A powerful measure of independence comes from being able to determine one's own means of transportation.
At the turn of the 20th century, women had battled discrimination and prejudice. As women persisted in asserting their rights, appropriate costumes to facilitate them evolved and became more mainstream. By this time, a modern woman had proved herself perfectly capable of driving cars. With the Ford Model-T flooding the market, women were successfully and independently navigating American roadways in record numbers.
In the company of other women especially, taking railroads, steamships and ocean liners together, they could safely explore even farther afield from home than ever before—and they were doing so in grand style, with fabulous aplomb.
Stylish, well-made traveling garments and daywear, consisted of tasteful, carefully coordinated ensembles, featured a cheerfully bright, solid or restricted color scheme throughout, thereby exuding a degree of sober decorum very much in contrast with their exuberant, sexy nighttime counterparts.
"We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I used to whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several red chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they're sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun."
Tunic ensemble donated by Roxanne Nelsen; purse donated by Sara Glasser.
While Victorian clothing was renowned for its ornate beaded embellishment—especially jet beads—the flapper style evening dress was far less restrictive, built, in fact to facilitate the riotous and revolutionary movement of animated dancing. These dresses were designed to make a statement, capitalizing on all the glitter, weight, and movement that beadwork, as a medium, has to lend.
The period from 1900 to 1920 formed a bridge between the extreme hourglass silhouette of the 19th century and the simplified verticality of the Jazz Age. The Edwardian period, from the early 1900s to the end of World War I still cinched and contoured women into shape by corsetry. The silhouette of the time emphasized a full breast and only slightly diminished the hourglass of the hips. The desired silhouette had been whittled down to the refreshingly simplified and plain, columnar shape showcasing boyish athleticism and youth over mature proportions.
"Where's the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?"
Donated by Karen Nelsen.
A young woman in the 1920s had freedoms her mother and grandmother couldn't have imagined. Take, for example, her night on the town: as she prepares for an evening out, our young lady dons a brassier and perhaps a short corset to smooth her form into one sleek, uninterrupted length. These separate pieces allow her the liberty to move naturally, quite unlike the earlier long-line corset.
"Brevity is the soul of lingerie."
Donated by Cathy Strahl.
It was in the 1920s that Coco Chanel became world-famous for her little black dress. Though her design was released in 1926, many fashionistas had been turned onto the evolution of simple elegance long before then. As hemlines were being raised and elongated on a whim, black was once again the color chosen to represent artistry and elegance.
Here we present to you our Tale of Three Black Dresses. All three of these dresses feature a black canvas of silk chiffon or netting as a backdrop for intricate beading. In addition, a study of these three dresses offers a glimpse into the changing fashion silhouettes of the decade.
The first dress (9, circa 1920-1921) is an example of the earlier part of the decade. Please note the ankle length of the hem. The fullness of the skirt is concentrated in gathers at the side seams and accented with a bow at the sides. The beading seems very regimented, almost a nod to the embellishments of a previous decade.
The second dress (10, circa 1923-1925) offers a more streamlined shape with the still longer ankle-length hem at this time. The fullness of the skirt, which has been reduced in comparison to the first dress, is still controlled by gathers at the side. The crystal beading has a more organic arrangement than the previous dress.
The hem of our third dress (11, circa 1927) leaps up to the hem length that is most associated with the 1920s, above the roughed knee of the flapper. The beading is artfully placed with curving swoops over the shoulders mirrored by the motifs on the lower hem, all to draw in the eye of the viewer.
"The flapper has charm, good looks, good clothes, intellect and a healthy point of view."
Just like today, a wide range of 1920s clothing was available at different price points. The elite could wear one-of-a-kind haute couture beaded and sequined dresses, designed expressly for them by the exclusive names of high fashion ateliers, tailored to their specific size and hand-embroidered and embellished by skilled artisans. The middle-class consumer was more likely to buy a machine-beaded dress "semi-made" at a department store, and have it finished to their size.
