Imagine that it’s 1929 and you’re a women invited to attend the opening of the Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street, Vancouver’s premier entertainment strip. Here is what you might have worn.
A locally-made, cotton net dress with repeated rows of glass beads and sequins. The geometric style of this gown would be considered fitting for an art deco-style building like the Commodore, which is still popular today for concerts and parties.
Art deco is a design style that began in Paris in the 1920s. It influenced all areas of design, including architecture and interior design, industrial design, fashion and jewelry, as well as the visual arts. The term “art deco” was first used widely after an exhibition in Paris celebrating the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts). Art deco was a distinct departure from previous design styles, drawing inspiration from geometric shapes to evoke elegance and modernity. It was also influenced by an increased ability to travel world wide – bringing inspiration not only from modernism, but from faraway places such as Russia, Egypt, and Mexico. In addition to the Commodore, here in Vancouver we see this geometry-inspired architecture with the Marine Building, Vancouver’s City Hall and the Burrard Street Bridge.
Fashion has changed considerably since the glamorous art deco style of the 1920s and 30s. The stereotype is that today’s Vancouverites tend to favour Lululemon pants over leather gloves, gortex over Gucci, and a pair of rain boots over a rabbit fur-trimmed coat. In spite of the city’s casual style, when the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) celebrated the opening night for its exhibit, Art Deco Chic: Extravagant Glamour Between the Wars, the crowd was dressed to impress – honouring an era when wearing pants (let along the tight fitting Lululemon variety) was unladylike.
The new MOV exhibit is curated by fashion collectors and historians Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. It features creations by some of the most prominent designers of the time, including Chanel, Lanvin, Vionnet, Patou, and Schiaparelli. Art Deco Chic visitors to the MOV can take in 66 gorgeous garments from the era.
With the exception of four pieces that belong to MOV and a couple that were given by private donors, everything on display comes from Sayers and Jahnke’s private collections. Sayers has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of historic clothing in private hands across Canada. He jokes that his collection is so vast that he sleeps in the dining room of his 3- bedroom home.
Before the 1920s, women presented themselves as a series of ornate curves dressed in complex, tailored garments. After the brutality of World War I, a more practical silhouette emerged with loose fitting, draping garments. Although the look was less constrictive, the beading and detail was equally glamourous compared to garments from previous eras. Walking through the exhibit admiring the draping gowns with impressive beading and symmetric detail, one could easily imagine wearing one today – especially with the resurgence of art deco fashion on the runways of Paris and New York and in recent films like Midnight in Paris and The Artist.
Vancouverites today may prefer casual attire, but given the excitement of the well-dressed crowds on opening night of the MOV exhibit, we appreciate the history of design and the artistry and detail of a well-made garment. Jahnke even joked in a recent interview, “We’re hoping that this exhibition will inspire Vancouverites to get more dressed up, so that we lose the status of the third-worst-dressed city!”
Insert Images 6-8,9,10 of exhibit
Jillian Glover is a communications advisor who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and is very interested in how people in urban environments engage in their cities. In her spare time, she writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life – which you can visit at www.thiscitylife.tumblr.com.