Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | copyright Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | © Eileen Costa

Elegance in an Age of Crisis has closed (the last day was April 19, 2014), but you can still read the accompanying book and visit the online version of the exhibition. Below is the label text that was displayed in our gallery, featuring hats from the 1930s:

Hats were vital to the well-dressed woman’s wardrobe during the 1930s, and therefore received more editorial coverage than any other type of accessory. Millinery was a relatively inexpensive way to update an ensemble, and a simple change of hat could transform the formality of an outfit. A woman’s choice of hat was also thought to be an indicator of her personality.

The smart hat styles of the 1930s evolved from the closely-fitted cloche of the previous decade. Some of the most sophisticated examples—based on men’s hats—were worn angled over the face. Although their construction was often complex, their streamlined appearance complemented bias-cut clothing.

To showcase the wonderful examples of 1930s millinery from Elegance in an Age of Crisis, we bring you excerpts from Colleen Hill‘s (MFIT associate curator of accessories) essay in the accompanying book—”Great Chic from Little Details Grows: Women’s Accessories in the 1930s”:

During a time of severe economic depression, accessories were perceived as relatively inexpensive items that could be used to update and sustain an existing wardrobe. Vogue heralded 1931 as the “Great Hat Year” – not just because millinery styles were novel and interesting, but also because they “were a considerable factor in stemming the tide of depression that was another phenomenon of that momentous year.”

Hill goes on to describe the hat pictured below:

In the February 15, 1932, issue of Vogue, a short editorial was devoted to the trend for “diagonalistic” gowns – asymmetrical sheaths of silk by Mirande, Régny, and Worth that spiraled gracefully around the body. Similarly, many hats were designed to evoke movement in the ways they angled over the face and head. Rather than framing the face as closely as possible, these hats were cut to reveal the forehead, and were also meant to showcase longer hair. A cocktail hat of around 1933 from MFIT, sold at Henri Bendel, exemplifies this idea: a shallow, rounded brim sweeps down over the right eye, while a high, curving crown extends dramatically upward. The brim and crown are then topstitched and stuffed using a trapunto technique, the diagonal lines of which reinforce the hat’s angled silhouette.

…This design is expressive but relatively simple; it relies on a juxtaposition of materials (straw and silk jersey), and highlights construction (using the aforementioned topstitching) over applied surface decoration. While trimmings such as flowers and feathers had returned to some millinery designs after their near-disappearance in the latter half of the 1920s, they were markedly simpler than the elaborate embellishments seen on hats prior to World War I.

Henri Bendel silk jersey and straw cocktail hat, circa 1935, New York, gift of Mrs. E.L. Cournand | copyright Eileen Costa

Henri Bendel silk jersey and straw cocktail hat, circa 1935, New York, gift of Mrs. E.L. Cournand | © Eileen Costa

By the early 1930s, newly “masculine” hat styles began to make regular appearances in fashion editorials. Sometimes resembling a man’s bowler, other times paying closer homage to the fedora, they shared a quality of casual elegance, and could be paired with almost any daytime ensemble. The origin of this trend, like so many in fashion, cannot be traced to a single initiator. With the sudden ubiquity of the cloche in the 1920s, however, a number of men’s hat makers, already experts in producing felt hats, began to produce styles for women also. Greta Garbo (who worked as a model and a milliner’s assistant prior to embarking on her film career) also influenced women’s fashion with her taste for slouched felt hats. Rarely were any of these hats mere copies of menswear styles, however. Although not as severely modern as the cloche, their intricate folds, tucks, and stitching techniques were fresh and subtly complex. A 1933 advertisement for women’s hats by Stetson perhaps best summarized the style: “They look casual,” it asserted, but “considerable artistry is involved in achieving the spirited simplicity that is the secret of the new hats.”

Purple felt and brown grosgrain hat, maker unknown, circa 1936, possibly New York, gift of Mrs. Janet Chatfield-Taylor | copyright Eileen Costa

Purple felt and brown grosgrain hat, maker unknown, circa 1936, possibly New York, gift of Mrs. Janet Chatfield-Taylor | © Eileen Costa

Also dating to the mid-1930s, a hat in dark green felt showcases the decorative topstitching commonly used on later examples of masculine-inspired hats [below]. Rows of minute stitches pucker the felt, forming narrow ridges in geometric patterns. The brim of the hat is also stitched to the crown at the sides and back, giving it its unique silhouette.

Green felt creased-crown hat with stitched geometric design, maker unknown,  circa 1934, possibly New York, gift of Mr. Harry Haas | copyright Eileen Costa

Green felt creased-crown hat with stitched geometric design, maker unknown,
circa 1934, possibly New York, gift of Mr. Harry Haas | © Eileen Costa

By 1936, however, many of the simple, masculine hats were being replaced by designs of a dramatically different silhouette. Styles with exaggerated crowns, in particular, began to dominate fashion editorials. Some were quite elaborate, made from draped swags of fabric, or heavily trimmed, while others seemed to combine the streamlined look of earlier styles with the new silhouette. A brown felt hat from the collection of MFIT demonstrates the mix of old and new ideas, featuring a folded brim and a high, peaked crown that is highlighted by glove stitches in heavy white thread [below]. It was made by Florence Reichman, a New York milliner who specialized in “not too extreme millinery.” The hat’s donor, Janet Chatfield-Taylor, was a fashion editor at Vogue and thus would have been especially attuned to the ever-evolving trends in headwear.

Florence Reichman brown felt hat with turn-down front, circa 1936, New York, gift of Mrs. Janet Chatfield-Taylor | copyright Eileen Costa

Florence Reichman brown felt hat with turn-down front, circa 1936, New York, gift of Mrs. Janet Chatfield-Taylor | © Eileen Costa

You can read more about these “chic little details” from the 1930s, including handbags and shoes, in the book Elegance in an Age of Crisis, from Yale University Press.

