1920s fashion exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum

Modern Spirit: Fashion of the 1920s is on display through February 10 at the Phoenix Art Museum, capturing an influential era with contemporary appeal.

“The 1920s are really the earliest historical period that seems modern today,” Curator of Fashion Design Dennita Sewell said, noting that much of what we now take for granted originated in the ’20s, such as women’s suffrage, more women in the workplace, modern appliances, dating customs, short haircuts and short skirts.

“I think we have an impression of the dancing flapper girl, and it’s really much more complex and influential—heavily influential on our own times, especially for women,” Sewell said.

The story told through 1920s clothing tells of freedom and exploration, John Dunn, costume designer for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, said during a lecture at the museum. He noted the whimsical, colorful fabrics of the time and a change in silhouette, as corsets became an item of the past.

“This was an exuberant time,” Dunn said, emphasizing the importance of seeing ’20s clothing in person because photographs of the time period were in black and white, and thus, unable to show the “extraordinary color” of the ’20s in comparison to preceding eras.

IMG_5448The drastic change in clothing that took place in the 1920s “not only happened, but it became chic,” Sewell said.

To truly capture the historic significance and modern influence of this time period, Sewell journeyed through a step-by-step process beginning in the museum’s fashion vault. With a fashion collection of 5,000 objects to choose from, Sewell chose to do a 1920s exhibit because she felt it would resonate with contemporary culture and economics, more so than showcasing clothing from the 18th and 19th centuries. Her choice became obviously appropriate as she saw an artistic pop culture trend toward this era, with movies such as The Great Gatsby, The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and the television show Downton Abbey moving into the ’20s this upcoming season.

“I thought it’d be really interesting to show the real objects in the gallery when all these creative projects are happening inspired by that period,” Sewell said.

She then made a blue print of the exhibit with clothing grouped by daywear, eveningwear, lingerie, and art and exoticism. The clothes are also organized chronologically. One prominent indicator of the time period is hem length. Early in the decade, skirts were longer, shortening from 1925 to 1927, and then dipping again in 1928 when the uneven hemline became popular.

The exhibit includes clothing by Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, designers who Sewell calls innovators of modern fashion.

Aside from clothing, the exhibit features large-scale photographs taken by Edward Steichen for Vogue in the 1920s. Sewell attributes Steichen for transforming fashion photography into an art. These photos came from the museum library’s Vogue archive, which can be accessed by the public. Accompanying these photos are original Vogue magazines from the time period.

“I wanted to put some of those original contexts in the show,” Sewell said, noting the beautiful juxtaposition of the black and white photographs with the actual pieces of clothing, in colors that could not be captured on film.

Beyond the physical exhibit, Modern Spirit includes lectures, gallery talks and films. The next gallery talk, “The Modern Spirit in Architecture and Design” is January 23 at 7 p.m. Pandora’s Box is playing February 3 at 1 p.m.

Up next for fashion at the Phoenix Art Museum is a look at how digitalization is changing the design, look and scale of prints. This exhibit begins March 2 and ends July 14, 2013.

Audrey Weil

Photo Credits: Ken Howie, courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum

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