In this week's blog, Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume of The Olive Matthews Collection, shares her insights into the 'Styled Bodies' exhibition at Chertsey Museum. Grace gives us an exciting exploration of not only the planning and curatorial process, but also the 1930s history and interpretation behind the costume on display. The exhibition runs until September 2nd 2023.
As part of a varied and stimulating job, my role at Chertsey Museum requires me to plan, research and mount an annually changing fashion exhibition in our dedicated Fashion Gallery. Pieces are carefully selected from the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress, which consists of over 6,000 items of costume dating from c.1600 to the present. Those of you who have read my previous blog post will know that our last exhibition was about flowers in dress. Our current exhibition takes a more conventional theme – that of 1930s fashion. Styled Bodies is open until the 2nd September 2023, and features men’s, women’s and children’s dress from a fascinating decade of fashion history.
There were various reasons for deciding to mount a 1930s display. Firstly, in 2020 – 2021 we mounted a 1920s exhibition – dogged by lockdowns it was open for longer so that as many visitors as possible could view it. A continuation along the timeline into the following decade was one reason for the ‘30s display. Another main motivation was to showcase our exceptional group of 1930s garments. Primarily collected over the last 20 years or so, the 1930s holdings of the Olive Matthews Collection now contain a broad cross-section of daywear and eveningwear. We are very lucky to have pieces by some of the most prestigious designers of the era. Amongst other wonderful items, the exhibition includes garments by Madeleine Vionnet, Edward Molyneux, Jeanne Lanvin and Elsa Schiaparelli. They’re certainly names to conjure with, and I’ll devote some attention to each of these pieces later in the blog.
The display opens with an introductory panel which gives a little background about the 1930s. This was a turbulent decade which began with the Great Depression and ended with World War 2. The horrors of World War 1 were still very much part of the collective consciousness, but the frenetic youth-focused response to the Great War which characterised the 1920s had passed. The fizz and exuberance of the ‘20s had come to an abrupt end with the 1929 stock market crash, and the 1930s feels like a much more ‘grown up’ decade. In fact, one of the first things that strikes you as you enter the gallery is that you are in the presence of ‘grown-ups’.
I was keen to read as much as I could about the social history of the ‘30s ahead of writing the text for the exhibition, and I discovered that, despite the obvious and much discussed social and economic difficulties which affected large numbers of people, the 1930s was, for some, a positive period. It was a time in which the stylised imagery of the advertising industry and the escapism and glamour of Hollywood sold the fantasy of the perfect lifestyle, which many people aspired to. After the initial shock of the stock market crash, some sectors of the British economy recovered well. The Southeast and the Midlands saw a bounce-back with service industry and manufacturing jobs more plentiful. For those who had a little disposable income, prices were relatively low. It was an era when young, single women were more active in the labour market than ever before, and a proportion of their modest disposable incomes went on fashion. The acquisition of reasonably priced fashionable clothing was becoming much easier due to a burgeoning ready-to-wear industry. This was assisted by the widespread adoption of standardized sizing and the availability of the now mass-produced man-made textile Rayon which had the look of silk, but at a fraction of the price. Home dressmaking was also thriving. Mainstream education and instruction given from one generation to the next meant that there was great skill, largely within the female population, and this is explored with a section in the exhibition where we have re-created a garment from an original 1930s pattern.
At a time when appearances were all-important, dress was a significant social, and now a more achievable concern from the top to the bottom of society. Adherence to relatively strict sartorial rules was still widespread, and there were plenty of opportunities to ‘dress up’ in eveningwear on a regular basis for many. All these factors and more made for a smart and often sophisticated fashionable landscape which I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring and interpreting.
As mentioned earlier, the display includes some important designer garments. In terms of the more prestigious couturiers of the ‘30s; it is true to say that fashion was still very much dictated by the top-level designers of the period. Their garments for the wealthiest socialites, be they royalty, aristocrats or celebrities, had direct influence on mainstream trends. The majority of these designers were still based in Paris, but the 1930s did see a burgeoning of British couture with the likes of Edward Molyneux, Victor Stiebel and Digby Morton finding success at home and Parisian designers opening branches in London. Hollywood, with the development of talking pictures and colour in film, was also an enormous influence on fashionable dress.
