Sandwiched between the ravages of two world wars and crippled by a devastating economic depression, the America of the 1930s may have been trudging away from the party of the Roaring ’20s, but it did so with a pair of killer shoes on.
When one thinks of the ’30s, blaring stock market headlines and stark Dorothea Lange photographs popularly come to mind. What we forget—and what the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s new exhibit, “Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s,” proves—is that with the ’30s came the emergence of modern clothing. Both the warped austerity of Edwardian silhouettes and the shapeless amorphousness of the Jazz Age were abandoned for more balanced, naturalistic proportions, while advances in textile technology allowed for comfort and convenience. Experimental designers also played with a riot of colors, patterns, and materials, refusing to let the grimness of the economic climate leak into their couture.
The exhibit offers a variety of menswear and womenswear, meticulously curated by the museum’s deputy director, Patricia Mears, and prominent fashion editor G. Bruce Boyer. After peeking at the entrance’s shoe collection, boasting kitten heels embellished with Deco starbursts and the worn-in dance shoes of Fred Astaire, one enters a gallery space designed by architect Kimberly Ackert to be specifically reminiscent of both the diaphanous clothing on display and the SS Normandie’s notoriously luxe dining room, notably dubbed the decade’s answer to Versailles.
Descending panels of sheer fabric shade an array of early Chanel and Lanvin, gossamer bias-cut Grecian gowns, and devastatingly sharp Savile Row tailoring. The exhibit also features imports from abroad, such as a flouncy Havanese gem of a gown and qipaos embroidered with ruffly goldfish and resplendent peacocks. There are even wool swimsuits, the production of which boomed to accommodate leisurely swimmers enjoying the newly invented concept of the weekend.
In today’s age of fast fashion, one is astounded at the painstaking handiwork that went into creating the ensembles of the ’30s, such as with Hélène Yrande’s delicate mushroom-gill pleats and Madeleine Vionnet’s gown of linked Lilliputian dimes of orange fabric. Joan Crawford’s costume in 1937’s “The Bride Wore Red” is the ne plus ultra of this phenomenon: The dress is composed of 2 million bright red bugle beads, each hand-stitched. The piece may shimmer like a glint of light through a wine glass, but, as Boyer chuckled, no matter: “The movie was in black and white!”
One black netted gown, donated by Hamish Bowles, could look at home in a 2014 cyberpunk club, as does a shaggy, vaguely Muppet-esque evening cape stitched of strips of cellophane. Ackert’s personal favorite is an aviatrix’s uniform with an odd pocket on the leg.
“I thought it was for cigarettes,” she said, “but it’s for flight plans!”
Boyer cites the Great Depression’s cutthroat job market as a marked influence on menswear.
“It’s a question of politics, sociology, and economics all rolled into one,” he said. “The rule used to be, during the Great Depression, ‘the harder the times, the whiter the shirt.’ You tried to present yourself as well as you could because of the competition.”
Rejecting the famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer credo of ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake), Boyer believes that the practical demands of an era shapes its creative output, resulting in “a kind of nexus of aesthetics and utility.” One may leave the exhibit wondering if the defiant elegance of the ’30s might be due for a revival in our modern times of similar economic strife.
Mears, when asked about which qualities of ’30s fashion deserve resurgence in 2014, advocated for a return of “the process of dressing for the occasion,” and said, “It’d be nice to go to the opera and see people dressed properly.”
“Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s” runs through April 19. Admission is free.