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | copyright Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | © Eileen Costa

Tweet us your thoughts on 1930s accessories with #1930sFashion, and if you haven’t made it in to see Trend-ology, the exhibition is still on through April 30, 2014!

–MM

Mrs Reginald (Daisy) Fellowes – socialite, heiress to the Singer (sewing machine) fortune, and editor of Harper’s Bazaar Paris – was a noted fashionable figure frequently found in the pages of Vogue magazine. One of the magazine’s fashion editors, Bettina Ballard, called her “the most elegant and most talked-about woman in Paris.” She was the embodiment of ’30s chic but also bold in her tastes and her attitude, daring to pull off even the most extreme surrealist fashion statements by designer Elsa Schiaparelli. (Think monkey fur, lobster dress, and shoe hat – even Schiap’s Shocking Pink was created for her!)

Horst-schiaparelli-1935vogueAugustMrsReginald FellowesBlackLaqueredHair

In this 1935 photograph taken by Horst P. Horst for Vogue (who often used Tungsten lighting to heighten an image’s dramatic contrast and shadowy quality), Daisy dons a satin Mandarin dress by Schiap and an eerie and fantastic lacquered wig by Antoine de Paris.

Antoine of ParisBorn Antoni Cierplikowski (1884-1976) in Poland, Antoine moved to Paris and became the celebrity hair stylist of the 1920s and ’30s. His clients included Josephine Baker, Claudette Colbert, Marlena Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Elsa Schiaparelli. He eventuality set up 67 salons in places as far afield as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, and Melbourne.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker in a wig by Antoine de Paris. Photo by: George Hoyningen-Huene, 1934, Vogue.

Antoine is credited with trends such as the bob, tinting grey hair blue, and the white/blonde streaked forelock, but what I find most intriguing are these shellacked wigs worn as hats. 1.   Just wow! It’s easy to see why Antoine became a “favorite of the Surrealists — Man Ray, Salvador Dali & Cocteau in particular — and his work certainly complemented the oneiric fillip the Surrealists managed to inveigle into every early 20th Century art-form & medium.” 2.

Wig by Antoine of Paris May 18, 1937 - Brassai

Wig by Antoine of Paris, 1937. Photo by Brassaï

bottom right

Photo of Arletty by Madame D’Ora (Dora Kallmus), 1932.

bottom left

Françoise Rosay, 1932.

wig left

Wig by Antoine from 1932.

Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray

Man Ray took this photograph of Elsa wearing a lacquered Antoine wig around 1933.

“Antoine made me some fabulous wigs for evening and even pour le sport. I wore them in white, in silver, in red for the snow of St. Moritz, and would feel utterly unconscious of the stir they created. Antoine was…certainly the most progressive and the most enterprising coiffeur of these times. I wore these wigs with the plainest of dresses so that they became a part of the dress and not an oddity.” 3. ~ Elsa Schiaparelli

coat by Sarah Lipska / photo by Paweł Kurzawski

Wig by Antoine de Paris / coat by Sarah Lipska / photo by Paweł Kurzawski

In her essay, “The Arc of Modernity: 1930s Couture from Paris to Shanghai,” from the exhibition’s accompanying book, Elegance in an Age of Crisis, from Yale University Press, Patrica Mears discusses the trend for reflective materials, even for hair, quoting the historian Anne Hollander.

“White gold and platinum came into vogue for jewelry and for hair, draped lamé and sequined satin offered rivulets of light to the eye as they flowed and slithered over the shifting flanks and thighs of Garbo, Dietrich, Harlow, and Lombard.” 4.

Given the appeal of hi-gloss and shine, it’s not surprising then to see Antoine’s lacquered treatment of hair and wigs.

Until next time, join us in conversation on Twitter with #1930sFashion.

-TS

1. Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 3 (Jun., 1993): pp. 657-684.
2. deep space daguerreotype
3. Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012: page 50.
4. Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993: p. 343.

Ariele Elia, MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles, copyright Eileen Costa

Ariele Elia, MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles | © Eileen Costa

This week we are excited to bring you an interview with Ariele Elia, Assistant Curator of Costume + Textiles at MFIT. You can read her essay, “The Wardrobe of the Modern Athlete: Activewear in the 1930s,” in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Elegance in an Age of Crisis, from Yale University Press. Ariele also co-curated the current MFIT exhibition Trend-ology with MFIT Assistant Curator of Costume Emma McClendon. The show is on view now until April 30, 2014 in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery.

- What was the most surprising thing you found in researching activewear from the 1930s?

AE: I was surprised to see what an active role women played in sports during the 1930s. Athletes such as Lilí Álvarez shocked the crowds when she debuted her trouser skirt designed by Schiaparelli at Wimbledon in 1931, and Amelia Earhart became the first female to fly across the Atlantic in 1932.

Lilí Álvarez, at the 1931 French Championships, in the trouser skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli | PD-US

Lilí Álvarez, at the 1931 French Championships, in the trouser skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli | PD-US

Amelia Earhart, 1936 | Hervert & Ewing Collection, LOC

Amelia Earhart, 1936 | Hervert & Ewing Collection, LOC

- In your essay in Elegance in an Age of Crisis, you detail Jean Patou’s many contributions to fashionable resort wear and activewear in the 1930s. Why do you think the idea of the active woman resonated with him as a designer?

AE: Jean Patou was an athlete himself. He was inspired by women who played sports and wanted to create ensembles that gave them freedom of movement and would enhance their performance. He observed women playing sports to get a better idea of how their bodies moved. His brother-in-law Raymond Barbas was a French national tennis player and introduced him to Suzanne Lenglen. Patou design her famous 1921 ensemble for Wimbledon, which allowed her to leap toward the ball and swing her racket with a full range of motion.

