Friday, 23 March 2012

Fashion's Interruption Between the Great Wars

Photo by Victoria Furuya
                   Golden Age thinking: the belief that a time before our own was better, more glamorous, more progressive, and in this case, more chic. Serving as a reminder of a time before our own, mannequins stand sentinel, donned in garments from an era of shifting trends and irrefutable allure.
            The Museum of Vancouver (or, as its been known since the rebranding in 2009, the MOV) is currently showcasing an Art Deco Chic exhibit. Amanda McCuaig, an organizer of the exhibit, leads me around the quiet room a couple of hours before the exhibit opening.
            The pieces are all from the early 20’s to the late 30’s, and are from the collections of Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke, with the exception of four of the pieces, which are from the MOV’s collection, and one from a private donor. Sayers started collecting pieces when he was fifteen years old, in part so that the pieces wouldn’t go to waste. He lives in a two-bedroom house in Vancouver that is filled with clothing dating back to the 1700’s.
             The exhibit is organized chronologically, and so the first few pieces on display are from the early 20’s, around the time that King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered.  The clothing reflects this fixation on Egypt and the ethnic east. Aluminum sunbursts are embroidered on a shift the colour of desert sand, and a sheer lilac dress has pyramids and palm trees extensively embroidered along the top and bottom hem.
            “The 20’s were a time for women’s liberation of not only mind but also shape; they were fighting for the right to vote, and for being considered more for their intellect than their figures,” McCuaig explained. The shapes of the dresses are consistently drapey and almost childlike in their form, with an emphasis on surface design.
            “A lot of the pieces are silk and chiffon, and the fabric itself is quite delicate.  Reinforcements are needed because the beading is pulling the silk,” she says. The dresses that are up now will go back in boxes for 40 years so that they remain in good condition.
            The straight shapes and geometric prints indicate the heavy influence of art deco on the styles of the era. Think the Chrysler building in New York City, or the German expressionist film Metropolis.
“When you actually come in and see [the garments], it’s almost shocking how different it is from what your preconceived notions of what the 20’s and 30’s garments look like; particularly the 30’s, because you just think of the Great Depression.”
            After ogling a valuable black Chanel dress enclosed in a display case, we move into the garments from the 30’s. A jewel case of accessories displays leather oxfords, hats with tiny brims, a clutch shaped like a Volkswagon Beetle, and a small, headless velvet teddy bear, which is actually a perfume bottle.
With the 30’s, the emphasizing of shape is fashionable again, the waist came back up and in. There is a focus on more cut outs in the actual form itself, rather than surface design. A lot of dresses have intricately detailed and open backs, so they are the focus when dancing with a partner.
The drastic change in design from the 20’s can be explained by the fact that fashion is an industry: by changing what is fashionable, designers are able to continue to sell new pieces. Naturally, the grim economic state was also a contributor to the drastic change: modesty was valued, and liberation movements put on hold.
            Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the exhibit is the sense of nostalgia one gets from the garments. Much of the art deco details are making their way back into designs today; one piece, a short cream flapper dress, could be worn to a cocktail party. Some of the pieces are transferable from the 30’s to the context of the 80’s: the angular shoulders, kitschy pins, and black and white leather gloves.
            “If you take it out of the 80’s context and into the 30’s context, then it’s glamorous. It makes sense in a totally different way. Maybe men with big hair and tight pants will come back,” she laughs.
            On the opening evening of the exhibit, I chat with an elderly woman glamorously dressed in clothing from the era.
            “People just don’t dress like this anymore.  Any chance I get to recreate it, I take it.”
            This is Golden Age Thinking at its finest.  Nostalgia rules the fashion world; trends are repeated decades later, and styles reflect the shifting ideals of the people in the clothes.

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