Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The '10s, the '20s, the '30s: Inventive Clothes 1909-1939

Two recent additions to my Etsy shop made me want to find out a little more about one of Diana Vreeland’s exhibitions for the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The 10s, The 20s, The 30s: Inventive Paris Clothes 1909–1939, which ran from December 1973 to March 1974. The exhibition focused on eight designers Poiret, Vionnet, the Callot sisters, Molyneux, Paquin, Chanel, Schiaparelli and Alix working in that period. Leo Lerman captured the premise for the exhibition in a piece for Vogue: "This exhibit demonstrates, with some 150 actual clothes, how the way you look today evolved pre-World War II. Here is the haute couture in its fullest splendor – a lost world of insouciant luxury, optimism, gaiety."

While an undeniable part of the appeal of the exhibition was the opulence of the designs featured – with no shame attached Vreeland describes it as clothes for “women who not only were rich, but who looked rich”– in both the accompanying leaflet for the exhibition and Irving Penn’s subsequent Inventive Paris Clothes, Vreeland provides an individual justification for each designer’s inclusion, whether that’s the "great artist" Vionnet, or Chanel "who positively saw the great spirit of the twentieth century and showed modern emancipated women how to dress." According to Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style by Richard Martin and Harold Koda, these arguments were reinforced through the presentation of the clothes within the exhibition: Schiaparelli garments were presented in vitrines to emphasize their strangeness, while mirrors were placed around the Vionnet dresses so you could admire their artistry.

Vreeland and Valentino, via

The show proved massively popular, breaking attendance records. There’s a great report by Bernadine Morris (of The Fashion Makers) of the opening available online where she describes the exhibition as “a dazzler” and notes the initial response to the clothes by the designers. Estee Lauder is “stunned”, Valentino admires "the softness, the beauty, the simplicity" of some black Vionnet dresses, that appear "so now", while Bill Blass remarks "This will have the most shattering effect on what's going to happen in fashion." It’s subsequently hard not to trace the bias cut dresses of Halston back to the 41 Vionnet dresses on display in the show. There’s a harness dress by Vionnet pictured in the Irving Penn book that you can imagine shimmying onto the dance floor at Studio 54.

The exhibition also proved inspirational to photographer Irving Penn whose Inventive Paris Clothes 1909–1939: A Photographic Essay published in 1977, featuring key clothes from the exhibition. In the book’s foreword he writes: "When I saw Diana Vreeland’s show for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The 10s, 20s, 30s, I felt a thrill I had not as a fashion photographer known before." He says he wanted to study the clothes for his “personal pleasure” through a camera.

Shot in black and white, they are strikingly austere images and perhaps take their cue from the clothes presentation in the exhibition, where mannequins were apparently shown bald or barefoot so as not to distract attention away from the dresses themselves. While you get to see crisp details of drapes or beading or embroidery, there’s no glimpse of the palette that Vreeland describes in her accompanying text – the “brilliant and primary colours” of Poiret, or the “exquisite Chinese colours” of Callot.

Penn writes about the convenience of having the clothes “conveniently hung on uncomplaining plastic dummies” and plays with the image of the mannequin: sometimes they look human, sometimes he deliberately reveals an ugly rod of a stand. He sometimes shows the edges of the otherwise neutral gray backdrop. Magda Keaney describes the tension between the animate and inanimate in her introduction to the V&A’s Ballgowns book, and shows its influence on subsequent fashion photography, most memorably in SØlve SunsbØ’s photography for the Met’s Alexander McQueen show, where he reverses the process so the real-life models end up representing "frozen alabaster".

The exhibition itself’s lasting legacy is most physically obvious in the existence of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Through the insistence of Issey Miyake, the exhibition travelled to Japan where it made such an impact that the KCI was founded in 1978. But it’s also Vreeland’s selection of “the greats”, including a large proportion of women, which remains. According to Martin and Koda, “It has served as a standard for the values of fashion history." And with its sense of the spectacle – the Chanel perfumes sprayed through the gallery twice a day and Gershwin, Stravinsky and Duke Ellington playing in the background – it’s perhaps little wonder Suzy Menkes groaned in 1997: "AH Vreeland! The style guru, a former editor of Vogue, casts a long shadow over fashion exhibitions, for she set a standard of theatre and drama and anticipated the popularization of museum culture."

Diana Vreeland in one of her displays at the Costume Institute, via

So the exhibition also served to build up the cult of Diana, who Irving Penn describes in his introduction as "the great fashion journalist of our time." As illustrated throughout Empress of Fashion, Vreeland’s style, taste and choice of exhibition topics were strongly influenced by those periods in her life at which she was happiest. Or, as Vreeland states herself in DV: "I've known two great decades in my life, the twenties and the sixties." The show also hangs around Paris - an important place for her own self-mythology. Her own experiences weigh heavily on the interpretations of the clothes, whether it’s the Molyneux dress (which would have looked great on the dancefloor in the 60s) which she describes as the "spirit of the mid-1920s – a short, waistless dancing dress, perfect for the Charleston, black bottom, and other dances and music of the time" or the Chanel handkerchiefs, worn around the wrists, apparently "adored" by "all women … especially while dancing." Not that this personal filter is necessarily a bad thing – isn’t it lovely to have the spirit of a time evoked by someone who lived through, and loved the period? But it’s far from the dispassionate “study” that could be suggested by Penn’s photographs of the clothes, perhaps the most referenced lasting interpretation of this hugely influential exhibition.


  1. Such an interesting post! I have that museum booklet, and now will be rereading it.

    I never had the pleasure of seeing any of Vreeland's exhibitions, but it seems to me that her influence can still be seen in the Costume Institute "blockbusters." Of course the narrow focus of her life is missing, but all the theatricality remains.

    I find it more disturbing that today the editor of Vogue seems to hold such power over what is happening at the Met. I know they rely on her fund raising, but when I read that she had actually nixed part of the planned exhibition, I was troubled.

    1. Thanks for your comment, it's fascinating. Obviously museums want to pull people in, and subsequently please them - leading to theatricality of display, but it's how far that idea of being 'commercial' can stretch, and - in the case of the influence of Vogue - in whose best interests.


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