Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Looking jazzy:A trip to the Fashion & Textile Museum.

I'd never visited the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey before. Founded in 2003 by Zandra Rhodes you can't miss it if you're walking down Bermondsey Street. A former warehouse painted bright orange with pink trim converted and redesigned by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta with the assistance of Rhodes.

There's no permanent collection as such (though there's a little shop and a rather pleasant café) so the organisers focus on an ongoing programme of temporary displays. Most recently the temptingly titled 1920s Jazz Age Fashion & Photographs. I'm not one for eulogising the concept of 'vintage', I'd just as happy attend a collection of off-the-peg high street clothes, but there certainly were some very lovely dresses there. Loads of them. I did not come away feeling I'd not seen enough female fashion from the twenties that's for sure.

The layout was a little confusing so I, very Britishly, started by the 'QUEUE HERE' sign. Here I could ponder a selection of coats, cloaks, capes, and dresses whilst reading a potted history of the decade in focus.

The end of World War I had marked a new era and in the UK, USA, and France there was a sense of prosperity. Traditional values began to give way to more radical behaviour. By 1920, for the first time ever, more Americans were living in cities than in the country and increased mechanisation meant more leisure time.

Women entered the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Two key factors forced this societal shift and both had their origins in the war that had just cost tens of millions of lives. Firstly while the men were at the front women had been mobilised to cover their jobs and help out with the war effort in munitions factories. This taste of freedom was not to be sacrificed easily in peacetime. Secondly there simply weren't enough men left alive to cover all the work (and rebuilding) that needed to be done.

After the horrors of war those that had survived were determined to enjoy life to the full in the knowledge of how precarious the gift of it is. Some of the things that happened in the decade underline that. Others totally contradict it.

On the plus side Marie Stopes, in 1921, opened her first birth control clinic in the UK. A year later Ulysses was published. The year after the Hollywoodland sign went up. In 1924 Andre Breton launched his Surrealist manifesto, in 1927 Clara Bow became the first 'It girl' and, at the end of the decade, MoMA opened in NYC.

Less positively in 1920 prohibition began in the United States. It lasted for thirteen years. Most worrying of all were developments in Germany where, in 1921, Hitler became leader of the Nazi party. Within 12 years he'd become Chancellor and we all know what happened after that. It serves as a warning from history to anyone who thinks it's a good idea to vote for populist demagogues now. The final, dreadful, consequences of these acts can take decades, generations, to play themselves out and the scars will never, and can never, be healed.

However, this is a fashion museum so for people more interested in that there's always the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum or Trump's inauguration on Friday (depending on whether or not you're more interested in how fascism ends or how it begins).

Back in Bermondsey I'm looking at more of the fashions of the new modern ladies or, as F Scott Fitzgerald called them, flappers! Each tableau is set against pastel shaded backgrounds consisting of age and theme appropriate motifs and titled individually. In The Boudoir (above), Picnic At The Lake (below), and At The Fashion Show (at the bottom of this selection) being just a few examples. My favourite here is the Sonia Delaunayesque art deco one.

Amongst the maid outfits, slips, and dressing gowns you get a sense of the oriental influence that was seeping into fashion. You can witness the changing length in hemlines. Within the decade they went from to calf to ankle and back again. Frocks became more tubular and plunging v-backs appeared. In the late half of the decade a 'boyish' look developed and the dominance of the waist as a focal point of women's fashion declined. Obviously not for ever.

There's a wall of portraits of notable women of the time. My photos didn't come out great but, below, you can see Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong and boogie-woogie pianist Edythe Baker. They're celebrated alongside Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, Tallulah Bankhead, Clara Bow, Lee Miller (whose IWM exhibition last year was a major cultural highlight for me), and Louise Brooks.

Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis had become part of culture and sex was more openly discussed. 'Petting' parties were held where youngsters could go to 'practise' kissing and hugging. The increasing popularity of automobiles opened up the possibility of more distant holidays. Trains, planes, and ships even more so.

On The Ocean Liner (below) takes a glamorous look at this golden age of cruising before A Tennis Match looks at trends set by six time Wimbledon winner Suzanne Lenglen. With the new freedoms of the age sport, particularly outdoor sports like swimming, tennis, and golf, were heartily encouraged. This came with the added advantage of potentially developing a sun tan, a newly in vogue look which took off after fashion designer Coco Chanel accidentally got sunburnt visiting the French Riviera.

It's hard to imagine sun tans were particularly visible in the speakeasies that rose during prohibition. The clothes worn there were designed to move and shift as dancers performed the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Shimmy to the jazz music that gave the era its name. Cocktail Hour, too, became a thing. A very wonderful thing.

A side room is given over to movies. By 1925 about 3,500, mainly Art Deco, cinemas had opened across Britain. Many of them still stand, either crumbling in their faded glamour or, perhaps, converted into cavernous Wetherspoons shrines to daytime drinking. In the 20s people would visit these buildings to learn kissing tips from the movie stars. If you ever find yourself looking for kissing tips in a 'spoons you should probably have a serious word with yourself.

Another gallery of the museum is given over to the photographs of James Abbe. His painfully posed photographs caught the fashion of the age if not the movement which, in the case, of Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova is surely a shame. Douglas Fairbanks looks like he's curling a turd out while Mary Pickford holds his hand more in sympathy than affection.

It'd been an interesting afternoon. One a little out of my comfort zone. Both as regards to visiting and to writing about. I ended up in the aforementioned café with a hot chocolate and a small slice of millionaire shortbread. Though perhaps a highball, a blast of the Paul Whiteman orchestra, and a little shimmy shimmy would've been more appropriate. Calmness wasn't an end in itself.

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