Today I made my first visit to the Fashion & Textiles museum in Southwark, South London. This exhibition was a glittering, beautiful collection of haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion from 1919-1929. The 1920s Jazz Age was an era when millions of young people were testing the boundaries of personal freedom, and it became a haven for social and cultural experimentation. After WWI, America had prospered economically, more people lived in cities than in the country. Women in particular, had a new-found freedom entering the workforce, thus introducing a new sense in dressing!
These were the first few gowns seen in the small cinema room, where short silent films were playing too. This glass cabinet displayed some of the most sparkling garments I had ever seen, and it was all because of the overlapping sequins that reflects surrounding lights and colours. Sequins went from being made out of metals to celluloid, a transparent flammable plastic made in sheets, usually used in cinematic films.
These gowns were truly alluring in their shimmering fabrics, and simply photographing them is not the same as seeing the shimmer firsthand. It is so attractive which is why sparkling fabrics such as Lamé were highly favoured in monochromatic films, as they produced a strong visual effect that leapt off the screens.
Pyjamas and Dressing Gown 1922-24
This was one of my favourite pieces from the exhibition. They are silk pyjamas watermarked in a Chinese-style with stylised oriental floral motif. The dressing gown is in a kimono-style with a knotted fringe that beautifully transitions into orange at the ends. The garment seems incredibly comfortable in the smoothness and slippery silk, and the design is picturesque and relaxing almost. The evening is a time for rest and loosening, and women in the 1920s managed to portray this remarkably through dress.
I wished that the exhibition would display more memoirs of people from the era. Jean Rennie’s account of tidying up after her mistress created such a witty and modern account of an evening in 1920s:
“It didn’t seem possible that one woman could make such a mess when all she had to do was step out of the clothes she was wearing… Drawers were open, powder spilled, shoes, underwear all flung everywhere!”
I thought the biggest change in 1920s was the transformation in silhouettes. There was a straighter, less exaggerated shape and hemlines rose as the ankle was no longer perceived as scandalous. The corset was banished, and emphasis on the waist was not completely gone, but it wasn’t the focal point of modern fashion. Lingerie was designed to flatten or smooth the bust, and the look was to be gamine than boyish. The desired shape for women was now tall, thin and tubular. I love that at this point, women began to let fashion liberate them, as it was no longer the decade of a confining domestic life.
Embroidery Technique: Tambour
This type of stitch involves a very slim, sharp hook, which is punched through a tightly stretched fabric to catch a fine thread from beneath and it is drawn up to create a linked, chain like stitch. The design is delicate, feminine and very young.
From 1925, this dress was constructed with fillet lace which is the general name used for a variety of embroidery techniques on knotted net lace made of square or diagonal meshes. It requires using a long, blunt needle. Again, the result is absolutely stunning and very girly, youthful and spirited almost, yet so delicate just like a pattern cut from paper.
This dress is made from velvet, and I was instantly attracted to the beaded detail, as the swirls are so perfectly embroidered, and they recall the illustrations of Erté. Erté was a Russian -born French artist who excelled in jewellery, graphic design, costume, set and interior decoration.
Made of cotton and beads, this brilliant dazzling gown was once a pale pink, and such an expensive dress would usually be worn by flappers in parties that could “last for days”. They were mostly handmade in Paris, and as the dancer wore it, the silver bugle beads would be shining in the darkest of evenings.
For me, this was one of the best exhibits I have ever been to because it felt like entering a sort of “dream”, a vision covered in glitter and this is exactly what the 1920s was for women. When the Depression hit and changed everything with women’s fashions too, the great lengths for freedom for women lasted and a new way of life broke through. It was such a powerful period in altering the dress sense forever, and I find this admirable or even mind-blowing in how this has contributed to our styles and modern morales today, such as those about sex, birth control and other politics.