- Are there any behind-the-scenes moments from assisting on the exhibition that stand out in your mind?

AE: I was amazed by the level of connoisseurship Patricia [Mears, Deputy Director MFIT] and Bruce [Boyer] brought to the exhibition. It was inspiring to sit and listen to them describe the details of a garment. There is so much information that can be extracted by closely examining the construction. Patricia discovered an important aspect of how Augustabernard designed. While studying a dress she observed that there were 18 pintucks sewn diagonally (with irregular intervals that varied in length and depth) on the front while there were 13 pintucks across the back; this lead her to believe this dress was shaped directly on the wearer’s body.

- Do you have a favorite ensemble from the exhibition?

AE: One of my favorite ensembles is the man’s swimsuit. It has a zipper at the waist that allows the wearer to unzip the tank portion of the suit and expose his chest. Depending on the where this man was vacationing he could adapt to his surroundings. For example people in Deauville, France were more risky and showed more skin, whereas people in New York were more conservative and covered up.

Jantzen man’s blue wool knit “crab back” swimsuit with detachable zipper, 1932, Portland, Oregon, museum purchase | copyright Eileen Costa

Jantzen man’s blue wool knit “crab back” swimsuit with detachable zipper, 1932, Portland, Oregon, museum purchase | © Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | copyright Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014 | © Eileen Costa

- And finally, please give us 3 words which describe this exhibition for you:

AE: Innovative, streamlined, elegant.

Today is the last day to see the exhibition in our Special Exhibitions Gallery! Come see us and tweet with #1930sFashion.

–MM

Patricia Mears, photograph by William Palmer

Patricia Mears | photo by William Palmer

This week we are thrilled to bring you an interview with Patricia Mears, MFIT deputy director and co-curator of Elegance in an Age of Crisis. For more from Patricia, see this list of past publications, and check out this fantastic interview with her on Lively Mag. You can also read Patricia’s recent chronicling of her travels to Japan while bringing a version of MFIT’s Ivy Style exhibition to Tokyo.

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014. Copyright Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, 2014. | © Eileen Costa

- What inspired you to organize this exhibition? As a curator + museum deputy director, was there anything specific which drew you to the 1930s?

PM: I have always loved fashions from the interwar period of the twentieth century. One reason for that is that the era was defined by modern dressing—born of progressive innovation and traditional craftsmanship—and it occurred in the realms of both women’s high fashion and men’s bespoke tailoring, as well as their respective accessories. While this might seem to be obvious—a basic fact probably known to all fashion historians—amazingly, it is not. As a specialist in women’s fashion, I was woefully unaware of the brilliant changes that had concurrently occurred in menswear. It was Bruce Boyer’s essay on the 1930s American menswear magazine, Apparel Arts (launched in 1931), that illuminated for me the fact that technical and aesthetic changes were happening in menswear, separate from but parallel to what was going on in women’s high fashion. I stumbled across Bruce’s essay about Apparel Arts, the inspiration for a joint project emerged, and voila, an exhibition was born. It was kismet!

- What does elegance mean to you?

PM: Elegance in fashion and style is the desire to present oneself with both dignity and ease. I begin my essay in the accompanying book with a quote from Madge Garland, one of the great fashion editors of the 1930s. She stated: “We admire a faultlessly dressed woman without realizing that this deceptive simplicity hides a world of calculation.” I also agree with Carmel Snow’s description: “Elegance is good taste plus a dash of daring.”

Ivory silk marquisette wedding gown, maker unknown, 1937, Paris, gift of Clifford Michel | copyright Eileen Costa

Ivory silk marquisette wedding gown, maker unknown, 1937, Paris, gift of Clifford Michel | © Eileen Costa

- A significant theme of the show is the fabulous craftsmanship that went into both the couture and ready-to-wear creations of the 1930s. How were couture and ready-to-wear differentiated in the 1930s in terms of craftsmanship?

PM: Couture, because of the incredibly high level of skill available in Paris, had limitless possibilities. If one examines the hand workmanship of certain Vionnet gowns, for example, it boggles the mind. Hundreds of hours could go into crafting a single garment.

However, ready-made clothing also was often quite well executed. Claire McCardell, who designed almost exclusively in the realm of ready-to-wear, was as brilliant as anyone working in Paris. Americans had the best of both worlds, because at that time, ready-to-wear was viable only in the United States.

Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk organza gown with black lace insets, 1937, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks | copyright Eileen Costa

Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk organza gown with black lace insets, 1937, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks | © Eileen Costa

Detail, Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | copyright Eileen Costa

Detail, Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | © Eileen Costa

Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | copyright Eileen Costa

Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | © Eileen Costa

- Was there anything you learned in the process of research and planning the exhibition that really surprised you?

PM: I knew the clothes from the 1930s would appeal to many people. How could they not? But I assumed that most of our audience would be older: perhaps, for example, people who had a closer connection to the great films of the era. But many young people have come to see the exhibition, and quite a number of them are knowledgeable about the decade. It has been invigorating and gratifying to see students, as well as people in their 20s and 30s, coming to the show, marveling over the objects, and appreciating the garments in context.

- American clothing is radically different today than in the 1930s. For anyone who wishes to get closer to the craft of dressmaking and tailoring, what do you suggest?

PM: Whether you embrace craftsmanship as a creator or as a client, you need to work at it. It should surprise no one when I say that to become a great dressmaker and/or tailor requires a lot of time and effort. But it also takes years to train your eye and hone your tastes. Should someone choose to embrace custom-clothing, let alone become a master clothes maker, I would advise such a person to remember that one must have passion in order to pursue any artistic endeavor. Passion makes the effort worthwhile.

- Is there anything you’d like to share that didn’t make it into the exhibition?

