Close your eyes and imagine the 1920s. What comes to mind? Prohibition and speakeasies? Suffrage for women?
Close your eyes and imagine the 1920s. What comes to mind? Prohibition and speakeasies? Suffrage for women? Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio playing the tragic hero Jay Gatsby? Most likely one of the first images that comes to mind is that of the flapper, with her bobbed hair, dressed in a fringed, short-skirted dress and holding a long cigarette holder as she dances the Charleston: she is the icon of the Roaring Twenties. Visitors to the 1920s Jazz Age exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London (currently on at the American Museum in Bath) certainly encounter the flapper. They find her in the sequined and beaded dresses, in the glamorous fur cloaks and in the black and white British Pathé films of dancers scattered throughout the museum.
But while the flapper is present throughout the exhibition, she is not omnipresent. Instead, visitors also find sweet tea dresses and simple summer frocks, velvet robe de style gowns with wide paniers and dresses that nearly reach the floor. For though the flapper has come to represent the 1920s in our popular memory, it was not the only style to emerge during the period. 1920s Jazz Age manages to capture the glamour along with some of the more ‘everyday’ styles. It is through those garments that visitors are connecting with the exhibition – connecting the women who wore the garments on display with their own experience and their own family history as memories are evoked through the material traces.
Elizabeth Wilson wrote in Adorned in Dreams about the eerie, haunted atmosphere of the fashion museum. Disembodied from their wearers, the ghosts of the clothes’ original owners linger among the garments. ‘We experience a sense of the uncanny when we gaze at garments that had an intimate relationship with human beings long since gone to their graves,’ Wilson writes. ‘For clothes are so much part of our living, moving selves that, frozen on display in the mausoleums of culture, they hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening; the atrophy of the body, and the evanescence of life.’ For the visitors to the Fashion and Textile Museum, however, the frozen displays conjure a different kind of ghost. Instead, the exhibition resurrects the spirit of the visitors’ family members, as the clothes summon memories long past. Just like opening a trunk of a person’s own clothing might, 1920s Jazz Age creates nostalgia and emotional connections to the clothes and the people of whom those clothes remind them.
Just barely within the realm of living memory, the 1920s still hold a prominent place in popular memory, which helps the visitors feel close to the exhibition. The reasons for this abound. For one, in the twenties we see the origins of our modern culture, and in many ways, the emergence of our current style…
Want to read more about how visitors connected 1920s Jazz Age to their own experience, family and memory? Keep reading at reddy-to-wear.com.
About Karina Reddy
Karina Reddy holds an MA in Fashion Communication from Central Saint Martins. In addition, she studied at Boston University and London College of Fashion. With an undergraduate degree in history, her research at Central Saint Martins explored how the body was fashioned in the 1920s. A self-proclaimed museum nerd, she has a keen interest in fashion museums and volunteered at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. You can read more of her writing at reddy-to-wear.com.