Sandwiched by the iconic flapper dresses of the 1920s and the New Look of the 40s, the 1930s is a decade often eclipsed in fashion terms, but a London exhibition celebrating its rich archive is set to put it right back on the agenda.
Opening this weekend at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, 1930s: Day and Night explores the period that witnessed the birth of the department store, the rise of catalogue shopping, window shopping becoming a bonafide pastime, and how these developments translated to women’s wardrobes.
While the exhibition celebrates the enduring influence of high-fashion designers, including Madeleine Vionnet’s bias cut and Elsa Schiaparelli’s strong-shouldered silhouette, the main focus of the exhibition is to present how their designs affected everyday style.
“They’re not designer fashions – they have been designed, but they’re not designer pieces,” says Dennis Nothdruft, the institute’s head of exhibitions, of the pieces he has selected to display. “You can see the influence of Vionnet and Schiaparelli and knocked-off Chanel but these are real people’s clothes and that’s what interesting, It’s nice to see how real people dressed – and they were amazing clothes and they don’t have to be a famous designer to be any less beautiful.”
A natural sequel to the museum’s The 1920s Jazz Age, held last year, the aim of this exhibition, says Nothdruft, is to explore the social history of the period and contextualise fashion. As such, the boom of suburban living and the increase in popularity of social occasions such as the garden party is studied through the lens of the new daytime fashion garments they demanded. So too is the concept of day-trip dressing. “The first legally mandated holidays in the UK started in the 1930s – a requirement where people get a week off – so the idea of British seaside holidays [is looked at].”
Popular and original outfits on show include blouses and skirts, trousers and halter-neck tops, and dresses worn with coats, which demonstrated the rising appetite for practical and versatile looks that could be worn from day to night by working women. Many of which are hand-sewn from new lightweight fabrics.
“It was a time when fashion was reflecting technological advances like rayon, Celanese silk and bias cutting, but also looking at the realities of life,” explains Nothdruft, who notes that new magazines started to give women tips on how to make clothes, master recipes and run their housekeeper-free home. “Twenty-five per cent of women were at work in the 1930s, which was a large amount and a necessity. Dressmaking was something that women had to learn to do.”
The exhibition also explores dressing for evenings and occasions. As guests enter, they walk through a reimagined nightclub, where floor-length satin and velvet gowns represent the influence of silver-screen style icons of the era, such as Joan Crawford. On these pieces, details like hip peplums, deep V-necks and backless cuts show the progression from the straight-lined androgyny of the 1920s yet are still as relevant today, says Nothdruft.
“The thing that surprised us was the modernity of so much of it. The day dresses are beautiful, but it was the awareness of the figure under the fashion, which the 20s had but in a completely different context. This relationship of the garment to the body felt very modern to us. Some of the clothes are so contemporary [that] even now they would be considered quite risqué.”
Also included in the exhibition, which runs until 20 January, is a selection of portraits by famous photographers of the time, including Madame Yevonde, Paul Tanqueray and Dorothy Wilding, while the museum’s fashion studio will play host to Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 1930s – Fashion, Film, Fantasy. This micro-exhibition will feature a selection of his photographs from the 1930s documenting society at the time.