Alternatively, the budget-conscious or needlework-inclined fashion enthusiast could bead her own dress, employing the patterns published in women's magazines. Prolific needlework author and educator Mary Brooks Picken developed the classic 1920s "One Hour Dress" method for just such a home seamstress. As well as being a founder of the Met's Costume Institute, Picken taught Economics of Fashion at Columbia University. By following her instructions, which remain in print and popular to this day, women could readily make—and customize—their own fashionable, flapper-style dresses.
Tambour work has its origins in ancient Chinese Textile arts. The word Tambour however, comes from the French for "drum" (which likens the tambour-work cloth, held taut within a supporting structure, to the percussive musical instrument). It is an embroidering and embellishing technique especially useful for beading.
Tambour work is performed with an eyeless needle, fixed to a handle. The needle has a piercing point, but it also features a miniscule hook. The fabric is tightly and securely stretched within the supporting structure of the frame, leaving space above and below to work the stitches and apply the beads (or sequins, as the case might be). The procedure relies on the chain stitch and that is how it can be identified as tambour work.
In the 1920s a wide variety of materials were used in creating beautiful beaded gowns. Textiles ranging from silk organza, satin to silk velvet were divided into two panels. These panels would then be stretched onto frames and adorned in designs shaped to suit the cut of a dress. Though some dresses were beaded with a simple needle and thread, it is the tambour technique that was most commonly used. After the designs were fully beaded they would then cut the dress shape from the panel to be assembled into stunning gowns.
A bead, simply put, is a small ornamental object with a hole pierced through it, allowing it to be strung and sewn onto textiles, such as garments, handbags, and shoes. Its effect is cumulative. One needs numerous beads in order to attract the eye, but once assembled on an object, beads have the ability to render the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Once beaded and adorned, plain things become ornate, glittering, momentous. In a fringe setting, they also make a sound, delicately but unmistakably announcing the arrival of their wearer. The fragile nature of beaded objects consigns them to the domain of conspicuous consumption, rather than pragmatic utility. They have a tendency to snag on passing objects. Glamourous rather than practical, the bead is a decorative thing. It is, functionally, useless. Beads throughout time and across cultures have been essential to trade and have even been used as currency. Their compelling, mesmerizing qualities have proved universal and undeniable. It is a statement of wealth and beauty.
"A well-dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world."
With Hot Jazz as the soundtrack, Dancing became America's favorite pastime. As society during the day adapted itself to the miracle of electricity, with telephones, radios, and gramophones, so, too, did society at night. Dim, gloomy dancehalls, formerly lit by weak candlelight, were now bright and gleaming as artificial days, allowing for nightlife to energetically thrive until dawn.
The most popular dances of the period were the foxtrot, waltz, and American tango. Newer dances like the Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop, developed by African Americans, soon gained popularity with a nation eager to try new forms of expression that matched the Jazz sound.
The Charleston Originating in Charleston, South Carolina in 1913, it involved a fast kicking, twisting movement of the legs and feet. The original beat may have come from the songs sung by Charleston's dockworkers. It achieved wider popularity when the song "Charleston" was featured in the 1923 Broadway musical, Runnin' Wild. The craze for this new dance prompted Charleston contests for both solo dancers and couples across America. At its peak in 1927, hemlines had risen to just below the knee thereby featuring the fast-moving feet of young flappers. The dance continued to evolve through the '30s and '40s, adapting itself to swing jazz music, and was integrated into the Lindy Hop canon.
The Black Bottom A short-lived dance craze that swept the dance halls from 1926-1927, replacing the Charleston as the social dance favorite. Originating among African Americans in the rural South, it was featured in the Harlem show Dinah in 1924 and then was famously performed by Ziegfeld Follies star, Ann Pennington in 1926. It consisted of a series of exuberant dance steps that included hops, slides, hobbles, and shuffles punctuated by high kicks and wildly flying arms.
The Shimmy This unusual dance is unmistakably suggestive, and was, in fact, outlawed in some places for being too lewd. It involved shaking the shoulders back and forth while leaning forward and backward to the music. A fast-paced jazz dance song written by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron called "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" was a big hit in 1922.