PM: We very much wanted to include two dresses worn by Ginger Rogers in two of her films with Fred Astaire. They were designed by the American couturier and costumier, Bernard Newman. The Smithsonian has both the “Piccolino” dress from Top Hat (1935) and the so-called “deadly” beaded dress from Follow the Fleet (1936), worn in the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number.

The latter, a heavily beaded gown with wide sleeves and a face-framing collar of fur, was adored by audiences. But Astaire detested the garment. He noted in his 1959 biography: “Ginger came up with a beaded gown that was surely designed for anything but dancing . . . had heavy beaded sleeves that hung down from the wrists . . . When Ginger did a quick turn, the sleeves, which must have weighed a few pounds each, would fly—necessitating a quick dodge by me.” Astaire’s dodges were successful in rehearsal, but during the film’s first take, one heavy sleeve did in fact hit Astaire “smack on the jaw.” The dance number was shot several more times but the first version with the “smack” is the one seen in the movie.

I was saddened to learn that, due to the fragile state of the garments, they were not available for loan.

Still image from Follow the Fleet, Ginger Rogers, 1936 | via Pretty Clever Films

Ginger Rogers, still image from Follow the Fleet, 1936 | via Pretty Clever Films

, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat, 1935 | via Old Hollywood Tumblr

Ginger Rogers in the “Piccolino” dress, with Fred Astaire in Top Hat, 1935 | via Old Hollywood Tumblr

- Do you have a favorite ensemble from the exhibition?

PM: This is the hardest question to answer because the Vionnet dresses, all of them, are phenomenal. Having said that, I do have one favorite—the ivory tulle gown by Augustabernard. Not only is the dress that couturier’s magnum opus, it tells an underlying story about forgotten craftspeople, it speaks to the international nature of fashion, and its inclusion in the exhibition reveals something of my reliance on the great staff at MFIT, the people who make these exhibitions possible.

This gown by Augustabernard was one of the last dresses she designed. It dates to the fall of 1934, and by the end of that year, she would close her house. On a positive note, two of her top technical people would then be hired by Elsa Schiaparelli. I theorize that the new style of draping in-the-round chez Schiaparelli (as seen in the printed black crepe dress) and dating to the following season, spring 1935, was likely influenced by Augustabernard.

It is thanks to Ariele Elia, one of MFIT’s junior curators and my right-hand on this project, that this exquisite dress is part of the exhibition. I asked her to track down a version of the dress that I had seen in an auction catalogue more than a decade earlier, and to my astonishment, Ariele replied, “I think we have this dress in our collection.” So she showed me an unlabeled dress that she had noticed while studying the MFIT collection and, after examination, it became clear that yes, we did indeed already have the dress I was looking for. But it was unlabeled and, therefore, probably not a Parisian original. The MFIT version was likely a licensed, New York department store copy. This dress demonstrates the connection between the capital of haute couture and its biggest market, America, and this relationship is one of the underlying stories that enriched the dynamic fashion scene during the 1930s.

Augustabernard ivory tulle gown and slip (licensed American copy), New York, 1934, gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills

Augustabernard ivory tulle gown and slip (licensed American copy), New York, 1934, gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills

- And finally, please give us 3 words that describe this exhibition for you:

PM: Craftsmanship, taste, and, of course, elegance.


If you haven’t yet visited the museum to see Elegance in an Age of Crisis, don’t wait–the exhibition is on view until April 19! Tweet us your thoughts and impressions with #1930sFashion.

–MM

This label, direct from our Special Exhibitions gallery, describes the incredible work of Madeleine Vionnet:

Some of the most awe-inspiring garments of the interwar years were created in the hand-sewing ateliers of Madeleine Vionnet. Under the guidance of Georgette Petit, former premiere for Coco Chanel, the Vionnet workrooms pushed the limits of technical design. Two outstanding examples are dresses whose gossamer surfaces are ornamented with minute pin tucks. Vionnet and her staff had to precisely calculate the amount of fabric needed, as there was no seam allowance for alterations. This complex blend of patternmaking and surface ornamentation has rarely been surpassed.

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase, copyright Eileen Costa

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase | © Eileen Costa

In the book accompanying our exhibition, Patricia Mears describes the meticulous, breathtaking handwork of the ivory silk georgette Vionnet dress on view in Elegance in an Age of Crisis:

Dating to the spring of 1930, the ivory chiffon dress subtly illustrates Vionnet’s excellence at manipulating a garment’s ground fabric in order to create surface ornamentation. At first glance, it is difficult to see that the roses on the bodice were created entirely of tiny, hand-rendered pintucks. The bodice is made from four pieces of fabric – its bottom half is one piece, cut on the straight grain and laid horizontally across the lower torso, while the top half is two panels, one front and one back, with an extra piece of material attached to extend the self-scarf in back. (The scarf panel in front is cut from the front bodice.) The V-shaped neckline was created by slashing the ground fabric in front and back, while tiny gathers at the shoulders shape the top above the bust line. The overall width of the front panel is precisely calculated so that there is enough fabric allowance to make the roses. The double circle skirt is made from four pieces of fabric cut on the straight grain, then sewn together on the sides with greater fullness in front than in back. This use of quadrants is a remarkable Vionnet innovation that came about only because the couturier draped all her own designs and worked out this precise form of construction.

Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase, copyright Eileen Costa

Madeleine Vionnet ivory silk georgette evening dress with pintucks, 1930, Paris, museum purchase | © Eileen Costa

Madeleine Vionnet black chiffon dress with pintucks, circa 1930, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks, copyright Eileen Costa

Madeleine Vionnet black chiffon dress with pintucks, circa 1930, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks | © Eileen Costa

Mears goes on to describe the Vionnet dress pictured above:

Like the ivory version, the black chiffon dress, circa 1930 is a mind-boggling example of how a garment’s ground fabric can be engineered to create ornamentation. However, unlike the lyrical rose pattern on the ivory dress, the minuscule pintucks of the black dress are lined up in long, parallel rows along the straight grain. The fabric is draped on the bias so that the rows encase the torso in a diagonal swirl. The rows then turn at sharp angles across the grain. The resulting linear pattern is mitered, but quite unlike the bold and graphic look used by other designers, Vionnet’s mitering has the ephemeral quality of cobwebs.

