Sunday, February 19, 2017

I like the night life, baby

This week I went on a road trip with my parents to Barwon Park Mansion, Winchelsea, to see Night Life, a National Trust exhibition of evening wear from the 1920s and 1930s. By pure chance, we managed to time our arrival just as a guided tour by exhibition curator Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna was beginning. This was an awesome way to navigate the exhibition. Anya-Petrivna offered lots of detail about the archival research she'd done into the garments' manufacture, provenance, cultural context and conservation.

Clearly I am like a pig in the proverbial when it comes to this stuff, and so of course I've since looked up Anya-Pretrivna's other work. What a wonderful job she has! I found this 2016 feature article in which she's somewhat awkwardly cast as a high retro enthusiast; but what immediately excited me was reading that Anya-Petrivna has researched the people who once lived in her house. I've done the same thing and found some really fascinating stories, although I've felt conflicted and angsty about writing about it because I don't want strangers to figure out my address.

But anyway. This is all to explain that I was extremely excited and had to try super hard to be cool during the tour. Because I was lazy, I decided to put all the photos I took at the exhibition up on my Instagram, but then I relented and decided to do a proper blog post, which you are reading right now…

The interwar period is one of the most popular and well documented when it comes to fashion exhibitions. Thematically, it has an image of glamour and decadence. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of the Bright Young Things in the UK. And the concomitant rise of the celebrity and society gossip media allowed ordinary people to follow the exploits of the wealthy and privileged.

Yet there's also an elegiac quality to these clothes. They're like a ballroom full of streamers, confetti, lipstick-smeared cigarette butts and half-full champagne glasses: evidence of a party that has now crashed. We can enjoy these looks, knowing – as the wearers had not – that the good times will soon end in economic depression and global war.

Just a few of the recent pop-cultural touchstones for interwar fashion have been The Great Gatsby (2013) – for which Catherine Martin won two Academy Awards – Downton Abbey (2010–15), Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012–) and Woody Allen's ongoing obsession with the period in Midnight in Paris (2011), Magic in the Moonlight (2014) and Café Society (2016).

So how can yet another exhibition differentiate itself in this crowded space? Just recently there's been the NGV's 2014 Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion show, and the vastly popular exhibition of costumes from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, presented around Australia in 2015-16 in collaboration with the National Trust.

Let's embark on the tour!

Entering the exhibition in Barwon Park's downstairs drawing room, we encountered a stunning display of 1920s party dresses, coats and accessories, presented on rotating plinths that gave the impression the mannequins were dancing. In the dimness, spangles of light were projected on the wall. Rows of sequins and beads on the mannequins' heads sketched bobbed hairstyles. My shitty photography can't convey the glamorous impression.

What this exhibition does brilliantly is use lighting to show how the seductive textures of these clothes were intended to be seen at night: in dimly lit rooms or under dazzling electric and neon lights. Think of those flapper frocks encrusted with beads and sequins, and trimmed lavishly with fringing and tassels. Think of those slinky bias-cut 1930s frocks in satins and chiffons, worn with furs and velvets and fluffy ostrich boas. These are clothes designed to draw the eye and invite the touch. They were for energetic, moving bodies.

The iconic 1920s dress is the tabard. The original tabards were the loose, sleeveless medieval surcoats worn by knights over their armour, and usually emblazoned with their heraldic symbols, from which we get the term 'coat of arms'. In the 1920s, a tabard dress was a sleeveless tunic with a bateau, scoop or V-neck, sewn at the shoulders. Tabards were often open in the sides, held together at the hips with pins or a belt. You'd wear a matching or contrasting slip underneath. But they could also be sewn all the way down the sides.

These glamorous looks were also becoming more achievable for ordinary women, as while the labour costs were considerable, the materials themselves were not nearly as precious as they looked. This 1920s dance dress has glass beads and is very heavy, but its vertical beaded panels offer a heft that makes the dress swing beautifully with the wearer's movement. Other dresses in the exhibition are embellished with lighter materials such as gelatin, tin and celluloid. Celluloid is the earliest thermoplastic polymer (pliable plastics that are moulded and reshaped by heating). It was often used for jewellery, toys, homewares and accessories such as buttons and buckles that would have previously been made of ivory, horn or tortoiseshell.

However, as film buffs will know, celluloid is incredibly flammable – lots of pre-1950s cinema has been lost in fires – and there was somewhat of a panic that careless flappers would turn themselves into human torches if they got too close to fireplaces or hands waving cigarettes. (There was a similar moral panic surrounding crinolines.) Gelatin, too, was vulnerable to melting when subjected to heat or moisture. Or both, in the case of the body heat of a dance partner's hand in the small of the back.

