For any Young Thing wishing to add Bright to their attributes, vintage fashion is an indispensable tool to achieving a spellbinding look that transcends wealth, social class and the limits mainstream fashion can set upon an individual: conventional men’s fashion is extremely limited in terms of colour and style, and women’s fashion can exclude certain body shapes or not cater well for a certain demographic.
Stepping out in an outfit of dazzling hand-sourced couture, the most complimented ensemble a party has ever known, flashbulb-ready, channelling a stadium full of 20th century screen goddesses, is something that is priceless.
Priceless because anything a person wears can be lost, damaged or get covered in brown sauce, and that obviously means that little something bought for thousands basically loses all value as soon as it’s put in your wardrobe and the tags are removed.
That is, if your clothes are a lifelong investment and you don’t plan on flogging them to the hungry clickers of eBay et. al.
A discerning eye and patient temperament can offer a sense of style that is not only wholly unique, but one full of history, an outfit full of delightful anecdotes of where it was bought, which era it’s from, who owned it before and the often fateful coordination of an otherwise uncoordinate-able (?) article.
A mid 1980s Chanel inspired look. Having first seen the look in 2010 on Joan Collins’ Alexis Colby on a Dynasty clip from 1989 at the age of 16, I bought this jacket a year later in Oxfam, Liverpool, in the secret hope of recreating the look. I started with black and white brogues, a houndstooth bowtie and white shirt. It was a timid yet bold start. I lacked the audacity to work the full face of makeup, red glossy nails and runway-ready attitude. Four years on, there are subtle yet mammoth differences: the same jacket, a slight update on the white shirt (this one is not from George at Asda) and slightly updated two toned shoes. But the confidence, the flaunting of conventional gender roles and contemporary fashion, and the updated accessories (Harris Tweed gloves bought in August 2016; two bows bought on eBay, perfected with camellias torn from Chanel shopping bags and secured with market safety pins; Chanel brooch from my Dalston jeweller; Revlon Red lips and nails; classic silver and grey eyeshadow; snood from Vivien of Holloway) show a total oneness with my appearance and my sense of self. Vintage is a career – that one item you bought years ago but have never been able to work should be kept and cherished. Build, grow, stretch yourself and the dream look will be yours.
Offer your gaze to the fashion plates of decades gone by for clues on how to wear it as the fashion Gods intended, and look at another fashion plate, and another, and another.
Look to film, look to TV, look to literature.
Merely owning a pair of gloves or a hat or scarf will not a dynamite look maketh: research to your hearts content and channel the genius of the past and be a genius of the present.
Learn how she holds her evening bag, for it is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time. If the bag goes under the arm, the hand is outstretched. Naturally, this is where the gloves will be held.
Subtle details may be lost on many, but the full picture will be beautiful to all.
The subtleties will always be noticed, whether you know it or not.
1920s JAZZ AGE Fashion & Photographs
Anyone with a fleeting interesting in vintage fashion knows what the 1920s represent: a non-stop party of laughing; thin young ladies and gentlemen slurping cocktails in the finest evening wear, their driver’s horn yelping “ahooga!” as they go to the next dance to show off their moves to the latest jazz tracks of the age.
The fashion of the 1920s is heralded as the birth of modern fashion, and it is a fascinating decade as the freedom and fun the surrounding media promoted was made much more possible with the loose fitting gowns and menswear-inspired tailoring: out goes the fussy detailing of the Edwardian Age!
It also even more interesting, as it is a small interlude of fashion liberalism, wedged between the conservative 1910s and the conservative 1930s. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 meant fashion commentators thought the vibrant styles of the past decade to be vulgar, flashy, and unbefitting of an age of economic hardship. The move away from drop waists, the boyish hairstyles of la garçonne, and a return to traditional, conservative ideals of femininity seemed to arrive in a blink of an eye. The cloche remained briefly, but the waist and hemline soon returned to its ‘appropriate’ position and the straight down, androgynous look, a reaction against corseting, was pushed back to the style of 15 years before. As the 1930s approached the 1940s, the styles indeed became more heavily influenced by the fashions of the Victorian era, the demure, look-but-don’t-you-touch style of glamour entering mainstream fashion once again, immortalised by the la sortie of Christian Dior’s New Look, heavily inspired by the corseted tailoring of the 1870s and 1880s.