The Texas Tommy In spite of what its name would suggest, this dance was actually born in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was first performed at a disreputable yet popular cabaret but was soon seen at the upper-class Fairmont Hotel. It involved a series of kicks, hops, and slides within an 8-count rhythm (one of the hallmarks of swing dancing), and offered the perfect opportunity for showcasing one's acrobatic skills. Dance historians call it the first of the many iterations of swing dance to come.
The Lindy Hop Influenced by several different dance styles that came before it, it's considered to be the "granddaddy of swing." It uses the same dance rhythm as the Charleston but adopted the "Breakaway" of the Texas Tommy. Possibly coined by Harlem dancer "Shorty" George Snowden during a dance marathon contest when a reporter saw his wild moves and asked him what they were doing. Shorty replied, "The Lindy Hop... We flying just like Lindy did!" which acknowledged the recent solo transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in 1927. It continued to grow in popularity with the rise of the Big Bands well into the late 1940s and continues to be danced today all over the world.
"She sighs, breathing smoke through her lips. 'Might as well dance.'"
Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Bridal styles of the 1920s were a marked departure from the conventional and the conservative. They wore wedding gowns as current and comfortable as those worn to dance away the evening. A bridal gown was likely to have a tea-length hem, sometimes longer at the front, allowing for free movement of the legs on the dance floor. Restrictive fashions had now been abandoned and loose, straight tailoring was in vogue. Bridal headdresses often fell just below the brow, imitating the look of a cloche hat, with a trailing embroidered veil in the rear.
Along with expressing the wearer's aesthetic taste, the bridal gown was also an expression of a family's social status. Elaborate embellishments made with beads, waxed orange blossoms and pearls adorned the slim silhouette of modern brides. Luxurious layers of velvet and silk were seen in colors of eggshell, ecru, ivory and white. A sash or bow positioned at a dropped waist would provide a rich pop of color. Wealthy families spared no expense when outfitting themselves for this special day, especially as they were going to be photographed for posterity.
A woman of limited means now had the ability to replicate the latest trends at home. With advancements in communication and a faster postal service, innovations a la mode spread more rapidly than ever. Industrialization and improved transportation of goods made fabrics readily available and more affordable for the working class.
"When a girl feels that she's perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That's charm."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Short Stories"
Donated by Karen Nelsen.
In an era of decadence, coats though simple in design did not go unnoticed. Those who were most fashionable would be seen wearing coats adorned with furs and beads aplenty. The early designs of Paul Poiret's cocoon coat were brought to life by one panel of lined fabric. It carried a free-flowing form with batwing sleeves and a narrow hem or hobble skirt. Later this silhouette would be adapted to allow the legs full motion and would continue to evolve. Capes of velvet and satin were also popular at this time, maintaining the trend of a loose fluid garment. Outerwear served as both a canvas and a frame for beautiful intricate beadwork.
"When I went to Hollywood in 1927, the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts. I was wearing sleek suits and half-naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs."
In our section On Preservation, we explored a very physical aspect of the ephemeral nature of these delicately beaded dresses, fatally coupled to the universal power of time itself. It would be impossible to lock them all up in climate-controlled vacuums, untouched by dust, moisture, and gravity.
But there is another reason for the growing scarcity of such dresses as these, more social in nature. Notable late-twentieth-century films set in the decade of the flapper dress have done a great deal to popularize the style. By celebrating and immortalizing these kinds of dresses reproduced in cinema, we have effectively elevated them to the level of artistic treasures. One cannot discount the influence of popular culture on consumption—in powerful ways, it can make a desirable commodity out of anything, and the beaded 20s dress was already very valuable indeed.
One other reason, therefore, that dresses like these are so rarely seen by the public today, has been the increasing popularization of the flapper-style dress as a collector's item. There were always only a limited number of specimens in existence: now, more and more of them reside either in the private collections of wealthy vintage clothing aficionados or preserved in the massive, unseen permanent collections of prominent museums. The specimens on display here in this exhibit are all the more precious for that.
We would like to thank Karen and Roxanne Nelsen, Kate Walker, Deborah Doyle, Lisa Swelha, Anita Stapen, the Art Deco Society of California, and the Kliot Family.