Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s at The Museum at FIT

February 7, 2014 – April 19, 2014

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) presents Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, an exhibition that celebrates the most innovative and beautifully designed clothing made in the 20th century. This is the first exhibition to concurrently examine both men’s and women’s fashion of the 1930s, specifically objects made by the era’s finest dressmakers and men’s clothiers. Haute couture and bespoke tailoring are equally represented by the approximately 80 ensembles and 30 accessories that are arranged thematically in an exhibition environment designed to evoke the restrained style of the era.

Dusty apricot silk chiffon evening dress; front of dress bodice is cowl draped with pleated chiffon used horizontally; pleats are caught at waist seam draping up either side and caught into piped armhole; panel of pleats hang from drape to floor at center front; plain underarm panel of chiffon on either side; pleated panel of chiffon hangs from wide piped neck to back dipping hem; 3/4 inch self sash from front ties around waist to back bow. Dusty apricot silk chiffon bolero entirely pleated; pleats swirl from horizontal in front to vertical at back and are held by rows of stitching; flaring sleeves vertically pleated with five rows of stay stitching from elbow to cuffs; lined in sheer silk. Apricot silk crepe slip with fitted bust yoke edged at top with nude marquisette; narrow marquisette straps; long fitted darts on either side front; elasticized panel across back at waist; slit on either side at hem has scallops which continue around hem; scalloped chiffon addition 2.5 inches wide around crepe hem; zipper closing at left side. HélèneYrande, Negligee ensemble, Coral and peach pleated, Silk chiffon, 1932, France                                                                                                      The Museum at FIT, 75.69.9, Gift of Sophie Gimbel

HélèneYrande, Negligee ensemble, Coral and peach pleated, Silk chiffon, 1932, France The Museum at FIT, 75.69.9, Gift of Sophie Gimbel

The 1930s was a time of grand transformations, when fashion truly began to reflect the streamlined art moderne aesthetic. Garments were softer, minimally ornamented, elegantly proportioned, and markedly different from the preceding periods: the Edwardian era with its stiff, structured clothing, and the shapeless, boxy styles of the 1920s.

Knize, Evening jacket, Blue wool herringbone twill, 1937, Austria, The Museum at FIT, 2000.14.2, Gift of Francis Knize

Knize, Evening jacket, Blue wool herringbone twill, 1937, Austria, The Museum at FIT, 2000.14.2, Gift of Francis Knize

Anderson & Sheppard, Man’s suit, Wool, 1935, London, Collection of Steven Hitchcock

Anderson & Sheppard, Man’s suit, Wool, 1935, London, Collection of Steven Hitchcock

Gardner and Wooley LTD, Smoking jacket, Green velvet, satin  1936, London, Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son

Gardner and Wooley LTD, Smoking jacket, Green velvet, satin
1936, London, Collection of Alan Bennett, Davies and Son

Elegance in an Age of Crisis investigates how clothing creators of the 1930s, despite the crippling financial crisis and dire political environment, spearheaded new stylistic ideas and wed them to emerging technologies. Technical innovations in textile production transformed what was possible for couturiers: looms were wider, dyeing vats were larger, and fibers were more tightly twisted. These expansive and flexible new materials gave dressmakers larger “canvases” upon which to rethink and refine draping techniques, while featherweight textiles lent their garments new suppleness and flexibility. Tailors in both Northern and Southern Europe simultaneously began to deconstruct the jacket and to create a garment that was shapely, yet pliant. Lighter materials, such as linen, were used to make softer jackets.

A synthesis of cutting-edge technology and the finest handcraftsmanship was necessary to forge a truly modern aesthetic in clothing. But these were not the only driving forces of the new look of the 1930s. Artistic influence—mainly the revival and full embrace of classicism across all the plastic arts—spurred a lean, elegantly proportioned aesthetic. It inspired master dressmakers and tailors to experiment with new techniques in order to achieve clothing that enhanced movement and highlighted the “natural,” well-proportioned, and classically idealized body.

The look of the 1930s was an international phenomenon. Menswear tailoring innovations in London and Naples paralleled breakthroughs in haute couture draping in Paris as well as custom design in New York, Havana, and Shanghai. Hollywood, too, played a role in defining and popularizing the glamorous new look. On view in the exhibition is clothing made in these cities for clients from the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

Although most of the objects in the exhibition come from The Museum at FIT’s permanent collection Elegance in an Age of Crisis has been richly enhanced thanks to the generosity of key lenders. They include rare examples of Neapolitan tailoring from the archives of the Rubinacci Museum; a range of period menswear made in Savile Row and collected by contemporary tailors such as Mr. Alan Bennett of Davies & Sons, and Mr. Steven Hitchcock; and examples of bespoke footwear made by George J. Cleverley, loaned by George Glasgow of G. J. Cleverley. Exquisite haute couture was lent by collector Beverley Birks of New York and fashion editor Hamish Bowles. Patricia Koo Tsien is lending rare qipaos worn by the legendary woman of style Mrs. Wellington Koo. Continue reading