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. | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
– 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 | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
– 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 | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
Detail, Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
Claire McCardell rayon evening dress, circa 1939, New York, gift of Denise Otis | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
– 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.
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 | Photo by Eileen Costa. © MFIT
– 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.