The Jazz Age – birth of fashion?

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Centrepiece of the London Fashion and Textile Museum’s current Jazz Age exhibition

The fashion industry is in turmoil.  The internet and social media have transformed the traditional show schedule to the point where designers divide between those showing collections ready to buy and those showing to the traditional schedules, six months in advance. It can feel at times as if the poor consumer is existing in a vortex of trends, spinning faster than we can respond.  Where did it all start?

 

London’s Fashion and Textile Museum might just have the answer.  Their current Jazz  Age exhibition focuses on exactly the point at which Coco Chanel was transforming Paris Ready-to-wear; Hollywood was starting to exploit the commercial possibilities of fashion in films and London was injecting glamour into the traditional migration between city and countryside.

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First Hollywood. The film industry was undergoing its own disruption as talkies replaced silent movies and some of the greatest screen stars emerged: Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  Hollywood engaged its own designers – Travis Banton, John Orry Kelly and Gilbert Adrian to craft the images of its stars (and the story of  Adrian’s collaboration with Joan Crawford in creating the sharp shouldered silhouette has become Hollywood legend).  The crucial aspect of the Hollywood business model was that they actively encouraged copying, even franchising out designs for others to reproduce and including ‘fashion shows’ within films. The longest shadow of that age is perhaps cast by Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco (1930) in which she sported full white tie evening dress – tail coat, topper and even the cigarette.  The image remains iconic to this day and has inspired countless designers including YSL’s Le Smoking and John Galliano’s collections for Dior in SS2004 and for his own label in AW 05-06.  1920s-tweeds

Back in the twenties, Hollywood commercialism was in stark contrast to Paris, where the divide between socialite and celebrity culture remained strong and haute couture designers strove to maintain their position as the fashion industry’s elite.  This made them no less prey to the emergence of trend-driven design.  Despite an unhappy period designing for Hollywood, Coco Chanel was influenced by trends closer to home, contributing to the ‘folkloric’ trend of the 20s through her interest in Eastern European and Russian embroidery during her liaison with Archduke Dimitri.

flapper-dressesAt the same time London’s reputation for eccentric practicality was emerging from the transformation of the country house weekend into a strange hybrid of a day spent at country sports and an evening of high glamour.  Driving this trend was the tendency for aristocrats, deprived of their heirs by World War One, to sell to the newly rich. These new owners sought to maintain tradition at the same time as establishing their own social schedule and the 1920s house party was  born, bringing with it trends of practical country tweeds (adopted by Chanel herself during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster) combined with evening black tie glamour. The whole scene was parodied perfectly by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. 

What was the legacy of these convergent transatlantic disruptions?  Fashion magazines and illustration emerged as a powerful carrier for trends, supported by Hollywood’s push to commercialise looks premiered on the silver screen and a move towards more home sewing and home-made fashion.

 

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Rhapsody in Red, illustration by Gordon Conway for Britannia and Eve magazine, December 1929

 

So we may think the fashion industry is undergoing unprecedented disruption today but it is probably nothing it has not experienced before and from which it has emerged stronger.  Bring it on and in the meantime, let’s just revel in a jazz age moment at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum.  See it in London before 15 January 2017 or online here www.ftmlondon.org.

Thanks to the ever-inspiring Amber Butchart and Adrian Tinniswood for the insight delivered by their lectures for FTM on Fashion in Film and Life in the 1920s Country House based on their recently-published books of the same names – both are wonderful reads and the former in particular a fantastic feast for the eyes.

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