Flirty Thirties

· Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs at the Fashion and Textile Museum ·

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In 2016, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London staged one of their most popular exhibitions to date: 1920s Jazz Age: Fashion and Photographs. Following on from this extremely successful exhibition, the Museum recently staged Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs.

Night and Day and 1920s Jazz Age were truly sister exhibitions. Both drew from the impressive collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield. Rather than designer pieces, the pair’s extensive collection primarily features handmade and off-the-rack items, which provides an opportunity sometimes lost on other fashion collections and museums. It allows us a glimpse of what the average woman might have worn throughout the day rather than showing us just what the elite wore, which is an ongoing dilemma in fashion collecting.

Tucked away in Bermondsey, just a stone’s throw from the south side of Tower Bridge, the Fashion and Textile Museum is a relatively small space and does not hold a permanent collection. Despite these setbacks, the Museum still manages to pack a punch, especially with theatric exhibitions like 1920s Jazz Age and Night and Day. Dramatically transforming the warehouse-like space, Night and Day boasted several dramatic displays featuring beautiful garments. Taking the visitor on a journey through a day in the life of a woman in the 1930s, the exhibition looks at how the Great Depression in the US affected how women dressed. It also looked at how cultural shifts and moments influenced how women dressed in the lead up to World War II.

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After a small, introductory room featuring evening gowns, a timeline, and British Pathé movies, visitors were wowed with the ground floor which had been transformed into a tableau of thirties nightlife. Broken into three cleverly themed sections, this space did not disappoint. One of the threads the tied the show together was using groups of colours either as groupings or gradients. It was a striking curation style that really packed a punch throughout the exhibition. It was introduced here on the ground floor.

The first section featured a marked display of black and white evening ensembles. Fans of 1920s Jazz Age would recognize some similar elements of the fashions, but these fashions added a 1930s touch. This is because in the early 1930s, the style maintained some similarity, but in a more grown-up way: longer skirts, a more natural waist, and the aversion to overt femininity had passed. There was still embellishment but less so due to the cost.

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This didn’t mean clothes were less beautiful: indeed, the most striking ensembles are the plain satin black and white dress, an elegant creamy white gown smattered with sparse clusters of rhinestones, and a bias-cut satin gown embellished only with a diamanté buckle and accessorized with a velvet and fur cape. Though it worked quite well to have a black and white display aesthetically, there was also historical reasoning: “Black and white was considered a very chic colour combination in the 1930s, promoted by designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973)…” (p. 11) the exhibition guide read.

Next, the visitor was treated to an impressive 29-ensemble scene. Moving from blacks and reds to shades of pink, purple, green, and finally, yellow, the evening gowns encompassed many of the styles throughout the decade. Here, you could see how sequins and beading took the back seat to other subtler forms of embellishment. Stripes, especially of the diagonal variety, were popular, as were floral patterns, belts, and layering fabrics. When sparkly embellishments were incorporated, it’s in less quantity than the previous decade (with the exception of a striped and fully-sequined gown acting as the “singer”). Small clusters, neckline accents, or beaded boleros are the extent of this kind of embellishment.

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In its place, there were bows and feathers, and more interesting styles of construction. One showstopper has intricate latticework on the back. Most gowns are bias-cut to sculpt to the body and reveal her figure. Fabrics are essential to these glamourous looks: “Liquid satins, bias cuts – pioneered by Madeleine Vionnet – fitted waists and greater volume in the sleeve and shoulder created a sculpted silhouette that oozed a sensual nighttime glamour” (p. 13). In other words, these dresses were slinky.

Rounding out the nightlife scene is the last section of nine lamé gowns. Cleverly concentrated together, the gowns show a beautiful alternative to beaded gowns: “Lamé was available in an array of colours in the 1930s, providing a glamourous but cheaper alternative to a sequin gown” (p. 21).

