Rokit Revels in Glitz & Glam of the 1920s at the Fashion and Textiles Museum

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We run through our exhibition highlights on the opening week of the Fashion and Textile Museum's latest exhibition 1920s JAZZ AGE Fashion & Photographs, featuring photographs from the private collection of renouned photographer James Abbe.

Words by Danielle Morgan

Glitz, glamour, jazz and liquor. The 1920s were a time of excessive drinking and outlandish fashions. You didn't have to be rich to dress well during the '20s, all you needed was mothers' sewing machine and a pattern from the latest issue of Vogue. 1919-1929 was a period of huge social, political and economical change, perhaps no more so expressed than through the women of the decade; what they wore and which unscrupulous activities they indulged in.

Check out 1920s JAZZ AGE Fashion & Photographs Official Website

Functionality Over Form

As with any period in history, the position of women in society was largely reflected in contemporary fashions of the period. Rigid corsets that created hourglass silhouettes were either ditched or surpassed for a more comfortable alternative that flattened the chest and hips creating a more cylindrical, tubular silhouette. During the war, women on the home front were expected to work gruelling hours in munitions factories and in the fields. Tight corsets and long skirts were uncomfortable, not to mention impractical. The restrictive dress codes of the Edwardian era were inevitably ousted.

1920s_Jazz_Age_leisure_wear
PHOTO CREDIT - Fashion and Textiles Museum

So too did new past times demand re-designed clothing for practical as well as aesthetic purpose, and as active lifestyles became a commonality, functionality took precedence over form. By 1920, American women had won the right to vote and by 1928, women in Britain had gained full suffrage. Women were enjoying competitive sports as well as politically and socially active lifestyles; leisure wear championed minimalism to allow for movement whilst day dresses were made from lightweight cottons and the trouser was introduced into the woman's wardrobe.

Pyjama Party

Before now, the 'pyjama' was a mere concept resigned to the bedroom. By the 1920s, the detail and intricacy that went into a pair of pyjamas meant that it was not uncommon for women to host cocktail parties and evening soirees in them; lavish creations constructed from silk and delicately painted with oriental designs.

Japonisme, the vogue for Japanese art, partly accredited to London's 1910 Anglo Japanese exhibition meant that kimono sleeves, mandarin collars and tassels were also features that found their way into the bedroom. The notion that women could explore their sexuality and dress provocatively at night was one that started with pyjamas and lingerie and quickly made its way into the opium dens and casinos.

The Movies

Picture houses showcasing the latest movies were popping up everywhere, cheap entertainment that was drawing the crowds in by their masses. Magazines were also a new form of entertainment that women could absorb in their leisure time. These new modes of distraction presented women with inspiration for what it meant to be fashionable. Stars like Josephine Baker, Dolores Wilkinson and the Dolly Sisters represented the high glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle that ordinary women aspired to.

Darker skin tones were becoming increasingly more appealing; whereas fair skin pre war was a sign of a leisurely, non-strenuous lifestyle, by the 1920s the popularity of flapper girls such as Josephine Baker with dark skin tones and exotic heritage surged. Women flocked to department stores like Selfridges & Co. To buy tinted creams and powders that they applied to their skin in order to darken it's colour in an attempt to emulate the look.

the_dolly_sisters_james_abbe
The Dolly Sisters, PHOTO CREDIT - James Abbe Archive

At the movies, women could pick up fashion, make up and diet tips to take home. By 1925, approximately 3,500 art deco cinemas across the UK were providing women with a go-to for cultural experimentation. Women were liberated and men were falling at their feet, and it was largely down to what you wore, or perhaps how little of it. It was ok to assert your sexuality, drink in public and go to casinos and nightclubs. Within the movie theatre's, a social awakening was taking place, constructed by Hollywood that would filter onto the streets and into the homes of modern women revelling in their new found liberation and independence.

Debauchery and Exoticism

Women would no longer feel ashamed for smoking, drinking and gambling, activities that were openly practiced during the 1920s. Pre-war, Edwardian women would smoke and drink in the privacy of their own homes, separate from the gentlemen. Come the turn of the century, societal 'norms' were no more. The war had shaken up the status quo, women on the home front worked like men and now the war was over they expected to play like them too. The 'Edwardian innocence' that had been imbued in them since infancy had been violently ripped out of them. Exposed to the brutalities of a life bereft of brother and father figures following the war, women were ready to take life by the horns and enjoy whichever pleasures were left for them.

Oriental and Egyptian influences can be seen in a range of the pieces in the collection, Japanisme was seen to influence Kimono style pyjama fashions as well as the glamorous attire women frequented Opium dens wearing.

On Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, the obsession with Egyptology and the craze for Egyptian characteristics to be worked into clothing took off. Often, mummy's would be found buried under hundreds of thousands of gold coins. In Hollywood, these were re-imagined in the form of sequins, which were made from celluloid, incidentally the same material used to make film reels. At this point Mark Butterfield, one half of Mark and Clio, the exhibitions primary contributors, let us in on a little collector's tip. The backs of sequined flapper dresses are often found with dark hand print shaped blemishes, whereby gentlemen would place their hand upon a lady's back whilst dancing and the heat would melt the celluloid.

There was a hedonism to the decade that can almost certainly be attributed to the coming of age of a new generation following the war. Of that generation, there was not an American or European woman who had not lost a son, brother, father or grandfather. The colossal losses incurred during the First World War undoubtedly resulted in a laissez-faire attitude to the lives they would go on to lead, the fates of which were uncertain. Would there be another war? How much more was there to lose? These feelings of uncertainty were to spawn an age of opulence and excess unrivalled by any decade since. After all, what as the worst that could happen?

1920s_Jazz_Age_decadence
PHOTO CREDIT - Fashion and Textiles Museum

The Wall Street Crash

Evidently, much was to be lost following the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Levels of such mass consumption could never have been sustained. The party had to end sometime, and on 29th October 1929 it went out with a bang. The New York Stock Exchange experienced the biggest hit in its entire history; Wall Street would not recover for at least a decade, by which time the sequined flapper dresses would long be strung up, or more than likely sold on. Come 1930, there was little reason to celebrate. The Wall Street Crash had eaten families out of house and home. Demure tweed suits and lengthened hemlines depicted bleak times ahead. This was a severe period of austerity, a time that no longer called for embellished flapper dresses or hand painted silk pyjamas. Whilst women's suffrage had been established, there was nothing liberating about the desperation and poverty experienced following the years of outrageous partying and living off credit. Women's fashion would never again return to the madcap days of the 1920s, but perhaps it was a decade necessary for many reasons, not least to stake our place among the men and prove that when the hard work was done we could play just as hard.

DON'T MISS... costumes from Baz Lurhmann's Great Gatsby designed by Catherine Martin and Miuccia Prada, the Elizabethan style bodice dress and the original lipstick stencil. The exhibition is running until 15th January 2017.