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This is the first exhibition to concurrently examine both men’s and women’s fashion of the 1930s, specifically objects made by the era’s finest dressmakers and men’s clothiers. Haute couture and bespoke tailoring are equally represented by the approximately 80 ensembles and 30 accessories that are arranged thematically in an exhibition environment designed to evoke the restrained style of the era.
The 1930s was a time of grand transformations, when fashion truly began to reflect the streamlined art moderne aesthetic. Garments were softer, minimally ornamented, elegantly proportioned, and markedly different from the preceding periods: the Edwardian era with its stiff, structured clothing, and the shapeless, boxy styles of the 1920s.
Elegance in an Age of Crisis investigates how clothing creators of the 1930s, despite the crippling financial crisis and dire political environment, spearheaded new stylistic ideas and wed them to emerging technologies. Technical innovations in textile production transformed what was possible for couturiers: looms were wider, dyeing vats were larger, and fibers were more tightly twisted.
These expansive and flexible new materials gave dressmakers larger “canvases” upon which to rethink and refine draping techniques, while featherweight textiles lent their garments new suppleness and flexibility. Tailors in both Northern and Southern Europe simultaneously began to deconstruct the jacket and to create a garment that was shapely, yet pliant. Lighter materials, such as linen, were used to make softer jackets.
A synthesis of cutting-edge technology and the finest handcraftsmanship was necessary to forge a truly modern aesthetic in clothing. But these were not the only driving forces of the new look of the 1930s.
Artistic influence—mainly the revival and full embrace of classicism across all the plastic arts—spurred a lean, elegantly proportioned aesthetic. It inspired master dressmakers and tailors to experiment with new techniques in order to achieve clothing that enhanced movement and highlighted the “natural,” well-proportioned, and classically idealized body.
The look of the 1930s was an international phenomenon. Menswear tailoring innovations in London and Naples paralleled breakthroughs in haute couture draping in Paris as well as custom design in New York, Havana, and Shanghai. Hollywood, too, played a role in defining and popularizing the glamorous new look. On view in the exhibition is clothing made in these cities for clients from the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
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Fashion Institute of Technology
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