Betty Kirke, a costume historian who, from 1979-1991, served as senior conservator at the Museum at FIT and professor in the FIT graduate fashion & textile studies program, published an extraordinary study of Vionnet’s work, including patterns constructed from detailed studies of actual dresses from the couturier’s collections. In this article for Threads Magazine, Ms. Kirke recounts part of her journey to know Vionnet’s designs on a fundamental level, a dedication that spans over twenty years.

Kirke sought to understand Vionnet from the very basis of her craft: innovative patternmaking and sewing techniques. Rather than seeing geometry as an escape into abstraction, Vionnet used geometric principles to enhance and elevate the human body. Her geometric lines do not deny, or seek to dictate or curb, the curvilinear form of the human body; rather they coalesce in dresses which comfortably envelop the body in elegantly flowing tracery. As Kirke notes, Vionnet united principles of shape, fit, cut, design, and decoration into “one cohesive unit.”

From the book Madeleine Vionnet, Ms. Kirke:

As [Vionnet] said, ‘the body doesn’t have seams.’ … Vionnet thought more of concave and convex areas rather than sides and parts. For example, she switched fronts with backs, inserted gussets for fit, and extended one part to the next at a common side. This gave her much freedom in draping. The result for the wearer of a Vionnet dress was that the dress fit well, moved well, and possessed aesthetic elegance beyond its two-dimensional form.

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet orange cotton cutwork dress, circa 1932, Paris, gift of Genia Graves | copyright Eileen Costa

Detail, Madeleine Vionnet orange cotton cutwork dress, circa 1932, Paris, gift of Genia Graves | © Eileen Costa

In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Patricia Mears details the magnificent crafting of this cutwork dress by Vionnet, on view now in our exhibition:

The simplicity of this dress’s square neckline, papillon sleeves, and full skirt belie its complexity. It seems likely that Vionnet would have cut the simple skirt – two half circles in which the bottoms of both halves have had extra material added for length – from a single piece of fabric had the material been wide enough. Vionnet’s co-designer, Chaumont did not always use extraordinarily wide widths of fabric because they were not readily available (although some silk crepes, such as Bianchini-Férier’s celebrated crepe romain, were available in widths of one-point-four and two meters).

Each tiny ovoid hole is overcast with minuscule, evenly calibrated stitches. Even though the dress is refreshingly modern, the scope of workmanship in this single garment is almost unthinkable today. While the lace-like fabric, rendered completely by hand, makes this garment a tour de force, its construction has a breezy restraint similar to that of the gowns by Chanel and Mainbocher.

Madeleine Vionnet orange cotton cutwork dress, circa 1932, Paris, gift of Genia Graves | copyright Eileen Costa

Madeleine Vionnet orange cotton cutwork dress, circa 1932, Paris, gift of Genia Graves | © Eileen Costa

And with that, we’ll conclude with words from the beloved virtuoso herself:


“The couturier should be a geometrician, for the human body makes
geometrical figures to which the materials should correspond.”

“If a woman smiles, her dress must also smile.”

–Madeleine Vionnet


For more Vionnet at MFIT, visit our online collections. Until next time, tweet about the exhibition with #1930sFashion.

–MM

G. Bruce Boyer. Co-curator, writer, and editor

G. Bruce Boyer. Co-curator, writer, and editor

This week we’re delighted to bring you an interview with the co-curator of Elegance in an Age of Crisis, G. Bruce Boyer. Bruce has been a writer and editor for over 30 years. He began his writing career in 1971, when he submitted a story on the Duke of Windsor to Town & Country, soon after becoming the magazine’s men’s fashion editor for 15 years. Bruce has published several books on menswear, including Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear (Norton, 1985), Eminently Suitable, (Nortion, 1990), Fred Astaire Style (Assouline, 2006), and Gary Cooper: Enduring Style (Powerhouse Books, 2011). Feature articles by Bruce have appeared in several national and international magazines: Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Departures, and many more. For more Bruce, take a look at these fabulous interviews with him on Ivy Style and Keikari.

- Your essay on men’s tailoring in the book [Elegance in an Age of Crisis] talks about concurrent movements in London and Naples. Was there a cultural “need” for these two movements or were they isolated in their concerns?

BB: The years after 1914 produced a perhaps unparalleled shift in people’s lives. Over ten million were killed in what was called The Great War, another estimated fifty million died in the so-called Spanish Influenza pandemic following the war; and then of course came The Great Depression starting in 1929. It’s no wonder that incredible change and experimentation were in the very marrow of the 1930s zeitgeist. There were new concerns in hygiene and aesthetics, travel and sport, family life, work, and education. Virtually no aspect of life was left unaltered. We look to the men’s clothing experiments in London and Naples because they were the ones that bore the most fruit and are still with us today. The drape style of English tailoring and the deconstructed style of the Neapolitan school have, over the ensuing years, been the most successful. At the moment it’s the Neapolitan style which seems to hold the lion’s share of fashion in menswear, but there are many aficionados of the London drape cut as well. Between them, they make up the majority of the tailored clothing seen on the street today.

Savile Row - Tailoring at Henry Poole and Co., London, England, UK, 1944. Copyright IWM Non-commercial license.  A view of the workroom at Henry Poole and Co., showing tailors at work on various types of jacket, including a naval officer's jacket, second from right on the rear row. The men are all sitting on the workbenches, some cross-legged, the garments resting in their laps as they work.