These gorgeous beaded garments require painstaking conservation if they're to be displayed on mannequins. Due to the sharp edges of bugle beads, and the propensity of antique and vintage silk to shatter from the metallic salts used to treat the fabric, the sheer weight of the embellishments can tear the dress apart unless it's displayed flat. This gorgeous frock weighs as much as two bottles of wine. It would've been hugely expensive, yet it belonged to a young woman of modest means. It's one of the standout items in the exhibition, and was much pored over by attendees during my visit. It's also been photographed extensively on Instagram, and indeed was my most-liked photo by my Instagram followers.

In the 1920s, fake pearls were made by coating celluloid bead forms in (or filling hollow glass beads with) a disgusting iridescent goo made from fish scales, which was applied by mouth-blowing. Fish scales are still used today in iridescent cosmetics such as eye shadow.

This is a metallic Assuit shawl from Egypt. Note the little pyramid and camel motifs! Named after the Egyptian town where they were made, they were hugely popular as souvenirs and lots of them were brought to Australia by WWI soldiers, although the Thomas Cook-led tourism boom, the opening of the Suez Canal and the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb all made Egypt more fascinating and accessible than ever. They could be pinned or sewn into tabard dresses, worn as sashes or head wraps, or used as shawls. They came in heaps of colours and patterns.

One thing I really liked about this show was the way the garments were displayed to draw attention not just to their textures and manufacture, but also to their role in an 'outfit'. Modern slips were unobtrusively teamed with period garments so that it wasn't immediately obvious that the accessory – a shawl, coat or boa – was the featured garment, not the dress. But we get a much more aesthetically satisfying impression of how it would have looked in its heyday. Contrast with this Assuit shawl, which I found on the Vintage Textile dealer website:

This striking display of 1930s evening wear is inspired by Max Dupain's silhouetted photos of the same period.

Max Dupain, Top Hat, c1930. From the Peter and Olivia Farrell Australian Photography Collection, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego.

A gorgeous Chinoiserie evening shawl, although it also reminds me of traditional Polish/Slavic folk embroidery. Part of a display of 'orientalisme' on the landing of the mansion's grand staircase. There were also fireworks projected onto the wall, which of course are a Chinese invention, but also signal the celebratory occasions at which many of these gowns would have been worn.

One of the star items in the exhibition is this amazing 1920s evening wrap/coat, which belonged to the same ordinary working woman as the pearl-encrusted dress. It was beaded using a tambour: a frame across which the fabric is tightly stretched and a small hook used to thread the beads through. Worked from the underside of the fabric, this technique ensures the inside of the finished garment looks as neat as the outside.

This screen-printed 1930s evening dress is ciré silk. Rather than the sheen coming from the weave (as in satin), the silk is wax-coated to produce volume, stiffness and a wet, shiny finish, which here is reminiscent of lacquered Japanese ware. Ciré fell out of fashion after WWII when synthetic fabrics could produce the same effect; but interestingly ciré cottons were popular from the 1950s-1970s, known as "polished cotton". The fabric's stiffness made it perfect for full-skirted 1950s cocktail frocks.

Upstairs was a lovely display of 1930s floral evening gowns. I'm often struck by how timeless these 1930s screen-printed floral fabrics are. I own several dresses whose prints are not too dissimilar – and I have lots of clothing in 'semi-synthetic' fabrics. These gowns are rayon, which was marketed as modern, easy-care 'art silk'. Today I own a lot of viscose clothing, and my friend Paulina has a glamorous Shakuhachi evening frock that looks and feels like silk but is made of Tencel. Rayon is made from plant cellulose; Tencel (a brand name for lyocell) is from wood pulp and viscose is made from wood pulp or cotton lint.

The final room of the exhibition was set up as a 'workroom', displaying gowns from the Trust's collection that were unfinished or substantially altered. There was also a video explaining how the conservators had worked to restore the beading, and a tambour set up so you could give it a try.

This 1940 self-spotted evening frock is a 'transitional' gown – it was displayed alongside a 1919 gown that showed the transition from the corseted empire and princess lines of the 1910s to the boyish tabard. The later gown shows the next transition from the sylph-like bodycon gowns of the 1930s to the weirdly modest and structured 1940s gowns, whose emphasis shifted to the shoulders and hips. I hate 1940s evening wear; those big shoulders in dowdy black crepe with high necklines. I'm super glad fashion has never compelled me to wear this stuff.

Barbara Stanwyck, hating sequins, 1941.

Anyway. You can't see it in this pic, but this gown has a ruched 'polonaise' bustle, which is a retro look. It was first given to bunchy gathered overdresses in the 'Polish' style in the 1770s, but the polonaise made a comeback a century later as part of the early 1870s Dolly Varden fad.

This polonaise-style dress is American, from 1780-85, from the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, the 1940s bustle is more like a peplum: extra decorative drapery in the back, shifting the dress's volume to the rear.

This is a McCall's dressmaking pattern from the period.

Night Life is at Barwon Park Mansion until 26 March 2017, open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm.

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