Fashions of the world wars’ intermission

By Daryn Wright

‘Golden age thinking’: the belief that a time before our own was better, more progressive, and in this case — more chic

Serving as a reminder of a time before our own, mannequins stand sentinel in the Museum of Vancouver, donned in garments from the early ‘20s to late ‘30s, an era of shifting trends and irrefutable allure, as part of the “Art Deco Chic” exhibit, which stays on display until September. Almost all of the 66 pieces are picked from the collections of Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. Sayers started collecting vintage and antique pieces when he was 15 years old, in part so that the pieces wouldn’t go to waste. Parts of his collection date back to the 1700s.

The exhibit is organized chronologically, and so the first few pieces you’ll encounter are date back to the early ‘20s, and reflects a rising fixation on Egypt and the ethnic east, fueled by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Aluminum sunbursts are embroidered on a shift the colour of desert sand, and a sheer lilac dress has pyramids and palm trees extensively embroidered along the top and bottom hem. Dresses have a drapey shape and are almost childlike in their form, with the emphasis on surface design, all characteristic of then-emergent flapper style. “The ‘20s were a time for women’s liberation, not only of mind, but also shape; they were fighting for the right to vote, and to be considered more for their intellect than their figures,” said Amanda McCuaig, an organizer of the exhibit.

The straight shapes and geometric prints of the time’s apparel indicate the heavy influence of art deco, an artistic movement that, like its name implies, was very decorative and ornate and embraced modernism, while maintaining a certain elegance as well. Think the Chrysler building in New York City, or the German expressionist film Metropolis.

In the ‘30s section, you’ll find a jewel case of accessories displaying leather oxfords, hats with tiny brims, a clutch shaped like a Volkswagen Beetle, and a small, headless velvet teddy bear, which reveals itself to be a perfume bottle. Many people tend to associate this decade’s fashions with the Great Depression, said McCuaig, and are often surprised that their preconceived notions of ‘20s and ‘30s garments are usually quite off the mark.

In this era, an emphasis on shape becomes fashionable again, with the waist coming back up and in quite literally. The focus turns to cut outs in the actual form itself, rather than surface design. Many dresses have intricately detailed and open backs, so they are the focus when dancing with a partner.

The drastic change in design from the ‘20s can be explained by the fact that fashion is an industry: by changing what is fashionable, designers are able to continue to sell new pieces during the grim economic state, which in itself also contributed to the drastic change: modesty grew in value, and liberation movements were put on hold.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the exhibit is the sense of nostalgia one gets from the garments. Much of the art deco details are making their way back into designs today. Some of the exhibit’s pieces, such as a short cream flapper dress, could easily be worn to a cocktail party today, while others are transferable from the ‘30s to the context of the ‘80s: the angular shoulders, kitschy pins, and black and white leather gloves.

“If you take it out of the ‘80s context and into the ‘30s context, then it becomes glamorous. Maybe men with big hair and tight pants will come back too,” McCuaig laughed.

Old styles have shifted forward to the present, reflecting the changing ideals of the people in the clothes. Nostalgia for the decades past now rules the fashion world. “People just don’t dress like this anymore. Any chance I get to recreate it, I take it,” said one elderly woman at the opening night exhibit, glamorously dressed in clothing of the exhibit’s era.