The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology new exhibition Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, investigate the evolution of men’s and women’s fashion in the decade that saw the birth of ‘modern’ apparel. The 80 ensembles and 30 accessories on show include some of the most innovative and beautifully designed of the 20th century.
Despite, or maybe because of, the crippling financial crisis and a dire political environment, the 1930s saw new technologies and stylistic ideas emerged. It was a time of grand transformations, when fashion echoed the Streamline Moderne aesthetic introduced by the design of industrial products. Garments were softer, minimally ornamented, and elegantly proportioned.
The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology explains: “Technical innovations in textile production transformed what was possible for couturiers: looms were wider, dyeing vats were larger, and fibers were more tightly twisted. These expansive and flexible new materials gave dressmakers larger “canvases” upon which to rethink and refine draping techniques, while featherweight textiles lent their garments new suppleness and flexibility. Tailors in both Northern and Southern Europe simultaneously began to deconstruct the jacket and to create a garment that was shapely, yet pliant. Lighter materials, such as linen, were used to make softer jackets.”
This evolution in material and techniques was accompanied by the revival classicism in the creative arts. Designers and Grand Couturiers were spurred to create clothing that enhanced movement and flattered the classically idealized body. Thanks to the development of the cinema industry and despite the geographical spread of these innovations, the fashion of the 1930s was a truly international phenomenon.
The first part of the exhibition addresses sport and resort wear. Their development was a direct consequence of the democratization of leisure and sport activities such as swimming, tennis, golf, and skiing. These outdoor activities reflected an increased concern with body and health.
The second section of the exhibition considers developments in men’s tailoring and evolution women’s couture, focusing mainly on daywear. Until the 30s tailoring across Europe mainly followed an English tradition. The exhibition presents examples of the first “deconstructed” jackets and coats created by famous Neapolitan tailor Vincenzo Attolini – on loan from the Rubinacci Museum. They illustrate tailoring revolution that took place in the 1930s. Similarly for womenswear, a bias-cut brown wool tweed coat by Charles James (1936); handmade couture day dresses and garments from Shanghai show a renewed quest for body flattering, comfortable garments.
The third section of the show considers the dramatic and varied formal wear of the decade. It features designs by European couturies Madeleine Vionnet, Augusta Bernard, Louise Boulanger, Balenciaga, and Alix, as well as the work of American designers such as Elizabeth Hawes, Valentina, and Claire McCardell. They illustrate important trends of the decade: the use of black and white, draping, bias cut and the innovative use of new materials, such as silk jersey and silk crepes.
This section also features the work of other influential designers, stylists or illustrators such as Jeanne Lanvin, Coco Chanel, Lucien Lelong, Jean Patou, and Muriel King, who were not themselves masters of the couturier craft. A red bugle-beaded dress designed by Adrian and worn by Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red a highlight of this section is a perfect example of the rising influence of Hollywood.
Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, on view until April 19, 2014 – Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Museum at FIT, New York
The was organized by Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT, and G. Bruce Boyer, leading menswear writer and editor.