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1920s Jazz Age – Fashion & Photographs

Start Date 23 September 2017
End Date 15 January 2017
Venue Fashion and Textile Museum
Location London, UK
Curator Dennis Nothdruft

1920s JAZZ AGE Fashion & Photographs
23 September 2016 – 15 January 2017

The Fashion and Textile Museum presents JAZZ AGE: Fashion & Photographs, a major exhibition of 1920s garments alongside portraits by James Abbe.

  • 1920s JAZZ AGE: Fashion & Photographs presents a glittering display of over 150 haute couture and ready-to-wear garments from 1919 to 1929.
  • Photographs by James Abbe (1883–1973), film excerpts and magazines highlight the role of graphic art and photography in promoting the 20s look
  • A Decade of Change is documented through shifting hemlines, waistlines and accessories, from hats to hairbrushes, stockings to cigarette holders.
  • Four outfits from The Great Gatsby film (2013) by Catherine Martin with Miuccia Prada highlight contemporary fascination with the decade

Women’s clothing in the 1920s reflected dizzying social change on an unprecedented scale. From Paris and London to New York and Hollywood, the period following the Great War offered the modern woman a completely new style of dressing. With over 150 garments and accessories from a major private collection, this stunning selection of sportswear, printed day dresses, fringed flapper dresses, beaded evening wear, velvet capes, kimonos and silk pyjamas reveals the glamour, excess, frivolity and modernity of the decade.

The exhibition focuses not only on high-end couture but also on the ready-made. It offers a reassessment of the 1920s by showcasing the wide variety of clothing and accessories available to the modern woman, not just the drop-waisted flapper dress immediately associated with the era.

Throughout, the exhibition highlights the decade’s changing silhouette including the straighter less exaggerated shape, promoted by haute couture designers such as Lucile and Paul Poiret since the pre-war years, the rising hemline and clothes designed to 2 allow free movement. By the 1920s, the waist and the bust had ceased to be the focus of modern fashion. Yet while designers had claimed to banish the corset it continued to be worn, albeit with a longer, more natural shape. Lingerie was designed to flatten and smooth the bust and a slimmer cylindrical silhouette became the accepted norm.

Alongside the exhibition, wall displays and cases reflect on key details and developments in fashion. The 1920s was a decade of dance, joie de vivre and new leisure activities. A sense of movement, defined by the rhythms and beats of jazz, was a leitmotif of the era. Women’s clothes, particularly those for evening, were designed to move and shift. The swing of a beaded hem or a fringe, or an evening cape sliding off a shoulder was intrinsic to the look and feel of the garments.

A group of beaded dresses showcases rare and fragile garments with exquisite handcrafted deco designs. The exhibition also explores accessories, from shoes to hats and fans to monocles, and the ways in which different groups of women, including fashion designers and suffragettes, chose to present themselves to the world.

Illustrations by Gordon Conway (1894-1956) are shown together with photographs by James Abbe (1883–1973), Cecil Beaton (1904 –80), Man Ray (1890–1976) and Baron de Meyer (1868–1946) to highlight the role of graphic art and photography in promoting the Jazz Age look. In addition, the exhibition reflects on how 1920s fashion has been interpreted by future generations. A particular highlight is the loan of the remarkable crystal gown worn by Carey Mulligan as Daisy in the recent Baz Luhrmann adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2013), which was designed by Catherine Martin with Prada.

James Abbe: Photographer of the Jazz Age

In the final room, a display of photographs by James Abbe (1883–1973), curated by renowned photo historian Terence Pepper with the James Abbe Archive, adds valuable context to the garments on display. James Abbe: Photographer of the Jazz Age presents a candid commentary on early 20th century celebrity. From Hollywood to the Folies Bergère, these iconic images from the world of entertainment present the stars of the stage and screen with perfect posture and knowing smiles. Featuring fashion studies of Gilda Gray, the Dolly Sisters and Louise Brooks among others, plus portraits taken in his studio and on location for key movies and theatre productions featuring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Fred and Adele Astaire.

Dennis Nothdruft, Curator of 1920s Jazz Age Fashion, said:

“In the 1920s women’s fashion became a bellwether of the social and cultural changes that defined the decade. The dizzying array of choices, and not just the tubular dropwaist dress immediately associated with the era, allowed the modern woman unprecedented opportunities to express herself.”

Celia Joicey, Head of the Fashion and Textile Museum, said:

“It is no surprise that Jazz Age fashion is a key reference point for our students and visitors: the quality, characteristics and rich vocabulary of design forged in the decade set the standard for generations to come. We are delighted this exhibition will shed light on an outstanding private collection, as well as on the imagination and innovation that set the course of modern fashion history.”