Sunday, February 9, 2014

Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s

On the opening night of New York Fashion Week, we covered The Museum at FIT's Elegance in An Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.  The exhibition, of approximately eighty ensembles and thirty accessories, examines both men's and women's fashion, with objects made by the era's finest dressmakers and men's clothiers. [Click on photos to enlarge and launch slide show.]

Appropos of the opening of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi on the same evening were the circa 1935 ski togs from Saks Fifth Avenue. Receiving its name from the site in France of the first Winter Olympics in 1924,"Chamonix" was a popular style for ski pants characterized by a streamlined effect created by the stirrup.

The lining of the navy ski jacket had witty multicolor prints of animals and plants.

This ivory shantung flight suit was designed for the chic aviatrix. Vertical darts at the waist create a slim silhouette. According to the signage, the removable hood enabled the wearer to transition from the plan to the country club. Where do we sign up? Iconic figure Amelia Earhart remains the most well known of the many enthusiasts who popularized aviation as a sport for women during the 1030s.

Jean's favorite pieces were the bathing suits and coverups whose sharp Art Deco lines highlighted the swimmers' streamlined bodies, while the divers printed on the man's beach robe provided a whimsical counterpoint. The lady's wool ensemble was by El K ER/Roman Mayr, Munich, Germany and the man's cotton beach robe was by McGregor, New York.

The exhibition goes to great pains to show everything that was innovative about the period.  This dress, by Elizabeth Hawes, features dramatic mitering (in which "raw edges come together at 90 degrees" []) at the waist.

The travel motif was very popular during the period, as were these bright colors.

Every generation has a different take on glamour and drama, which often ties in with technical innovation.  At the left, a gold lame jumpsuit with beautiful drape (thanks to its bias cut).  At the right, a blue cellophane and tulle cape by Lucien Lelong.

The highly textured effect in this negligee ensemble, by Helene Yrande, is created by rows of hand pleated pin tucks.

The epitome of casual elegance, this 1939 richly embroidered Ana de Pombo for Paquin evening dress and bolero of ivory linen were made for one of the era's best dressed women, Brazilian-born Aimee de Hereen.

An orange cotton cutwork dress by the fabled Madame Vionnet.  The net-like visual effect results from embroidering small outlines in the entire fabric and then cutting away the fabric outlined by the embroidery - highly labor intensive work.

London House of Naples' 1937 red wool, silk and velvet hunting tailcoat was one of the first items in the front of the show.

Plexiglass display cases in the lobby outside the exhibition contained several men's and women's accessories, including several of Fred Astaire's dance shoes. This black leather number featuring a white diamond on the vamp shows how long and narrow his feet were. With long thin fingers and physique to match, Astaire was "The New Man", the sartorial icon for a look that idealized trim figures, athleticism and casual grace.

No exhibition of '30s fashion would be complete with hats.  The hat in the center, from Henri Bendel's, is made of silk jersey and straw.  Doesn't this remind you of the 1939 movie The Women?  Can't you see this on Norma Shearer or Rosalind Russell?  The hat on the left is also very interesting (sorry for the partial view).  It's a modified Robin Hood style, and you can see the milliner made a point of integrating the stitchwork into the design.

And the shoes!!!  The shoes like those seen here would probably have been worn by all the women in My Man Godfrey, which makes it a pity that hardly any movie ever shows a woman's shoes.  A new shoe designer today could probably make a lifelong career out of copying and reinterpreting styles of the 30s.  Think how many women of a certain age would run - RUN! to buy these shoes if they had slightly lower heels.


We were thrilled to run into photographer Alexo Wandael (whom we'd first met at the Issey Miyake Hues of Red party) and his tall, stylish companion, Patrizia Calvio. Although gang-signing really wasn't in style in the 1930s, several of us couldn't resist hamming for the camera. 

Alan always looks dapper and that evening was no exception.

It should come as no surprise that we first met this Japanese guest at one of the vintage clothing shows, and we periodically run into each other at museum shows. The carved wooden pins on his lapel and on his hat have the same black and white striped components.

Montgomery Frazier and his friend Ben got into the theme of the evening and were among several of the guests who dressed in modern outfits with looks reminiscent of the era.

Matthew Karl Gale's blue velvet smoking jacket fit right into the mood of the event.

Oleg and Tatiana also got into the act. The polka dots on his tie, although smaller, were perfectly matched in color to the dots on her dress.

Zari Awodein dressed in tweeds for the occasion and looked wonderfully suave. 

The loving cup for most debonair went once again to Robert E. Bryan, who is a true dandy in every sense of the word. He posed with another guest for this photograph.

Gretchen Fenston and Roddy Caravella joined the swing dancers in vintage clothing whose wonderful steps and partnering entertained the crowd at the reception. Long-time readers of our blog are familiar with Gretchen's top-notch millinery skills from her wonderful Easter Parade chapeau. Her hat that evening was gorgeous.

When Victoria and Luke posed for a photo, she mentioned that she was wearing the very first vintage dress she'd ever purchased years ago. She wore it beautifully and paired it with red and black resin jewelry.

The vibrant colors of these two vintage costumes, worn by Heidi Rosenau (right) and her friend are enough to make you regret bitterly that movies of the period were all in black and white.  In the background, you can just barely make out a Charles James coat (yes, that Charles James).  If you look carefully, you can see a large V-shaped back panel that was inserted separately and outlined with oversized piping in the same fabric.

One of the evening's dancing couples. The woman on the left wears a hat by Gretchen Fenston, a milliner specializing in hats of the period.

At left, artist and photographer Ike Ude; at right, milliner Rod Keenan in one of his own creations.

Watchers of Turner Classic Movies will remember that William Powell, in The Thin Man series, was often seen lounging at home in a silk dressing gown.  Here's a gent perhaps taking a cue from Powell.


Of course we especially love her turban and his shoes -- and their attitude!

Designer Victor de Souza in a bowtie of his own design, with his oh-so-wonderfully-of-the-period friend.

Couture Council member Alyson Cafiero with her husband Joe stopped for a photo. Events such as this at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) take place with the support of members of its Couture Council, who are fashion enthusiasts who support exhibitions and programs at MFIT, encouraging conservation and documentation of the museum's permanent collection as well as facilitating acquisitions.

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  1. A great exhibit (adore the negligee outfit and the orange dress), and so many wonderful outfits on the guests, particularly the men (and you ran into Alexo again, you lucky dogs!). You two look marvelous, by the way.

  2. Thank you for this. Great coverage as usual and I love what you both are wearing.

  3. Looking for a "middle-aged" blog about fashion. I like your fashions - and I love museums! - but I'm petite so those flowy fashions just make me look like I'm wearing drapes. Mnythx and cheers, Suze

  4. Just got to say I love it all! Thanks for sharing your adventure and philosophy!

    A big ole Southern HUG from Uppity Women Antiques & Collectibles