When I applied to the University of Edinburgh for post-graduate study, I was truly torn between studying the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and studying the 1920s and 1930s in dress and textiles. Their ‘History, Theory and Display’ taught programme had everything I wanted in a master’s program, except someone to supervise the latter topic, so I looked at the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in my coursework and my subsequent dissertation. I do not regret this.
However, since graduating my own research as progressively moved forward to focus on the late nineteenth century through the second World War. This means that my regret at not being able to see Elegance in an Age of Crisis at the Museum at FIT (closing April 19), is greater than for any other exhibition geographical limitations have prevented me from seeing thus far.
Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, and the Museum at FIT has done an incredible job with their exhibition website, blog, and in the catalogue for which I am daily checking my mailbox in anticipation of its arrival (what is it Carrie Fisher says, Instant gratification isn’t fast enough?). These are so good that it is some compensation for not being able to see the exhibition myself. Thankfully as well, I am a member of Costume Society of America; at my first ever national symposium I made the acquaintance of Ariele Elia, assistant curator at the Museum at FIT, who assisted with the exhibition and contributed to said-anticipated catalogue. Ariele was kind enough to take the time this week to speak with me over the phone about the exhibition, what it aims to accomplish, how it was conceived, and the amazing things it reveals not just about fashions of the 1930s, but about the innovations in design worldwide that were happening during an age society typically associates with breadlines, stock market crashes, Dorothea Lange photos, dust bowls, and John Steinbeck.
The exhibition is co-curated by Patricia Mears, whose work I have long admired, and G. Bruce Boyer, whose work I am now going to pursue with almost single-minded devotion. Elegance in an Age of Crisis was conceived after Patricia read an article Bruce had written about the changes in men’s tailoring in the 1930s. She found that the deconstruction in these suits mirrored perfectly the sort of deconstruction happening in women’s fashion, and thus the first exhibition to examine both menswear and women’s clothing of the 1930s was born. Patricia and Bruce had worked together on Ivy Style, so working together to demonstrate the elegance and innovation of fashion design in the Great Depression was not as difficult as it might have been.
Featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection — such as tailoring patterns for the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor who contributed much to the shift in menswear — MFIT was also loaned suits and jackets from the Ribonacci Museum in Naples (with whom Bruce has long worked), Fred Astaire’s shoes from the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, and pieces from private collectors including Hamish Bowles and Beverley Birks. The exhibition aims to be truly international showing that while it features clothing from the high end of fashion, the elegance of the era matched a truly global aesthetic. There are suits from department stores in Cuba, an emphasis on Neapolitan tailoring and its contributions to the deconstruction of men’s suiting, and a collection of qipao worn by Mrs Wellington Koo, a socialite — this garment was unique in making use of traditional Chinese lines, fabrics, embroideries, and embellishments while revealing the contours of the body in a way that had never been done before in Chinese dress and which indicates the influence of modernity, the West, and cultural exchange in general.Left, McGregor man’s beach robe, c. 1935-1940, USA. Museum purchase, P92.11.4.
Man’s swim suit, c. 1929, USA. Gift of Mike Dykeman, 89.143.1. Right, Munchen swim suit, wool, circa 1930, Germany. Museum purchase, P83.8.9.
In speaking with Ariele, I was struck by the sheer amount of information, and the number of concepts and innovations the exhibition is communicating through 110 objects: 80 garments and 30 accessories. One of these innovations was the emphasis on the human body as it is as opposed to how the fashionable silhouette was recreating it in fashion, for the first time in years, possibly millennia. Having studied the 1920s extensively, I have often seen the silhouette of the 1930s characterized as a “return to Puritanism” or other such biases. What Elegance in an Age of Crisis does so well is to place the 1930s silhouette properly in the context of neoclassicism in the first part of the decade and Victorian revival in the latter half of the decade — celebrating the human body instead of contorting it has had been done in the Edwardian age, or concealing or denying it’s adult state as happened during the youthful, tubular shapes of the 1920s.
This emphasis on the body also led to a more public — if initially scandalous — acknowledgement of sport, leisure, and thus more elegant and visible sportswear and leisurewear as seen in the examples above. As Beverley Birk says in one of the accompanying videos (see below), you can’t wear a corset under a bias-cut gown. The exhibit also revives the work of Augustabernhard, who was equally talented at creating bias-cut gowns as Madame Vionnet, while revealing through the errors of a tweed coat by Charles James how tricky the bias cut was to create in an era when it was not formally taught in apprenticeships or schools — it was an open field of discovery. This deconstruction in garments was, as I’ve already said, echoed or mirrored in the deconstruction of men’s tailoring to create the soft drape of what became known as the ‘London Drape’.Left, Augustabernard (attributed) gown, ivory tulle. 1934, USA (licensed French copy). Gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills, 93.71.4. Right, London House (founder: Gennaro Rubinacci, tailor: Vincenzo Attolini) classic Neopolitan jacket, silk thussor, 1930s, Italy. Lent by the Rubinnaci Museum.
There is a natural division within the show, which opens with accessories — that wonderful way in which you can make a small budget stretch — and then leads into distinct themes of active and resortwear, women’s day wear, menswear, women’s evening wear, and patterns. This decision on how to layout the pieces was not a challenge for the museum, since the divisions seemed almost pre-made by the very nature of the era and the clothing itself.
By far, for me, the most incredible aspect of the exhibition is all of the original research, and the ways in which that research has enhanced our understanding of the era not only as dress historians, but in the understanding of worldwide design and visual culture. It was truly an era of international design innovation, with an international aesthetic to accompany an international depression. And yet, through film and clothing and design, the people of the 1930s escaped those hardships and almost in defiance of their circumstances created a “golden age of fashion”, as Bruce calls it, to be elegant in a way that still inspires designers today. The detail that Bruce and Patricia put into their analysis of clothing, and their understanding of the construction and the changes that happened in clothing construction at the time is awe-inspiring.
I will not attempt to paraphrase their phenomenal work, since I would by no means do it justice, but I wholly recommend visiting the exhibition if you can. If you, like me, cannot, I recommend the blog, the catalogue, and the videos below. Which I will be watching over, and over, and over again.
Gardner and Wooley LTD smoking jacket, green velvet, satin, 1936, London. Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son.
Have any of you been to Elegance in an Age of Crisis? What were your thoughts? Did you like or dislike it? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And if there are any North American exhibitions or events you would like to announce or see covered, feel free to email me.
Opening image credit: Madeleine Vionnet gown, ivory silk organza with black lace insets, 1937, France. Collection of Beverley Birks.