FIT exhibit shows that fashion rose above Depression in the 1930s
It’s a tough sell, to make a case for the 1930s high steppin’ fashions as the bedrock for our age’s easy-going, form-fitting but casually loose looks and functional clothing. But the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology does it, in a show called “Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s.”
After you get over staring at the fantastic clothing, some of which Katherine Hepburn wore when she was at the height of her dashing best — shiny gossamer gowns and cleverly cut suits and coats based on a well-tailored man look (see especially a svelte brown tweed), understanding the camel hair sports-derived “polo coat” at last — the show is intellectually underpinned by Room Two’s presentation. There you will find the more ornate, if confining, Edwardian clothing preceding the 1930s, and with a nod to the shorter skirts of the flapper era.
Visual pods in the first room are grouped around the activities of the leisure class, for both men and women. The evening gowns, of course, with sheer chiffons to make Oscar’s red-carpet walkers look dowdy (see especially a black “Madeleine Vionnet of Paris” number, or an ivory silk organza with black lace, truly tasteful though sheer). Yet what really sticks out is the section devoted to leisure wear — the concept of the weekend being one directly attributable to the 1930s, the Museum text asserts, as is the idea of a year-round tan.
For instance, there is Janzen wear, with men’s bathing suits with zippers that can get tops off fast (remember the masculine one-piece?) The Bauhaus wasn’t the only one working with clean lines and purpose. Check out the humorous male cover-all for the pool or beach, as done by McGregor, with its repeat images of swimmers about to take a dive: a design much more clever than the golf- or baseball-bearing T-shirts that our age uses for decorative emblems. Here form and function intermingle, and announce themselves, but more elegantly and without the advertising logos and lingo.
Exquisite tailoring is shown in purposefully torn-apart, deconstructed suits and dresses, demonstrating how all was put together. At the show’s opening I met Luca Rubinacci, the proud third generational scion of the Neapolitan design house which made some of the show’s clothing. He was in praise of hand-made objects, laughingly declaring “Perfection is in the imperfection.” A human carefully, maybe lovingly, made the object, with its occasional irregularity.
Of course all this costs, and an instructional movie-on-a-wall has curators and history experts explaining the relation between some scenes of Depression-era poverty (not too many of those) and images, some cinematic, which presented another, lavish, lifestyle. A subtext was functional materials and their new use. This inspires you to go back to Room One and see the uses of “new” industrial materials for clothing: rayon, even cellophane. A blue cellophane cape is a marvel, and you can almost forgive the wearer for — what shall we call it? — a certain lack of social conscience.
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