresses, in the glamorous fur cloaks and in the black and white British Pathé films of dancers scattered throughout the museum.
But while the flapper is present throughout the exhibition, she is not omnipresent. Instead, visitors also find sweet tea dresses and simple summer frocks, velvet robe de style gowns with wide paniers and dresses that nearly reach the floor. For though the flapper has come to represent the 1920s in our popular memory, it was not the only style to emerge during the period. 1920s Jazz Age manages to capture the glamour along with some of the more ‘everyday’ styles. It is through those garments that visitors are connecting with the exhibition – connecting the women who wore the garments on display with their own experience and their own family history as memories are evoked through the material traces.
Elizabeth Wilson wrote in Adorned in Dreams about the eerie, haunted atmosphere of the fashion museum. Disembodied from their wearers, the ghosts of the clothes’ original owners linger among the garments. ‘We experience a sense of the uncanny when we gaze at garments that had an intimate relationship with human beings long since gone to their graves,’ Wilson writes. ‘For clothes are so much part of our living, moving selves that, frozen on display in the mausoleums of culture, they hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening; the atrophy of the body, and the evanescence of life.’ For the visitors to the Fashion and Textile Museum, however, the frozen displays conjure a different kind of ghost. Instead, the exhibition resurrects the spirit of the visitors’ family members, as the clothes summon memories long past. Just like opening a trunk of a person’s own clothing might, 1920s Jazz Age creates nostalgia and emotional connections to the clothes and the people of whom those clothes remind them.
Just barely within the realm of living memory, the 1920s still hold a prominent place in popular memory, which helps the visitors feel close to the exhibition. The reasons for this abound. For one, in the twenties we see the origins of our modern culture, and in many ways, the emergence of our current style. Short skirts, the appropriation of menswear for women, a sporty, casual daytime style, and extremely slim bodies: these all have their roots in the fashions of the twenties. You could draw a parallel between today’s athleisure trend with women wearing tennis dresses to tea in the 1920s, or see the rise in our obsession with altering our appearance through make-up and diets in the fashion magazines of the period. With technology advancing at an unprecedented pace, they were even remarking on ‘fast fashion’ in the 1920s: ‘The student of the mode – surely as fascinating a subject as any to be found in a college curriculum – will have noticed of recent years a distinct alteration in what may be called “the speed of fashion,”’ reads a 1928 British Vogue article. ‘There is on the surface apparently incessant change, accessories and details altering from week to week…’ It is striking how many of the ensembles on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum could be worn today, and this close connection to our current culture allows us to imagine ourselves – and our mothers and grandmothers – in those dresses.
While its similarities to today’s culture help us connect with the decade, films and TV shows have also kept the 1920s current. The Great Gatsby continues to have a place in popular culture, and in 2013 Baz Luhrmann released his extravagant adaptation complete with costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. Some of these costumes are on display in the foyer of the Fashion and Textile Museum, drawing in a younger audience. From 2012 to 2015, Downton Abbey portrayed the Crawley family throughout the 1920s and viewers watched as Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s wardrobes took on the period. These shows and films have kept the decade at the forefront of our popular memory and our popular culture; you can’t even attend a Halloween party without encountering at least one flapper.
A third possible reason for the twenties’ place in the popular memory is its temporal proximity. As noted above, the 1920s are just within the bounds of living memory, and importantly, within the period of widespread photography. I asked my own 103-year-old great-grandmother, who was 16 when the decade ended, if she remembered 1920s fashion. ‘Oh, honey, I can’t remember that far,’ was her response, but an image of her as a teenager in a fur coat with finger waves tells the story of a woman, still alive in 2016, who wore the sort of clothes seen at 1920s Jazz Age. The exhibition also includes an array of photographs of twenties actresses and a room dedicated to James Abbe images. Some of the black and white photography could easily have been found in anyone’s box of family photos. I myself grew up with the image of another great-grandmother and her sister, fashioned with bobs and pearls looking very much like Louise Brooks, on display in the living room and remember seeing similar images in friends’ homes. With the technology becoming more accessible, many of us have photographs of our families in the twenties, and thus a tangible connection is created through seeing our families living, breathing and dressing during the decade.
