Elegance In An Age Of Crisis: Fashions From The 1930s

Saida Santana

Despite being a time of extreme hardship, fashion took center stage during the Great Depression as haute couture made its debut in the 1930s forever changing the modern fashion industry as we know it.

Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions from the 1930s, which was on display at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York from February 7 to April 19, 2014, predicted, how, in a time of crisis, the splendor of haute couture arose. Since officially making its debut 5 years ago this exhibition still impacts those who see it with its luxe haute couture pieces.Most of us are familiar with the paradox that, in times of crisis, creativity gives rise to new opportunities and ideas, even if they are the scape to all our worries. This is precisely what happened in the fashion universe in the 1930s. What we know as modern fashion was born during those torturous years, when the Age of Jazz and the din of war were hovering upon the industrialized world. Modernist tendencies in art and architecture emphasized the ideals of proportion and balanced, and the stylized human figure took center stage on our collective aesthetics.

Fashions from the 1930s

The rigid style of the Edwardian era and the shapeless, straight silhouettes of the 1920s were considered things of the past. By the 30s, fabrics and textiles closely encircled the body, enhancing the natural curves thanks to Madeleine Vionnet‘s technique of bias (oblique cut), which was a revolution in the way designers created the garments of their era.

But the novelty of this exhibition is not only its subject, which has already been covered on several occasions, but this time the Museum at FIT places equal value on lady’s fashions and menswear, as well as couture created beyond the city of Paris, which was, at the time, the epicenter of the fashion world.

The exhibit shows made in Paris, capital of haute couture, and London, where the best tailors worked, as well as designs from Naples, New York, Los Angeles, Havana, or Shanghai. Therefore, it is a fair and global display that reveals the paradoxical pairing of crisis and elegance because it was precisely the effects of the 1929 crash that fostered such progress in the ready-to-wear industry in the U.S., and consolidated New York as the rising star of the fashion industry.

Fashions from the 1930s

The exhibit shows us how, between the stock market crash of 1929 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, perhaps as a response to the crisis, this new elegant, buoyant and effervescent fashion sense was born.

The developments in textile technology were of vital importance to these advancements. New, softer materials were used, both tailors and dressmakers left behind the idea of padded clothing and followed the creative effects of the bias cut, introduced by the great 20th century dressmaker Madeleine Vionnet a few years earlier. Alix Grès, Augusta Bernard and Louise Boulanger in Paris, Elizabeth Hawes, Valentina, Claire McCardell, and Jo Copeland in New York, and Adrian in Hollywood were some of Vionnet’s most vocal followers.

Fashions from the 1930s

There are also many references to menswear on this display, from the Neapolitan Gennaro Rubinacci, and his master tailor Vincenzo Attolini, who literally “deconstructed” the suit, to Frederick Scholte in London, who gave a softer approach to British tailoring with his London Lounge Style. Another interesting piece featured in the exhibition is the modern qipao— a dress that became the standard for all Chinese women on the planet, part traditional and part couture. The exhibition also shows garments for particular occasions, such as the sporty Tweed, and ski, golf and bathing suits, all with a new seal of lightness and functionality.

The golden age of fashion, lightness, curves and forms, the importance of men’s tailoring, haute couture, the crisis hand in hand with technological advances, the longing and the desire for revival: they are all part of the modernity reflected in the clothing of the 1930s displayed at the Fit Museum in New York City.

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