Making a Scene at the Fashion and Textile Museum: Thoughts on the exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs

Mannequins welcome visitors to the film-inspired exhibition space. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The not so inconspicuously pink and yellow/orange painted Fashion and Textile Museum on London’s Bermondsey Street is just about to wrap up its current exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age- Fashion and Photographs. So, on a cold, rainy Saturday two of us Documenting Fashion MA students (that’s you Jamie!) set out to catch it before it was too late – as did many other Londoners, it seems. It was great to see the exhibition so busy, interest in fashion history bubbling about the place.

A collection of Gordon Conway illustrations begins the exhibition. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Film room from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Presented over two floors, the show, which was curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Dennis Nothdruft and guest curated by Cleo and Mark Butterfield and Terence Pepper, covers a variety of aspects of 1920’s fashion, including fashion for different occasions, its representation in cinema, magazines and photography and as illustration. Furthermore, accessories are included on the second floor including make-up, stockings, and jewellery. In addition, an entire room dedicated to the photography of James Abbe, who photographed show-girls and film stars, also formed part of the exhibit. Every bit of space in the museum has been utilised for 1920’s material, films and wall decals, providing a range of objects to be discovered and lusted over.

Window display of accessories in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Magazines featured in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The predominant layout chosen for the presentation of fashion in the main exhibition hall are “scenes” reminiscent of movie sets. These consist of a collection of mannequins in different poses situated on set-like areas corresponding to a theme. In “In the Boudoir” for example, mannequins wear corresponding clothing and the set’s back wall depicts an elaborate bed with curtains, as well as candlesticks and ornate pillars. To reinforce this notion of a quasi-movie set, artefacts such as stage lighting, a typewriter and a director’s chair are placed in between the first two “scenes.” As an idea, the scenes work well as an exhibition display, not only grouping clothing with a particular purpose together, but also, letting the viewer imagine how a room full of women might have looked in the 1920’s. Seen from the angle of our MA, the chosen layout raised some questions: How do the colours, patterns and designs compare and contrast and how would the women have perceived each other? What sense of identity did they take on depending on the cut, style and purpose of their clothing? How was fashion presented and disseminated through the media, show-girls and celebrities? How much did this influence the wearer in their own perception of fashion and lifestyles? The exhibition supports such questions, justifying the inclusion of photographs and illustrators in the show as highlighting “…the role of photographs and magazines in promoting the 1920s look”.

‘In the Boudoir’ scene from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Props in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

1920’s Jazz Age was, to be frank, really great fun and seemingly lovingly created. It is an excellent show for an introductory glance at the changing fashions, photographs, illustrations and magazines of the period. It could be faulted for trying to incorporate too many items and mediums at once or for being too busy with various films, magazine cases, wall decals and hangings. However, this is precisely what makes it accessible. The viewer can dip in and out of any area as they please. They can take as much or as little information from it as they like. Essentially, the show reflects how the 1920’s themselves are often perceived; it is busy, hectic, full and enjoyable to the brim due to its light and playful presentation.

Further Reading

https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-photographs

http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/the-fashion-and-textile-museum-jazz-age-fashion-photographs-exhibition-3779

http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-and-photographs

Auratic presence and mass manufacture: a review of ‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

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Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

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Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.

Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.

Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.

Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.