Travelling on the Ocean Liner in the 1920s

During my Christmas break at home in the Netherlands, I visited the TextielMuseum, located in a former textile factory in the city of Tilburg, in order to view their recently opened exhibition, JAZZ AGE | Fashion & Photographs. Organised by the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, this exhibition aims to show the variety of dress available to the modern woman and the completely new way of dressing that symbolised her new-found freedom and active lifestyle in the period after the First World War. The exhibition showcases more than 150 haute couture and ready-to-wear garments dating from 1919 to 1929 in different settings such as ‘In the Boudoir,’ ‘Tennis Match,’ and ‘Chinatown After Dark.’ As might be expected from a dress and textiles enthusiast, I was swooning in front of the quintessential fringed and beaded drop-waist flapper dresses and sumptuously embroidered velvet evening capes one would have worn for a night out.

The current exhibition at the TextielMuseum seems to have a slightly different design than the exhibition that was staged in London (see the excellent review written last year by former MA student Sophie Assouad). Instead of writing another review, I have chosen to focus on a specific display in this exhibition that sparked my interest because it gave me a fresh perspective on this particular period in fashion history.

Conjuring the scene of a steamboat’s deck, ‘On the Ocean Liner’ takes the visitor beyond the notion of the 1920s as a decade of glamourous nightlife and the familiar flapper dress. It does so by showcasing daytime and leisurewear suitable for the journey aboard an ocean liner on its way to a sunny destination.

Lounging in a rotan chair to the left is a mannequin wearing a simple, cream-coloured tunic dress with a jacket in the same colour, both dating from c. 1924–25. While the dress has been made from silk, the jacket’s material, interestingly, is ‘rayon’, a man-made fibre made from chemically treated cellulose. Generally known as ‘artificial silk,’ this material was first developed in the late nineteenth century but only became widely available from the 1920s onwards. The fibre was officially renamed rayon in 1924 through an industry-sponsored contest with the aim to counter the frequent associations with artificiality or inferiority to natural silk. Rayon grew in popularity as it provided women from all backgrounds the ability to wear certain garments that were previously reserved only for those who could afford to buy silk.

My favourite ensemble in this arrangement is a simple, but chic, striped dress with pockets and pleats made from silk that dates from c. 1922–23. This dress combines comfort and freedom of movement with elegance and is reminiscent of the silhouette and style of clothing designed by Coco Chanel.

Detail of the display showing my favourite dress to the left. To the right, a cotton swimsuit in herringbone pattern. Photo: Nelleke Honcoop

Moving to the right, the eye meets a group of mannequins wearing boldly-coloured, Art Deco-patterned beach pyjamas and loose, kimono-inspired dresses worn over cotton swimsuits. This group hints at a day spent swimming – or perhaps lounging and sunbathing at the pool, cultivating the tanned skin that was promoted by Chanel and became popular during this decade.

Top and trousers, c.1925, cotton. A pyjama inspired two-piece reflecting the contemporary vogue for wearing pyjamas as lounge wear in, as well as outside, the confines of the boudoir. © Photo Tessa Hallman. Collection Cleo and Mark Butterfield

 ‘On the Ocean Liner’ addresses how swimming became popular among women in the second half of the decade when American competition swimmer Gertrude Ederle (1905 –2003) became the first woman to swim across the Channel in 1926. A cotton swimsuit in a herringbone pattern with a subtly integrated skirt is used to illustrate the active lifestyle and freedom of movement of modern women during the 1920s. I particularly enjoyed the attention given to materials and construction details, such as the contrasting cuffs of a cotton swimsuit that were not only a chic addition, but also helped to keep it in shape when immersed in water.

Finally, by focusing on 1920s women’s fashion from the angle of sports, leisure, and travel, ‘On the Ocean Liner’ felt like an inspiring warm up to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s upcoming exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, which will explore the golden age of ocean travel around the world.

By Nelleke Honcoop

JAZZ AGE | Fashion & Photographs is on display at the TextielMuseum, Tilburg, The Netherlands, until 27 May 2018. See: http://www.textielmuseum.nl/en/

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 3 February – 10 June 2018. See: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style

 

Wearing Rank: Mandarin Squares in Chinese Court Dress

 

I thought I would pay tribute to my stay in Hong Kong this winter and write an Asia-themed dress history blog post about Chinese rank badges.

The Chinese rank badges, also referred to as mandarin squares, are silk badges that were once embroidered or woven onto the front and back of court robes, as an indication of a wearer’s rank within the Chinese court and were worn primarily between 1391 and 1911, during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The origin of the rank badges can be traced to square embroidered plaques containing animal and flower designs featured on the robes of Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) officials, mostly for decorative purposes. These badges were not designated as official court dress until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The mandarin badges, indicating a court official’s rank, were to be sewn onto the front and back of their court robes. It was determined that there would be nine ranks for both the literary and military officials; different animals were designated for different ranks. Birds were associated with literary elegance and were to be used for the civil officials, whereas carnivorous mammals were associated with courage and fierceness of soldiers, to be used for the military officials. This system survived the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the succeeding Qing dynasty (1644-1911) retained the same rank badge system.

Unknown artist, Fifth rank military official badge with bear, Qing dynasty, ca. 1820s. Peking stitch on blue silk satin. 

The Ming and Qing rank badges differed stylistically and structurally, although the animal and bird iconography remained consistent. The Ming badges had a few identifying visual and physical characteristics that differed from the Qing squares. The most obvious features were the size and shape. Most Ming badges were at least 35 cm in dimension and lacked any distinct borders. The Ming badges were sewn from seam end to seam end across the front of the robes, and were slightly trapezoidal in shape, as the Ming robes were wider near the bottom. Furthermore, strict Ming sumptuary laws forbade Ming officials from using too much gold, which resulted in most emblems embroidered in satin stitch or laid floss-silk. Only the principal design was outlined in heavier gold threads.

Unknown artist, Red Silk with Crane and Cloud Design, Ming Dynasty court robe with rank badge, red silk with embroidery. Shandong Museum.

Compared to the Ming squares, the Qing badges were a lot smaller, ranging on average from 25 to 30 cm in size. Moreover, the addition of the ornamental border and the unique innovation of the ‘sun disk’ to symbolize the emperor became the standard trends of the Qing dynasty rank badges. However, the most distinctive feature was the split seam down the center of the Qing square, which most Ming squares lacked. The split in the badge was a result of the structure of the bu fu, the surcoat on which the mandarin squares were attached. The bu fu, a creation of the Qing dynasty, opened down the front, which meant that the mandarin square on the front side was made in halves, one on each side of the coat flaps; the mandarin square on the backside was made in one piece. Contrastingly, the Ming squares, both the front and back badges, were made in whole, undisturbed by the flaps, since the Ming robes were designed to open to the side.

Besides the obvious structural difference between the Ming and Qing dynasty squares, there are also various stylistic, and thematic differences in each era. To find out more about the stylistic, and technical developments of Chinese rank badges, I recommend reading works by Schuyler V. Cammann, who has written most prolifically on mandarin squares.

By Lily Mu

References:

Wang, Zhihou. The Splendors of Costume: Special Exhibition Attire from Ming and Qing Dynasties. China: Qi Lu Press, 2013.

Haig, Paul; Shelton, Marla. Threads of Gold: Chinese Textiles, Ming to Ch’ing. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 2006.