Modernistic effects in furniture and architecture are being used with a vengeance by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Joan Crawford’s new picture. Weird beds, almost on the floor, have little woodwork frame save foot-high boards which conceal the springs and do away without the conventional legs of a bed. These are set against a wall whose only ornamenting is the shape of the doors. Black statues set against gold papered panels from the ornamental note. The whole thing is being photographed under the huge new incandescent lights.
(Extract from a 1928 Studio Press Release for MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters)
Our Dancing Daughters was the first in a trilogy of films designed under the auspices of Head of Art Direction at MGM, Cedric Gibbons (1893-1960). The other films in the trilogy being Our Blushing Brides (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). His high style, Art Deco inspired, set designs were befitting to the telling of modern-day stories that celebrated the decadence and rise of flapperism in The Roaring Twenties.
In 1925, Gibbons along with one hundred other U.S. delegates, visited the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, and it was here that Art Deco received one of its first major, official, public appearances. Art Deco made an impact upon the U.S. delegates, many of whom went on to introduce this style to American consumers and cinema audiences alike. During the Twenties, Art Deco was extremely popular in Europe and America, although only the rich and middle-classes could afford to consume the style in its undiluted form. However, it is important to point-out here that ‘Art Deco’ was only defined as a design style in 1968, when Historian Bevis Hillier wrote his seminal work, Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. In the Twenties, Art Deco styling appeared everywhere, from building exteriors to fashion.
This was the decade when socialites, aristocrats and Bohemians hosted extravagant parties and wore stunning beaded ensembles that shimmered in the electric lights whilst they Charlestoned their way through the night to fast-paced, jazz music. If you want to experience this exciting ‘Jazz Age’ then take a moment to pause here and watch a short British Pathé film (2 minutes 40 seconds). The film is from 1929 and features the Covent Garden Band playing jazz tune, ‘Who Wouldn’t Be Jealous Of You’. A flapper boy and girl also dance the Charleston. CLICK HERE.
I have a passion for Twenties fashion and was delighted to accept an invitation to visit Gosport Gallery in Hampshire to view the exhibition Dazzle. What an absolute treat Dazzle is and cleverly curated in the space by Gill Arnott, Keeper of the Arts for Hampshire Museums and Arts Service. Upon entry to the Gallery you are greeted with a central display of spectacular Art Deco beaded dresses and are instantly transported back in time by vibrant jazz music. The exhibition, although a gem in its own right, is also a superb source of inspiration, for the fashion forward among you, for what will be the hottest trend in 2013, the Twenties. There are eighteen garments from Hampshire County Council’s Museums Service collection on display and it is a unique opportunity to see these amazing but fragile pieces displayed together for the first time. The exhibition ends on Saturday 29th December. Free admission.
Alongside this incredible selection of dresses are shoes, fans, hats, shawls and other exquisite accessories from the same collection.
The Twenties female silhouette is easily recognisable. Dresses have loose-fitting, drop waists with knee-length skirts and often incorporate pleating, rosettes and brooches on a single shoulder.
This style of dress was perfect for dancing the night away and allowed for freedom of movement. Design influences were drawn from a wide range of countries and their cultures including the Far and Middle East, the Americas and most notably Egypt. In 1922, the discovery by Howard Carter (1874-1939) of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings sparked an interest, particularly among fashion designers, for Egyptian motifs.
During the 1920s, Coco Chanel’s (1883-1971) iconic “little black dress” (LBD) also emerged, made from thin silk and crèpe de chine. Chanel was: ‘..known for her simple daytime garments, often made from materials such as wool jersey. In 1926, she brought the little black dress to the fashion world and created the essential fashion garment of every woman’s wardrobe.’ (2010, p. 2, Dazzle Exhibition, Hampshire Museums Service). At this time, Chanel also started a fashion for wearing long strings of pearls.