Savile Row – Tailoring at Henry Poole and Co., London, England, UK, 1944 | CC Wiki / © IWM Non-Commercial
“A view of the workroom at Henry Poole and Co., showing tailors at work on various types of jacket, including a naval officer’s jacket, second from right on the rear row. The men are all sitting on the workbenches, some cross-legged, the garments resting in their laps as they work.” – IWM via CC Wiki

- What advice do you have for anyone who wants to learn more about men’s tailoring?

BB: There are today a number of well-written books available on the history and direction of men’s clothing. Books by Alan Flusser, Michael Anton, Farid Chenoune, Bernhard Roetzel, and—modesty no virtue—me, among them.

- Can you tell us a bit more about the music featured in the videos?

BB: The musical score accompanying the exhibition is comprised mainly of hit songs from the American songbook, songs that were considered beautiful at the time and that have stood the test of time. There is an emphasis on American jazz and jazz musicians simply because it was the popular music of the day: the most lively, innovative, and influential. I continue to believe that jazz is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world.

- Do you have a favorite ensemble from the exhibition?

BB: I have two favorite ensembles from the exhibit. One would be the tweed plus-four suit made by Peter Sheppard for himself. The other would be the cream silk double-breasted dinner jacket from the atelier of Rubinacci. Both, to my mind, have a timeless elegance, and I would wear them both today.

Anderson & Sheppard wool tweed three-piece sport suit, 1935, London, lent by Steven Hitchcock

Anderson & Sheppard wool tweed three-piece sport suit, 1935, London, lent by Steven Hitchcock

London House tussah silk classic Neapolitan jacket, 1930s, Naples, lent by the Rubinacci Museum

London House tussah silk classic Neapolitan jacket, 1930s, Naples, lent by the Rubinacci Museum

- And finally, please give us 3 words which describe this exhibition for you.

BB: Elegant (obviously), intelligent, and sophisticated.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes interviews, and be sure to tweet us with #1930sFashion.

-MM

A woman can be overdressed, never over-elegant. ~ Coco Chanel

Women dominated the modern Parisian couture industry from World War I to the onset of World War II, a phenomenon never seen before, or since. One such example is Ana de Pombo who was hired in 1937 as the chief designer at Paquin, the venerated maison de couture that flourished during the Belle Époque. A native of Spain, de Pombo studied the piano and danced flamenco before becoming a clothing designer. Her theatrical style is reflected in this richly embroidered linen gown with corselet and bolero.

Ana de Pombo for Paquin

Ana de Pombo for Paquin, ivory linen evening dress and bolero, 1939, Paris. MFIT, Gift of Mr. Rodman A. Heeren.

 

Of note is that this ensemble was made for one of the era’s best dressed women of style, Aimée de Heeren (1903-2006). Brazilian-born Mrs. De Heeren was among an elite group of Latin American women who inspired fashion trends around the world. Patricia Mears discusses in her essay The Arc of Modernity: Part Two (from the exhibition’s accompanying publication) that Latin America was one of a number of important fashion localities that existed outside of Paris. Others included London, New York, Hollywood, and Shanghai.

Aimée de Sá Sottomaior

Aimée de Sá Sottomaior wears Christian Dior for Piguet, spring 1939, at the Circus Ball reception for Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) at Villa Trianon

 

The Brazilian Aimée de Heeren moved to New York in the late 1930s and quickly became a fixture in the city’s high-society circles. Patricia Mears elaborates:

Noted for her charm and beauty, she married Rodman Arturo de Heeren, an heir to the Wanamaker department store fortune, in 1941, the same year she was named on the International Best Dressed List. Even before attaining such recognition, Aimée de Heeren had been a leading couture client – of Vionnet, Alix, and Augustabernard.

 

Elegance in an Age of Crisis features a number of garments owned by De Heeren.

de-heeren-70.57.65

Augustabernard, black crêpe and lamé V-back gown, 1933, France, The Museum at FIT, 70.57.65, gift of Mr. Rodman A. Heeren

 

Balenciaga-72.112.144

Balenciaga, full-length dress, ivory and black pinstriped cotton dress, 1938, France, The Museum at FIT, 72.112.144, gift of Mr. Rodman A. Heeren

 

de-heeren-68.151.5

Monsieur Dobias for Knize, red and cream wool checked tweed jacket and culottes, 1936, France, The Museum at FIT, 68.151.5, gift of Mr. Rodman A. Heeren

Mrs. de Heeren also patronized the noted Viennese tailoring house of Knize, which had a branch in Paris. Her Knize suit (above), made of tweed, is not only a rare example from this noted firm, it is also an extremely fine example of sports clothing (the culottes are made for hiking) that, with its scalloped collar and pockets, is also feminine and charming.

Until next time, join us in conversation on Twitter with #1930sFashion.

-TS

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. Exhibition design, Kimberly Ackert, 2014. © Eileen Costa

This week we had the pleasure of interviewing architect Kimberly Ackert, the exhibition designer for Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.

Kimberly Ackert.

Kimberly Ackert.

Kimberly Ackert was born and raised in Southern California and has a Professional Degree in Architecture from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She has worked in France, Switzerland and Australia and won the Mercedes T. Bass Rome Prize for Architecture. Her work has been internationally published and is known for its sensitivity to natural environments and use of naturally lit spaces. She has taught Architecture at Harvard, Cornell and Yale and is currently on faculty in both the Graduate School of Architecture and the Lighting Program at Parsons, the New School University. She lives in New York and heads her own design firm Ackert Architecture.

 

KA: I had done several installation pieces over the years but never connected to fashion. I was working on an off-campus interiors project with Patricia Mears, the Deputy Director of the Museum, who invited me to see her previous show Ivy [Style], which I liked very much. After that, I was invited to submit a proposal for the 1930s show.

- Can you speak a bit about how you conceptualized the space and how you chose to reflect the themes of the show—innovation, modernity, classicism, austerity, and elegance—through design?