Though it was eventually overtaken by more romantic, 19th century-inspired styles during the last few years of the decade, one of the most striking aspects of 1930s fashion is the rise of the bias cut. Practiced and perfected by several designers of the era such as Lanvin, it is most associated with the incredibly talented and innovative Madeleine Vionnet. To reflect the importance of this technique, we have a dedicated display exploring this theme. This has been produced by students from London College of Fashion, UAL- PG Collaborative Challenge Project. Laura Krawczyk, Lucie Shilton, Yuanhao Xu and Eva Yin; MA students studying Pattern and Garment Technology and Susan Gardner and Serena Gupta, studying for their MA in Fashion Curation, focused on a single bias cut ‘30s gown from our collection. Their work involved investigating and illustrating its cut and construction, making a beautiful replica and documenting their process on film. Along with the bias cut came the fetish for revealing a bare back – neither of these styles were friends to those with less than perfect figures, but then the body-beautiful, and a preoccupation with achieving it, was another important ‘30s trend.
And now to focus on some of the many treasures displayed in the exhibition: Our Schiaparelli London day dress is a fascinating garment for many reasons.
Though it does not shout Surrealism in the way that some of her most famous pieces do, it nevertheless exhibits several characteristic Schiaparelli traits. The fabric pattern is both quirky and humorous in its design. Coiled springs with coloured highlights (resembling the new electric Christmas lights of the era) zig-zag across the silk. This contrasts with the stylish cut, which is very flattering, with its judicious use of pleating and the softly draped bodice. The dress is particularly interesting because it showcases Schiaparelli’s interest in and embrace of new technology. If you look carefully, you can see visible zips on the dress. These are most evident in the sleeve openings. The zip fastening was beginning to be used in clothing during the 1930s. Instead of hiding the zips, as we tend to do today, Schiaparelli has made a feature of them. The London branch of Schiaparelli’s fashion house opened c.1934 at 6 Upper Grosvenor Street, W1. It remained there until 1939.
A very important couture piece displayed in the exhibition is a dinner gown by Jeanne Lanvin. Dating from 1938, it is made from bias cut woven wool and trimmed with gold leather strapwork, embellished with small silver sequins. The House of Lanvin was founded by Jeanne Lanvin in 1909. It rose to prominence during the pre-First World war years and continued to find success during the 1920s. The 1930s saw her at the cutting edge of innovative couture, alongside designers such as Madeleine Vionnet and Charles James. Her classically stylish designs won her many clients and some of her finest work was produced during the 1930s. This simple, yet sophisticated dinner gown is a wonderful example of her work. It draws upon influences from Medieval as well as Middle-Eastern design, yet is sparing in its use of decoration; letting the skilful cutting do most of the work as the gown skims the body’s contours.
Alongside the Lanvin dinner gown is another semi-formal evening dress by a celebrated female designer of the 1930s. This piece, which features many lines of pin tucks with graduated frills in black chiffon, is by Madeleine Vionnet and dates to around 1935.
As mentioned earlier, Parisian designer Madeleine Vionnet was famous for her incredibly skilful approach to cutting, which saw her harness the smooth fluidity of the bias cut to create garments that were revolutionary in their apparently effortless elegance. This example is interesting because it shows another side to her work. Here the smooth contours are replaced by more complicated lines of frills and pleats in textured chiffon, conjured out of only two panels of fabric. The bias cut is not in evidence, yet the adroit cutting and shaping is still present in the clever juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal lines. The absence of any fastenings is also a hallmark of Vionnet’s work. She usually required the wearer to pull the garment over her head, which would have been the case here. It is shown with a replica of the original, damaged ivory silk under-slip and a Bakelite buckle from our collection.
The final garment that I wanted to highlight in this blog is a stylish evening ensemble by Molyneux.
Edward Molyneux was a celebrated British fashion designer who opened a salon in Paris in 1919. A London branch followed in 1932. His work was known for its simple, refined style, and famous clients included royalty and Hollywood stars. This sophisticated outfit is made from silk crêpe marocain. It consists of a sleeveless dress with a long, black tubular skirt and apricot-coloured bodice which is gathered at the shoulders and fastened with three sequin-covered buttons. A separate jacket is closed with a single button. Three pockets are decorated with black sequin roses or camelias. Darts at the waist help to produce a softly draped appearance, but shoulder pads add a little structure. These were much in evidence in late 1930s fashion and were soon to dominate the silhouette of the following decade.
The garments I’ve selected are only a few of the beautiful examples displayed alongside film footage, music and replica garments which are available to explore in the gallery. We hope you will have a chance to come to Chertsey to see the displays. For more information go to chertseymuseum.org/costume-exhibition. The exhibition is on until the 2nd September 2023.
Chertsey Museum, 33 Windsor Street, Chertsey, Surrey KT16 8AT. Open Tuesday to Friday 12.30 to 4.30, Saturdays 11 to 4. Admission is Free. Visit www.chertseymuseum.org for details on how to find us.
To discover more about Chertsey Museum's costume collection, read Grace's previous blog post on some of the museum's menswear highlights.
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