In 1922, beige seamed stockings became available. The fashion was for legs to appear as naked as possible, a daring change from the modesty of Edwardian ankle-length gowns. Gradually, other stocking shades appeared such as grey and flesh tones. Artificial silk (Celanese acetate) was also invented during the Twenties. The word “Celanese” was first introduced as a trade name in 1925, a combination of the words “cellulose” and “ease”.
Surviving examples of dresses from this period are very rare, which is one of the reasons why this exhibition is so special. The dresses on display at Gosport Gallery would have more than likely been made by hand and cost a great deal of money at the time to purchase. Curator, Gill Arnott, tells me: ‘The average cost of one of these dresses was between £3.10 shillings and £6. 10 shillings. That was approximately one tenth of a working girl’s annual salary.’
Some of the luxury fabrics used are of a very delicate nature, such as silk chiffon, silk georgette, silk satin, ninon and voile. The evening dresses are heavily beaded which means that each garment can weigh anything from 450g to several kilos. The average weight of a satin party dress nowadays is 250g. ‘The best beaders were in Paris and La Maison Lallement were considered one of the finest establishments. Some of the heavily beaded dresses could have taken a single person up to three weeks to bead.’ (2010, p. 5, Dazzle Exhibition, Hampshire Museums Service).
‘The weight of the dresses helped them to fall into the straight tubular fashion but also caused them to tear and rip, which explains why so few have survived in good condition. The sequins, or paillettes could also cause problems as they were generally made out of wax which clumped together or melted when the wearer got too hot or when a partner rested their clammy hands on the dresses!’ (Ibid. p.8).
I asked Gill to tell me about some of the challenges faced by her team in displaying and conserving these precious dresses: ‘All the mannequins in the exhibition were bespoke, made in-house, to fit each dress exactly. Every mannequin has an accession number marked inside so that we can match them up again in the future should we re-exhibit. The dresses are different weights and shapes so it is important that they are supported on a tailor-made structure to avoid any deterioration whilst out on display. It took a team of three to get each dress onto a mannequin and we have to wear gloves to handle all the items in the collection. Firstly, a sheet was placed on the floor to catch any falling beads or sequins. Then, one person held the mannequin while the other two fitted the garment on it. The first person then eased down the hem. We had to work together as a team and I am very proud to say that with Dazzle, so far we have only lost one bead!’
I asked Gill if there were any plans to re-exhibit Dazzle in 2013? ‘Yes. We are hoping to re-exhibit a version of the collection at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke during the summer next year. Displaying the dresses at that time of year will present my team with additional conservation challenges. The gelatine-based sequins do not respond well to warm temperatures, heat from our gloved hands could melt them. We will have to wear extra gloves and try not to over-handle the dresses.’
Women in the Twenties began to wear heavy make-up and many followed the fashion of the day by having their hair cut into short bobs (1924). Another popular hairstyle, appearing for the first time in 1923, was an even shorter cut, the shingle. ‘Developed in France by a Parisian hairdresser, it was a method of cutting the hair by means of tapering which, in the hands of a skilled operator, could be adapted to suit any shape of head. The early form of shingle was short and exposed the hair-line at the back of the neck. By 1925 it was fairly common, the hair being cut to follow the shape of the head with perhaps a slight fringe and soft waves at the sides…Bandeaux of every description were fashionable, especially for evening wear, including narrow ones of diamanté or broad ones of beadwork, silver lace or silver thread embroidery. Some, known as shingle bands, were artfully designed to cover the shorn back of the head.’ (De Courtais D., 1988, p.150, Women’s Headdress and Hairstyles: In England From AD 600 to the Present Day). In 1926, the boyish cut known as the Eton crop was another popular hairstyle.
