All the style and enchantment of the 1930s era is revived in Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs, an exhibition being presented at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. Featuring over 100 clothing pieces and ensembles, the show highlights the decade’s most defining styles and silhouettes.
This exhibit illustrates how the ‘30s aesthetic merged the edginess of Art Deco and Modernism, surprise elements of surrealism and the glamour of classical cinema. The period is known for moving beyond the excessive approach of the Jazz Age and embracing the pragmatism of World War II. Fashion of the 1930s was born into a time of vast social and cultural change that greatly informed its approach and stylings.
The exhibition begins with evening wear designed with true opulence and allure in mind. Developing away from the relaxed androgyny of the ‘20s, structural shapes returned in the ‘30s with more attention to cuts, angles and accentuating the body.
Designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli emphasized a level of sophistication and refinement in their profiles. “The defining silhouette of the 1930s was the bias cut, pioneered in the previous decade by designer Madeleine Vionnet,” said exhibition Co-Curator Teresa Collonette. “The clever paneled construction of the bias cut hugged a woman’s curves perfectly allowing her to glide glamorously across the dance floor. Also, the back became a focus in the 1930s and most of the evening gowns feature a plunge back detail.”
Luxe materials like satin, velvet and crepe were bejewelled or embellished, frequently in Art Deco-esque sunrays. Floor-length, lithe evening silhouettes were the standards, often with dramatic cuts, topped with de rigeur bolero jackets. Voluminous peplum hemlines and ruffled or caped sleeves were also thematic styles that emphasized the shoulders and waist, and called attention to the womanly femininity of the era.
Major influences of the time included the rise of Hollywood cinema and elegant silver screen stars such as Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. Major retailers placed a new visual emphasis on window displays and merchandising, and women’s interest magazines echoed this approach, reflecting the cultural and fashion ideals of the moment. Subtly, all these surrounding aspects of life encouraged specific ideas of how a woman of the ‘30s should present herself.
“Due to the popularity of the movies with its glamorous musicals and famous stars, Hollywood became extremely influential in promoting fashion, thus lessening, to a certain degree, the sway of Paris,” said Teresa Collonette. “The new mass circulation women’s magazines gave women of all classes fashion advice often including free patterns for the readers to make their own clothes as well as offering dressmaking services.” In contrast to the difficult politics and economics of the era, these outlets of escapism brought welcome stylistic distractions.
The newly popular ideal of suburban living played an important role in determining ‘30s daywear looks. With an onslaught of modern homes built during the period, middle class, suburban living became a reigning social aspiration. Garden parties, sporting activities and seaside vacations accompanied the suburban lifestyle, requiring versatile clothing such as blouses and skirts, trousers and halters, and dresses and jackets. The practicality of these styles lay in the ability to mix and match pieces for a maximal wardrobe.
Vacation and swimwear were also key, reflecting a cultural shift towards fitness and the value of leisurely pastimes. Fashion retail evolved during the ‘30s towards more singular retailers, department stores and mail-order shopping catalogues.
Consequently, ready-to-wear clothing was more accessible and broadly visible in fashion. Mass-produced textiles and fabrics were further developed, creating materials like Rayon and Celanese silk that gave fluidity to the era’s designs. Colors and patterns were abundant, ranging from florals to dots, offering day dresses an elevated flair that separated them from yesteryear’s house dresses.
“The rise in mass manufacture and availability of ready-to-wear clothing provided women of all classes with increased access to fashionable clothes that they could buy in department stores and through catalogues,” said Teresa Collonette. “Now the latest styles from Paris as well as the glamorous gowns worn by the stars of the silver screen could be copied and sold at affordable prices.”
The final sections of the exhibition explore special occasion attire. The 1937 British coronation was a widely anticipated and celebrated event, particularly touted by women’s magazines. Official coronation colours of red and blue were chosen and sponsored by the British Colour Council. A range of tones were named after the Royal Palaces, such as Holyrood Green and Buckingham Lilac, elevating the hues by regal association.
Special selections of rare and elaborate evening wear, like floor-length sequin gowns are shown alongside news and photography capturing the history of the decade’s movie stars, starlets and fashion icons including Chanel, Schiaparelli, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Salvador Dali and Queen Elizabeth II. Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs showcases the period’s most influential and significant day and evening fashions, offering audiences a full experience of the ‘30s in its chic moment of cultural and aesthetic evolution.
Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London from October 12, 2018 to January 20, 2019.
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