KA: The concept for the show was directly inspired by the clothing and the desire to create a tasteful but contemporary environment to reinforce the timeless quality of the styles. When I first began working with FIT, I saw a few of the key pieces selected for the exhibition and was particularly impressed by the evening gowns and their simplicity of line, impeccable craftsmanship, and use of flowing translucent and rich fabrics. I especially admired how the backs of the ensembles were equally if not more moving than the fronts. Keeping this in mind, I worked to create a show where the pieces could be viewed from a variety of locations and angles across the gallery to expose different profiles. I also thought to exaggerate the long line of the gowns by reflecting them into a shiny water like surface. This resulted in a composition of floating, glossy and rectangularly shaped platforms divided by floor to ceiling translucent veils or curtains. The combination of reflective and translucent elements enables long sight lines and close ups of both the backs and fronts of almost every ensemble in the show. As the scheme developed further, the space began to feel like a secret garden party on a summer evening.

An initial concept sketch. Copyright Kimberly Ackert

An initial concept sketch. © Kimberly Ackert

Collage investigation, Coypright Kimberly Ackert

Collage investigation, © Kimberly Ackert

- There is one word at the forefront of this exhibition—it’s something you sense immediately in the gallery—elegance. What does elegance mean to you?

KA: Elegance is a quality and a specific kind of energy that operates on us when basic design elements work powerfully with each other. Upon entering the space, I hoped people would feel that kind of mysterious energy and perhaps for a few minutes, be transformed by a calm, serene and refined environment.

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. Exhibition design, Kimberly Ackert, 2014. Copyright Eileen Costa

Installation, Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. Exhibition design, Kimberly Ackert, 2014. © Eileen Costa

- Are there any connections to 1930s architecture that you employed in the exhibition design?

KA: One of my favorite buildings of all time is the forward thinking Barcelona pavilion built in 1929 by the German Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In this project one finds a similar use of free flowing open spaces, reflecting pools of water, and translucent partitions.

The Barcelona pavilion, Mies van der Rohe, 1929. Copyright Ivar Hagendoorn

The Barcelona pavilion, Mies van der Rohe, 1929

The Barcelona pavilion, Mies van der Rohe, 1929

- Do you have a favorite ensemble from the exhibition?

KA: Yes in fact two — Augustabernard’s double helix dress for its amazing geometry and the sleek Nirvana flight suit.

Augustabernard ivory tulle gown and slip (licensed American copy), New York, 1934, gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills

Augustabernard ivory tulle gown and slip (licensed American copy), New York, 1934, gift of Mrs. Jessie L. Hills

Ivory rayon shantung aviatrix suit and hood, maker unknown, c. 1939, possibly New York

Ivory rayon shantung aviatrix suit and hood, maker unknown, c. 1939, possibly New York

- And finally, please give us 3 words which describe this exhibition for you.

KA: I was going for these words: sophisticated, timeless, and a little dreamy.

Photo courtesy of Linda Pollack.

Photo courtesy of Linda Pollack.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes interviews, and be sure to tweet us with #1930sFashion.

-MM

Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks

Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks

Straight from our Special Exhibitions gallery, here is the object label text displayed next to this stunning Jean Patou evening dress:

Jean Patou was one of the great innovators of the interwar years. He is credited with leading the seismic shift from the short and boxy 1920s chemise to the long and languorous gowns of the 1930s. Like his rivals, Chanel and Lucien Lelong, Patou was a master stylist who successfully pioneered sportif clothing for women. Although Chanel is often viewed as fashion’s great modernist, Patou may have been better as both a designer and an innovator.

Jean Patou is not as well-known today as many of his contemporaries, such as Chanel. In the book Elegance in an Age of Crisis Patricia Mears, MFIT Deputy Director and co-curator of the exhibition, writes:

[Patou] was among the great talents of the inter-war years, but he is not well remembered today. An obsessively private man, Patou was a notorious womanizer and gambler who had the misfortune to die in 1936 at a relatively early age. He likely suffered from devastating psychological issues that arose after his military service during World War I…Despite his personal challenges, he also designed evening wear that synthesized the elegance of the era.
…Meredith Etherington-Smith stated succinctly that Patou was likely the more innovative creator when compared to Chanel as “every time a striped V-necked sweater is pulled down over a pleated skirt, every time real sports clothes are used as an inspiration for fashion design, Patou survives. It is no bad legacy.”

Detail, Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks

Detail, Jean Patou brown cotton tulle evening gown, circa 1932, Paris, lent by Beverley Birks

Patou also created a line of activewear, discussed in MFIT Assistant Curator Ariele Elia’s essay in the book:

Inspired by the active woman, the French couturier Jean Patou was compelled to
create collections for this emerging new lifestyle. He debuted his first sport collection
in the summer of 1922. Meredith Etherington-Smith said that Patou’s clients
were “always adventurous with notations of being sporty or at least looked like they
played tennis or golf, even if they didn’t.” Patou, an athlete himself, understood the
needs of an activewear garment. He carefully studied sports and built construction
details into his garments designed to aid the athlete in her performance.

Patou designed a strikingly new athletic ensemble for French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, known as “La Divine” in the French press. Ariele Elia:

In 1921, [Lenglen] shocked the Wimbledon crowds when she debuted her custom ensemble by Patou, complete with a white, pleated, knee-length skirt, a white, sleeveless cardigan, and a vibrant orange headband. The length of the skirt alone was considered socially unacceptable; it was not until 1924 that skirts in general rose to the knee. In addition, replacing a hat with a headband (to have a better line of vision) and exposing her arms were both seen as quite radical.