My favourite image from the exhibition. Illustration allows the same artistic freedom to embellish reality as TV or film today. Costume designer Mona May said of Clueless that “the street—which was very grunge-influenced—was very different from what Amy wanted to portray in the film. It was 1994 when we started prepping the movie. We were scouting in the high schools—it was all baggy pants, girls looked like boys,” as with New Jack City, portrayed an ultra glamorous version of ‘gangster chic’, which by 1991, would have been overtaken by the minimal aesthetics of gangsta rap. Interestingly, in both instances, the costume designers aimed to set a trend with the on-screen looks, and in Clueless‘ case, the school-girl couture look that was inspired by runway looks, not street fashion, spread wide across the Western world. In contemporary London, the history can be felt on every street, and the idealised glamour of fashion magazines of the past can help to make you feel a part of the artist’s vision. In the above image, the haughty glances of theatre-goers, the upturned noses and theatric craning of the neck and hands, particularly of the woman in green speaking to her driver, is as absurd as it is hilarious, but the impression of unbelievable glamour is achieved. This image, like many illustrations done at street level as it really was: the litter, red London buses, black cabs and flashing lights of Shaftesbury Avenue remain the same today. This removes the alienation from reality fashion illustration can have to the point you can almost feel the cold night air and hear the chatter of the voices of the patrician classes.
The exhibition used the genius concept of the fashions on display representing scenes from a film, this glorious display of opera capes and turbans depicting the glittering crowds of fashionable women queuing for the latest cinematic release. Initially silent, ‘talkies’ entered the mainstream by the late 1920s. As with any advancement of technology, there were naysayers, who dismissed them as ‘the dumbies’, finding the poor quality of the voice acting to be distracting and reductive. In recent technology, we are seeing the same said about virtual reality, the prototypes dismissed as gimmicky and commercial. We humans never change!
Fashion Scene. I adore the Chanel style suit and hat and the cape with the ermine collar. A beautifully chic and simple precursor to the tailored fashions of the 1930s and beyond.
Evening in Chinatown. I proudly lounge around the house in homage to these fabulous Chinese-influenced exotic pyjamas. The London press of they day thought they promoted a “louche lifestyle, [the gowns] might well involve the use of substances such as cocaine and opium.”Trying on the Art Deco jewels of my flatmate, Dorothea, family heirlooms first owned by her great grandmother, before they were sold to Piccadilly monolith Bentley & Skinner.
A Young Chinese Girl, 1936 Comparable to Chinese-American film star May Wong, this unidentified sitter looks so dignified yet impossibly chic. I’ve always had a fascination in how Eastern and Western culture fused during this era. Today, the idea of cultural appropriation is highly contentious, and has just reasons, but the blending of both Western and Eastern modes, each retaining its own prestige and desirability, are to me highly impressive.
Note the two women dancing together, a hint that the liberal attitudes seen in the West had spread to the artists and the fashionable of China. The cheongsam holds as much prominence as the Western flapper dress, complimented perfectly with the then stylish bob.
A Young Lady in a Red Gown. The freshness and abundant youth in this image has a pre-Raphaelite element to it.Her beautiful skin and lightly flushed cheeks, matched with the natural, flowing styles of her robe, gypsy-style earrings and turban all have a humble, honest and very human effect.
Snapshot of a flapper’s boudoir. Thighs? Cover your eyes, gentlemen!
Contrasts of an Edwardian boudoir. Note the Art Nouveau print on the wall and book, the naturalistic leave shapes on the vase and the Georgian-era illustration on the front of a ball invitation.
Robe de style, a dress style I never knew of until this exhibition! Often worn by older, more conservative women, this was an alternative to la garconne look, growing popularity in the early 1920s grâce à la couturière, Jeanne Lanvin. The style harks back to the panniers of the French court, popular in the 18th century. Not just relying on descriptions of the materials used in the dress, delicious facts that give wider context to a topic of who wore what and why, for example the term garçonne, popularised by Coco Chanel, was actually coined by novelist by Victor Margueritte when he published his then scandalous book La Garçonne that described a liberated woman who had several previously sexual partners. A remedy for that unpleasant, foggy feeling caused by a void of knowledge!
The Moonlit Garden. Inanimate mannequins show the styles of the day (or rather, night!)
All the accessories I never knew I needed until I saw this display! Cigarette holders, fans and all their oh-so-necessary boxes and cases are seen as museum pieces of a frivolous by-gone era. But no! These are utter necessities for any fashion plate stepping out after dark.
Cruise Ship. There is no style more comfortable or elegant for the summer than the long, luxurious silk headscarves of the 1920s. The prints would not look out of place in a fashion magazine from the bohemian early 1970s.
Pure Art Deco glamour. A personal hobby of mine is to make my day-to-day activities hold the same poise and opulence as that of the women from fashion illustrations. My question: where is she going? I’m going there. What is she wearing? I’m wearing that. How does she hold herself? I’m doing that. The pursuit of aesthetic perfection can only be achieved if one truly lives out the fashion advertisement fantasy.
The use of ‘scenes’ to contextualise the outfits and the historical golden nuggets provided on the dress descriptions is perfect.
Explaining the Jazz Age in a London setting provides that much necessary bridge between the black and white romance of the past and the current day we live in.
Ends the 15th January!