Art Deco Chic: Extravagant glamour between the wars
Having seen McQueen at the Met and Balenciaga at the de Young this past year, we were salivating for more fashion exhibitions – unfortunately, they are few and far between in Vancouver. So, we were thrilled to hear local fashion historians and collectors Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke had curated an exhibition called Art Deco Chic: Extravagant glamour between the wars comprised of garments largely drawn from their own rich holdings. Including 66 dresses, some by important designers like Chanel, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli, along with hats, handbags, shoes and jewellery, the exhibition gives a full picture of how women dressed – head to toe, day and night – in the era.
Organized chronologically, Art Deco Chic documents changing women’s fashions from the early 1920s to the late 1930s, expertly interweaving socio-cultural events with changing hemlines and silhouettes. Gatsby-era eveningwear of the early 1920s was tubular in shape and both bustless and hipless but the exquisite surface decoration including glitter, beadwork, and embroidery would highlight a woman’s figure when she walked or did the Charleston. Late 1920s eveningwear was often embellished with Art Deco patterns comprised of geometric shapes including stylized clouds, flowers and leaves. After the stock market crash of 1929, the waistline moved up to the natural level, and the bust, waist and hips became clearly defined. The late 1930s saw hemlines rise, and a move away from Art Deco motifs. Sayers and Jahnke have made fashion fascinating by providing information about the way it intersects with popular culture, including, for example, a suede red cap with a feather that was inspired by the fictional character Robin Hood who was portrayed in films of the period by both Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Historical events like the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 also encouraged Egyptian motifs and the marketing of a ‘desert sand’ colour.
Art Deco Chic includes both recognizable labels as well as lesser-known period works, some with unique histories including a dress worn on the day one woman met Albert Einstein and another worn to the opening of the Commodore Cabaret in Vancouver in 1929. Highlights include a 1928 silk-crepe Chanel dress that was featured in British and German Vogue. A Schiaparelli evening coat – whose six pockets are meant to mimic 18th century Sèvres porcelain vases, boasts buttons in the shape of Aladdin’s lamp designed by the infamous Salvador Dalí – is a the grand finale.
Simply but effectively installed, mannequins are used to display the dresses to their best advantage, turned away from the viewer where the back is particularly detailed, in profile if a silhouette is most advantageous from the side, or mid-stride if a train should be splayed. The intricate craftsmanship, detailed embroidery and beadwork, and decadent fabrics make the exhibition worth visiting, even for those with a rudimentary knowledge of fashion history. Curator Ivan Sayers has been collecting garments since he was a young boy, often rifling through thrift shops to find hidden gems for unbelievable bargains – through sheer tenacity and a trained eye, he has been able to amass an incredible collection. Art Deco Chic makes us all the beneficiaries of Claus Jahnke and Ivan Sayer’s passionate pursuit.