Once the hair had been cut into a preferred style, permanent waving, such as that offered by Messrs. Marcel’s Ltd, was also a popular and practical fashionable flourish. I found an advertisement from 1923, by Marcel’s Ltd, for permanent waving in which the benefits of this new hairdressing technique were promoted:
..this modern method of waving and curling the hair so that it “lasts in” for six to eight months is most bountifully time-saving. Bobbed hair or long hair, scanty hair or thick – it is all the same to the clever assistants at this famous house for permanent waving, 353 Oxford Street, W1 and the charge is always the same, five shillings each per curler or waver….Tropical heat, hot shampoos, or sea bathing have no effect on permanent waves.
Interest in Twenties fashion and lifestyle is growing apace and I predict this trend will continue throughout 2013. I asked Gill Arnott (Curator of Dazzle) for her thoughts on this: ‘I definitely have seen more beaded garments on the High Street in 2012. Miss Selfridge produced a range of beaded dresses earlier in the year. I also think that younger people are asking more questions of their older relatives about fashions worn by them in their day. The family photo album is now inspiring conversations between younger and older generations about fashion trends from bygone eras.’
There are also several high-profile productions, set in the Twenties, due for release in 2013. One being series three of Downton Abbey premiering on Masterpiece Classic in the US on January 6th. and the long-awaited release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, on May 10th. Gill and I are not alone in our observations for a Twenties revival, according to a recent MailOnline article: ‘..it appears that we are so fixated with the upstairs/downstairs lives of the 1920s characters that we are even starting to copy their wardrobes. Sales of retro styles, including flapper dresses and demure ruffled blouses, are on the rise…. Figures from Littlewoods show that since the third series [Downton Abbey] started sales of flapper style dresses have increased by 40%, traditional ruffle blouses shot-up by 109% and even men are buying in to the trend with tweed and cord blazer sales rising a massive 146%.’ (Daily Mail – MailOnline ‘Return of Downton Abbey Sends Sales of 1920s Fashion Soaring’ – 3rd October 2012)
Fashion journalists also predict that sales of Twenties inspired velvet jackets will continue to be a menswear trend in 2013: ‘With the eagerly awaited movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby set for release in 2013, styles of the 1920s have become one of the biggest trends in womenswear this year. But thanks to the velvet jacketed stars of The Great Gatsby, the Twenties are taking menswear by storm as well….A huge catwalk trend, the trend has hit the high street too, with M&S reporting a 42% increase in sales compared to this time last year.’ (Ruth Styles, Daily Mail – MailOnline ‘Great Gatsby Chic The Velvet Jacket is this Season’s Biggest Partywear Trend for Men as Great Gatsby Chic Sweeps the Nation’ – 13th December 2012)
I thoroughly recommend the Dazzle exhibition at Gosport Gallery, a visit will put you in the mood for the forthcoming Christmas party season as well as give you ideas for the hottest fashion trend around. The exhibition continues until Saturday 29th December 2012 and admission is free. The Gosport Gallery is located just across from the Discovery Centre, Walpole Road, Gosport, Hampshire, PO12 1NS and is open Monday to Saturday 10am – 4pm (closed Sunday and 24th, 25th and 26th December). For more information visit http://www3.hants.gov.uk/gosport-gallery.htm or call 0845 603 5631.
- The Victoria and Albert Museum, London have a brilliant section on their website with many articles and information about Art Deco. CLICK HERE;
- Fashion bible Vogue have a Great Gatsby fashion on-line gallery. CLICK HERE.;
- Glamour Magazine have compiled a selection of 1920s inspired vintage dresses that are currently available. CLICK HERE;
- For a brilliant article on fashion and lifestyle in 1920s Berlin, have a look at the recently published: Bohème Sauvage: back to Berlin 1920s style by Carolyn Hair at Culture Darling. There are some great images to inspire you as well. CLICK HERE.
- Finally, there are some gorgeous 1920s style dresses on www.rockmyvintage.co.uk . They have gathered a collection of vintage 1920s dresses and Twenties style dresses ‘…to tempt you into a classic Charleston look with a modern twist’. CLICK HERE.