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While the display is stunning, it highlights one of my criticisms of the exhibition. I love the idea of learning about the women of the thirties through their clothes, but the literature accompanying the exhibition focuses a little too much on the culture and not the clothes. For instance, this section so clearly focuses on lamé, yet the above quote is the only reference to the fabric. When was it developed? Who was the first to use it? To wear it? Where was it worn? In what season was it most appropriate? What’s the story behind the two distinct silhouettes that differ from the generally similar silhouettes of the other gowns? These are the questions I have that remain unanswered by the exhibition. That being said, the ground floor’s theatrical scenes left me wanting more.

Luckily, that’s what awaited upstairs: much, much more, albeit a little less glamourous. While the ground floor told the story of 1930s nightlife, upstairs focused on daytime styles. These styles gave more of a sense of what women wore on a day-to-day basis. Much like 1920s Jazz Age, there were many cotton and organdie. However, these styles were much longer and form-fitting. Geometric patterns such as dots, stripes, and plaids, among others, are more popular than florals. Feminine and pretty, they tell the story of the new suburban housewife.

Across from these pretty afternoon dresses were slightly bolder and slightly shorter day dresses. These frocks had printed patterns: “Printed dress fabrics became very popular having the practical advantage of being cheaper than embroidered fabrics as well as less likely to show stains than plain ones” (p. 30). Many of these dresses were store-bought rather than homemade. Improved and cheaper mass-manufactured ready-to-wear styles along with more democratic ways of shopping led women to shift their shopping focus to department stores. Rayon – or artificial silk – had emerged the decade before and continued to be popular in the 1930s as a cheaper but stylish fabric. Indeed, all but two of the dresses in this display were made of rayon or rayon crepe.

Again touching on a cultural shift of the 1930s, nautical-themed beachwear demonstrated the focus on seaside holidays, exercise, and suntans. Beach pyjamas remained popular (as they were in the twenties).

A small exhibition-within-an-exhibition gave a brief look at the main professions for women in the thirties: housewife, typist, or domestic worker. A beautiful tweed suit that first made an appearance in 1920s Jazz Age (looking ahead to the subsequent decade) is the highlight.

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The final section looked at an important – and very British – event that took place in 1937: the coronation of George VI. Like downstairs, the scene set to display the clothes was dramatic and fun: Union Jack bunting crowds the mannequins’ heads as they hold flags, wear pins and hats, and celebrate in red, white, and blue. Apparently, the coronation inspired and influenced fashion as Vogue encouraged patriotic colours and turning out in your best for the special event.

Another striking display of colour uniformity, the patterned dresses complement colour-blocked dresses of navy and red while accessories pull them all together. Scarves and hats create an image of chic patriotism. Concluding the exhibition in this way subtly alludes to the patriotism required in the next decade as Britain entered the Second World War at the end of the decade. By concluding with the coronation, it ends on a happy note, but the patriotic colours foreshadow what’s to come without overtly referencing it.

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Alongside all these stunning garments have been photographs of Hollywood beauties and popular icons of the decade. Indeed, a whole room is dedicated to Cecil Beaton’s work. To me, these photographs don’t add anything to the exhibition. The clothing on display were “real people’s” clothes – not the designer digs of the famous women in the photographs. Of course, these women had a huge impact on fashion, but the images just don’t quite fit with the garments on display.

All in all, Night and Day, like 1920s Jazz Age, was a truly delightful step back in time. Its high points were the dramatic set designs and the quality and quantity of the garments. While the exhibition guide examined various cultural shifts that affected women, it didn’t quite bridge the gap between those shifts and fashion in a comprehensive way. Despite its few shortcomings, it was a pleasure to view.

Now I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if the Fashion and Textile Museum continues with the forties. If these two exhibitions are any indicator, it’s sure to be a knockout.

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These two frocks greeted visitors to the exhibition and showed the dramatic shift in styles that took place over the 1930s. The dress on the right is early 1930s while the dress on the left is late in the decade and looks toward the dominant style of the early 1940s. Both are made of velvet.

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