Whether you’re familiar with the garments of the 1930s or not, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s past exhibition, “Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s,” acts as a revelation. The exhibit, which originally took place in 2014 and is now available to view online, is a celebration of craftsmanship—with the clothes, clearly, but also with a space that is meticulously set up by curators Bruce Boyer and Patricia Mears to showcase the styles of the era. According to Boyer, “The thirties was the period in which truly modern clothing was created.” And to underscore that notion, the show begins with two heavy, tubular garments from the early 1900s placed next to two modern looks from the decade their exhibition focuses on. “They just don’t have that softness you get in the 1930s,” says Mears of the predecessors.
It’s easy to credit that softness you see in the later looks to the advances in fabric technology, but just as important is the show’s emphasis on artisanal efforts and groundbreaking inventions: the hundreds of hours it would take to create one dress, say, or the experimentation of cutting on the bias. For men’s wear, “Elegance in an Age of Crisis” focuses on the deconstruction of heavy wools jackets, which is credited to Gennaro Rubinacci and his tailor, Vincenzo Attolini. For women, the exhibit discusses the removal of the corset, the dimension of fabrics, drapery, cutwork—ideas that translated into clothes that fell naturally on the body. To pick just one example, there’s a cotton dress by Madeleine Vionnet from 1932 with countless tiny, geometric eyelet cuts. When you look at it, all you can see is its beauty, never the seamstresses’ sweat. “It’s all one piece and then the four quadrants that make up the base of the skirt,” informs Mears. “The fabric was hand-cut, and every little thing was hand-stitched.” Here Vionnet’s cutwork creates a transparency that, like lace, softens the silhouette. The result is empty spaces around solid ones that are then filled by skin. That dress, in fact, clarifies a characteristic of Vionnet’s couture: its precise technicality, in opposition to the ease with which she draped. (“I am more a sculptor than a painter…more sensitive to shape that color,” Vionnet once said in an interview.) With its veil-like quality, Vionnet’s creation winks at you: it reveals something but, at the same time, shows you nothing. And, for 1932, that wasn’t a kind of subtle everyday gesture. It was daring and provocative, even magical. “I’m fascinated by that dress,” admits Boyer. “I showed it to a friend of mine who’s a cardiologist and he said, ‘My surgeons can’t even do that.’”
Which is a testament to the workmanship of the times. Still, it’s worth mentioning the fabrics—the lightest of chiffons, the silkiest of crêpes, the softest of cashmeres. Oh, the cashmeres? Toward the end of the exhibition you’ll walk by a pair of trousers. “They’re six-ply herringbone cashmere,” informs Boyers. “If you could find that fabric today, it would cost you two or three thousand dollars a yard.” It’s fascinating, in a way, to see so much of this money-is-no-object luxury when we know the ’30s were filled with financial turmoil. But often, in a crisis, beauty prevails. Just look at the success of the film industry during the Depression. Or even the towering heights of high heels in 2009.
Over the brassy “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background, Boyer points out a collection of Fred Astaire’s shoes, one of the show’s highlights. “The most famous feet of the 20th century,” he says with conviction. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s no way you want to miss the pleasure of Astaire’s company in an exhibition that twirls you through the glamour of the 1930s like only he could.