THE ART OF ESCAPISM IN THE 1930S

Naomi Purvis explores how the fashion of the decade impacted the working woman.

‘Night and Day’, the new exhibition currently on display at London’s Fashion & Textiles Museum, celebrates the 1930s with a collection of exquisite never-before-seen garments alongside an array of complementary photographs and memorabilia from the decade. 

The exhibition sits alongside an instalment on the work of a notable photographer of the time, Cecil Beaton, titled ‘Thirty from the 30’s: Fashion, Film & Fantasy’.  Cecil Beaton (19041980) was a distinguished photographer and contributor to major fashion magazines, photographing the most popular names in fashion, film, the arts and society.  Although his work was not solely fashion-based, some of his best-known works are his fashion photographs of the 1930s, making him a truly fitting choice of photographer to accompany the exhibition. The capsule exhibition reflects highlights from his career during the 1930s, featuring portraits of Princess Marina and Princess Karam of Kapurthala, as well as a selection of designers such as Chanel and Schiaparelli, and fashion models Mary Taylor and Princess Natalia Paley.

Shortly after the exhibition’s launch, the museum held a talk with curators and contributors which provided an interesting insight into the curation as well as the research process behind the exhibition.  Curator talks are held frequently at The Fashion & Textiles Museum and are worth a visit if you haven’t been before.  Hearing the creators talk about their thought processes and ideas behind the exhibition not only brings the exhibitions to life, but provides a background narrative the viewer would have been oblivious to otherwise. 

This event lasted around an hour and included Fashion and Textile Museum curators Dennis Nothdruft and Teresa Collenette, curator of photography Terence Pepper, and guest curators from C20 Vintage, Cleo and Mark Butterfield. C20 vintage provided most of the clothing displayed within the exhibition, with a large proportion coming from Cleo’s own personal collection.  The talk begun with an overview of the exhibition itself and the thought process behind its creation.  The speakers provided an interesting insight into the behind the scenes world of museum curation and why the 1930s were chosen as the focus point for this latest exhibition.

An interesting discussion point during the talk was that of the name of the exhibition.  As it suggests, Night & Day represents the transition from a women’s work clothes worn through the day to those worn in the evening to outings such as dances or the cinema.  The 1930s brought a new sense of dress for women as fashion shifted from the straight cut of the flapper dress seen throughout the 20s and instead towards a more feminine silhouette.   This change in dress could also reflect the social changes present in the 30s.   Women were becoming more present in different roles within the workplace, all of which called for appropriate dress which may have not been worn beforehand.  As a result of this, there became a more obvious distinction between evening and day wear.  

An important theme that presents itself throughout both the talk and the exhibition itself is the idea that clothing in the 1930s was a way of escapism for the everyday working woman.  Following on from the Great Depression in the 1920s, and with the threat of a second war firmly set in people’s minds, there was a need to find joy and distraction elsewhere.  For many this would be attending local dances or visiting the cinema, where they would be presented with images of immaculately dressed women in clothes they could only dream of owning themselves.  Alongside this there was also a rise in a new age of woman’s magazines. Steering away from the unattainable aspirational images presented in the likes of Vogue, these new magazines were much more tailored towards real women. They provided advice on how to dress and saw the beginnings of ‘agony aunt’ columns, enabling a more personal platform which women could reach out to, something that hadn’t been available before this point.  Fashion became more personal and an opportunity for women to connect with each other in a way they perhaps hadn’t before.  The magazines were becoming a place in which women could escape to with excitement and enjoyment in this new-found personal connection with clothing.  Throughout the talk this idea of escapism was referred to on numerous occasions, clarifying that this was an important starting point for the exhibition.  When speaking about her research into the 1930s through magazines, curator Teresa Collenette used a fitting example from a popular publication at the time, Miss Modern.  In one article the subject revolved around an evening dress and the idea that it would fully transform the wearer into an entirely different person, emphasising the reader’s need to own that item of clothing.

Towards the end of the exhibition, the final room features work from Cecil Beaton.  His work also relates to the running theme of escapism as he was the first to start photographing Hollywood actresses behind the scenes.  This allowed him to capture a more relatable image of the Hollywood scene than the typical glossy magazine shots.

Not only does the exhibition display some of the most exquisite dresses and imagery from the 1930s, it also portrayed the voice of the everyday woman. Whereas other fashion museums tend to focus on the designer couture dresses with little interest in the clothing worn by real people, the Fashion & Textiles museum have celebrated clothing worn by real women – whether that be in the workplace or for leisure.  The notion that clothing was a sense of escapism for these women is something also relatable to modern time. In today’s world we face many things that may make us want to escape from reality, similar to the threats of war, politics and social changes faced by women in the 1930s.  Trends may come and go, but the idea of escaping reality and finding a sense of enjoyment and excitement through clothing will never go out of style.

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs & Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s, Fashion, Film and Fantasy Exhibition Dates: 12 October 2018 – 20 January 2019

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