Suzanne Lenglen in a Patou tennis ensemble, circa 1920 | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen in a Patou tennis ensemble, circa 1920 | PD-US

 Suzanne Lenglen at the French Championships | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen at the French Championships | Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD / PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden | PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden | George Grantham Bain Collection, PD-US

Suzanne Lenglen was an entirely different kind of tennis player. One of the first players to openly show personality and passion on the court, her presence was charismatic and ran counter to prior “feminine” values of restraint and propriety. As style.com notes: “She’d sip brandy between sets, break down in tears during a bad game and take to her bed with various illnesses in the off season. But before her death from pernicious anemia at 39, Lenglen not only changed the game for every woman who followed her; she won Wimbledon and the French Open six times each—records that remained untouched for almost fifty years.” Lenglen fully embodied the idea of the liberated, active woman, and her fashion choices were a visible extension of her spirit and tenacity, on and off the court.

And who better to design for her than Jean Patou? The designer was particularly attuned to the idea of the femme moderne and committed himself to crafting clothes which were not only elegant but true to this newly realized athleticism and sport.

French fashion designer Jean Patou (1880-1936), via Library of Congress

French fashion designer Jean Patou (1880-1936), via Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, PD-US

In striking accord with our last post on 1930s athletic and Olympic style, here is a photo of Suzanne Lenglen and Sonja Henie, gold medalist in singles’ figure skating at Lake Placid Winter Olympics III, together in Paris, 1932.

French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen with Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie in Paris in 1932. Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD, PD-US

French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen with Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie in Paris in 1932. Bibliothèque nationale de France, PD / PD-US

Until next time, join us in conversation on Twitter with #1930sFashion.

-MM

The streamlined silhouettes of the 1930s form much of the foundation of what we view today as modern dressing. Guided by resurgent classical ideals of proportion and the art moderne aesthetic, designers embraced harmony and grace, creating clothes that ran sinuously along the curves of the body. In addition to the long, lean lines created in the form of languorous couture evening gowns, activewear in the 1930s marked a new attitude toward sporting, movement, and the body.

While the scale and scope of the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932 may seem quaint by today’s standards of hyper-performance gear, with teams actively emphasizing the role their attire plays in competition, new technology in the form of synthetic fibers such as Lastex® in 1931 invoked its own emphasis on movement and performance in 1930s sport. The Ski Togs ensemble from Saks Fifth Avenue, on view in Elegance in an Age of Crisis, has ease of movement embedded in its design: vertical darts on the jacket and an elastic band at the waist promote both fit and comfort, principles which, in a marked break from the turn of the century, were no longer antithetical. The 1930s woman was fit and fashionable; she participated in sports such as swimming, skiing, tennis, and golf, often in international competition alongside men. As Assistant Curator of Costume & Textiles Ariele Elia notes in her essay in the book accompanying our exhibition, the “Chamonix” style ski pant, a straight leg trouser with a stirrup, was so-named after the first Winter Olympics held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. The purpose here was to invigorate and celebrate the active body, and nowhere is this purpose more evident than in Olympic competition.

Woman’s ski ensemble, Ski Togs, Sak’s Fifth Avenue circa 1935, New York, 96.69.38, gift of The Dorothea Stephens Wiman Collection

Woman’s ski ensemble, Ski Togs, Sak’s Fifth Avenue
circa 1935, New York, 96.69.38, gift of The Dorothea Stephens Wiman Collection, MFIT

Lake Placid 1932, opening ceremony. © Olympic.org

Lake Placid 1932, opening ceremony | © Olympic.org

The gold medalist USA bobsled team. via Raleigh DeGeer Amyx Collection

The gold medalist USA bobsled team | via Raleigh DeGeer Amyx Collection

The USA men’s bobsled team, pictured above, certainly look dapper in their woolen, double-breasted ski jackets, worn at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932. One of the 105 originals made is housed in the collection of Raleigh DeGeer Amyx. These jackets bear a striking resemblance to pea coats you might see on the street today, and in 2010 Ralph Lauren cited them as his inspiration for designing the US team’s official opening ceremony uniforms at the 21st Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Ironically, the much-discussed speed skating uniforms of 2014 have perhaps more in common with the bodysuit donned by the charming, stilt-skated performer at the 1932 Lake Placid opening ceremony than they do the speed skaters of ’32.

copyright AP

© AP

The sweaters worn by gold medalist skaters Sonja Henie (Norway) and Karl Schäfer (Austria) embody a brisk combination of sport and design: ribbed knit and modernist Art Deco graphics.

Sonja Henie (Norway) and Karl Schäfer (Austria), gold medalists in ladies' and men's singles figure skating at the 1932 Olympic Games

Sonja Henie (Norway) and Karl Schäfer (Austria), gold medalists in ladies’ and men’s singles figure skating at the 1932 Olympic Games | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13104 | CC-BY-SA

Gold medalist Sonja Henie on the podium at the Lake Placid 1932 Olympic Games (© Copyright Press Association Ltd.)

Gold medalist Sonja Henie on the podium at the Lake Placid 1932 Olympic Games | © Copyright Press Association Ltd.

And back to our ski jacket—the practical, even stolid, navy blue of the ski ensemble belies a form of ebullience not visible when worn: a bold color print lining on the inside of the jacket. As a form of intimacy known only to the wearer, the lining is a fitting metaphor for the ethos of the 1930s: if the outer appearance served almost to efface, to show quiet dignity in times of crisis, the lining exudes dynamism and panache—the combination of wit and whimsy required to survive in the face of uncertain times.

Interior of woman’s ski jacket, Ski Togs, Sak’s Fifth Avenue circa 1935, New York, 96.69.38, gift of The Dorothea Stephens Wiman Collection

Interior of woman’s ski jacket, Ski Togs, Sak’s Fifth Avenue
circa 1935, New York, 96.69.38, gift of The Dorothea Stephens Wiman Collection

Until next time, tweet us with #1930sFashion with your thoughts and impressions on the exhibition.

-MM