Today, when visitors visit 1920s Jazz Age, they think of their own mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Grandmothers they have photos of or mothers who passed down a treasured fur coat come alive through the clothes on display. The visitors to the Fashion and Textile Museum connect all the pieces of the show – the garments, the settings, the films, and the photographs – to their own relatives. Indeed, several of the pieces in the ‘A Decade of Change’ display of twenties ephemera are items that were actually passed down to museum staff through their own family. All of the clothes and accessories on display were really owned and worn by women in the 1920s. In contrast to an exhibition of unworn clothing from an archive (for example), 1920s Jazz Age’s relationship to real people fosters a connection to visitors’ families and past. After visiting the exhibition one woman commented that the experience was emotional and brought back ‘lots of memories.’ We are in the last years of having the women who lived through the 1920s still with us. But the decade is still close enough to us that even if the family members who did live it are no longer here, we have pictures, stories and their belongings to keep their memories alive. The clothes and accessories on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum may have belonged to other women, but we recognize them as the items owned by our own ancestors.
The visitors to the museum feel this and want to talk about the connection. From nostalgic reminisces on memories to yearnings for clothes long thrown out and even the offer of donations of garments held onto, visitors connect to the exhibition as the clothes bring family members back to life. The museum is filled with ghosts, but not the eerie ghosts that Elizabeth Wilson describes. Instead, they are the ghosts of visitors’ families that bring back fond memories of days and relatives gone by. One visitor’s grandmother was a fashion designer in the 1920s and brought her daughter to see the exhibition. You could see the excitement and the significance of the visit as the exhibition became a way for them to reconnect with their family history. Another visitor connected in a different way: she was confused as she didn’t remember her mother wearing any of the sort of clothes in the exhibition. Some describe the pieces that had been passed down to them, comparing them to garments on display while others remember an item they long left at a charity shop. No matter in what capacity, however, the visitors are relating to the garments on display.
‘We dream and imagine stories that are inhabited by clothed people,’ Judith Clark said in an interview for Fashion Projects. ‘The stories are powerful because of their associations, not factual accuracy.’ The women who wore the clothes on display in 1920s Jazz Age may not have been related to the visitors in any factual way, but the day-to-day nature of the clothes allow them to nostalgically associate them with their mothers and grandmothers. While expensive fur cloaks and elaborately beaded dresses are present, many of the light cotton and organdie day dresses were handmade and there is a realness to the variety of styles. The glamour is there, but so is the everyday, which is perhaps what is conjuring up the powerful memories visitors want to talk about. It’s in these exhibitions that show what women wear on a daily basis that the fashion museum becomes a powerful tool for connecting us to history – social and personal – through material, allowing us to experience the past through memory and nostalgia. ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ Jay Gatsby famously exclaimed in The Great Gatsby. ‘Why of course you can!’ At the Fashion and Textile Museum’s 1920s Jazz Age you nearly can.
1920s Jazz Age was on at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London from 23 September 2016 to 15 January 2017. Karina volunteered at the museum throughout the exhibition. It is currently on display at The American Museum in Britain, in Bath, England from 18 March to 29 October 2017.
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Fitzgerald, F.S. (2004) The great Gatsby. New York: Scribner.
Paris fashions and limited income models (1928) British Vogue (March), p. 11.
Scatturo, S. and Fashion Projects (2010) Fashion projects #3: Experiments in fashion Curation—An interview with Judith Clark. Available at: http://www.fashionprojects.org/blog/676 (Accessed: 4 November 2016).
Stallybrass, P. (1993) ‘Worn worlds: Clothes, mourning and the life of things’, Yale Review, 81(2), pp. 35–50.
Wilson, E. (2004) Adorned in dreams: Fashion and modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.