BWW Reviews: Fashion Institute's ELEGANCE IN AN AGE OF CRISIS Mixes Restraint and Ravishment
The parallels between the 1930s and the 2010s may begin with politics--the Great Depression then, the Great Recession now--but they certainly don't end there. Think menswear. Right now, the only suits worth buying have trim contours and understated details, and good luck to any designer (looking at your recent collection, Michael Kors...) who tries to drag us back to the floppy, drapey, dopey fits of yesteryear. The techniques that got us to this moment evolved in the 1930s; 1920s suiting wasn't big and billowy, but the taut, athletic cut we prize today wasn't perfected until the Roosevelt years. Such correspondences don't end here, either. Where high-end women's fashion is concerned, bodice-hugging cuts, resplendent yet loosely structured skirts, and interesting patterns in one or two tones seem to be winning the day. Look at this year's Academy Awards, then look at photos of the 1934 Oscars--and watch fashion history repeat itself.
I'm not alone in these judgments by any means. According to the organizers of Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, the Depression era is widely viewed as "the period in which truly modern clothing was created. Fashion broke free of Edwardian restriction and celebrated the natural human form." Because of this, walking through the latest offering from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is closer to window shopping than to a gallery visit: the clothes aren't merely worth admiring, they're worth wanting. I'd gladly exchange one of my kidneys for a lambent green smoking jacket on display, and plenty of female visitors would probably give more than that for a black rayon dress printed with diagonal dashes of white orchids.
Yes, lambent green. And yes, rayon. But curators Patricia Mears and G. Bruce Boyer elevate and enchant these garments, the more idiosyncratic ones included. The main display is in a lofty gallery, the mannequins set up in loose clusters that recall a cocktail party, the whole room tricked out with veils and pillars of diaphanous fabric that transform it into a ghost Hollywood or a style Heaven. Though Elegance in an Age of Crisis has its excesses and pretensions, it is impossible to resist. It's as confident and charming as the men and women who wore, and occasionally designed, the goods on display.
As you might have guessed, the focus of Elegance in an Age of Crisis is fashion at the highest end. Even the bathing suits are luxuriant (see: the Munchen women's ensemble, with its jaunty orange-and-navy design) or dandyish (see: the MacGregor men's getup, with a robe decorated with male watersportsmen and divers). Elsewhere in the 1930s, fashion was growing more subtle and, in important ways, growing up. And the folks at the FIT Museum seem to intuit this; as you enter Elegance in an Age of Crisis, you will be greeted by art deco wall signs--except that here, the over-the-top golds and blacks of 1920s art deco have been replaced by silvers and blues appropriate to an era of less lavish, more resourceful elegance.