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An article of clothing says as much about the time it was worn as it does about the woman who wore it.
In the early decades of the 20th century, for example, contemporary architectural design and current events worked their way into the fabric and cuts of clothing worn by the most fashionable women on Canada’s west coast.
From classic evening gowns to day wear, coats, quirky purses and shoes, visitors to the Langley Centennial Museum are invited to step into a sartorial time machine until Aug. 4, as Vancouver fashion historians Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke exhibit some of their most iconic pieces, in Art Deco Chic: Women’s Fashion of the 1920s & 1930s.
The exhibit, which opened on May 10 in the museum’s gallery at 9135 King St. in Fort Langley, includes 35 principal garments, pooled from the men’s respective collections, along with a number of accessories which were popular during the Roaring ’20s and Dirty ’30s.
On June 1, Sayers will augment the exhibit with a pair of Art Deco Fashion Shows, presented at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the Fort Langley Community Hall.
During the shows, Sayers will offer not only examples of period clothing, but plenty of humorous insight into what was happening in society at the time that dictated what women chose to wear.
In fashion as in architecture, the Art Deco movement reduced the body to its simplest geometric form — a column, or when represented in two dimensions, a flat rectangle.
Figures that had been exaggerated with corsets and padding at the turn of the century were now hidden under loose-fitting, sack-like garments in the chemise style in the 1920s.
Among the examples from the era included in the museum exhibit is a lemon yellow, knee-length sleeveless dress, with a fringed skirt. The fabric of the skirt’s layers is cut into dozens of rectanglar strips, with each piece meticulously covered in glass beads.
In order to display the dress, support tape was sewn in to hold the weight of the beading in the skirt. Without the straps, the shoulder seams would eventually give way, explained Sayers.
While no doubt cumbersome to wear, the heavily weighted skirts were designed for maximum swing, as young flappers danced their way across the floor to the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.
Within the beadwork of many of the fanciest dresses in the show is an unmistakable homage to the architecture of the time, with patterns that are reminiscent of Vancouver’s Marine Building and New York’s famed Empire State building.
Through the 1920s, dresses gradually became closer fitting and hemlines rose. Although the figure was still virtually invisible, the exposure of the legs added a provocative element to clothing that was otherwise asexual.
In the 1930s the natural figure re-emerged, but in fashions that echoed the repeated geometry of the Art Deco style.
Among the pieces on display from the early ‘30s, is an orange suit worn by an American woman who was studying astronomy in Vienna. She kept it because it was what she was wearing the day she met Albert Einstein.
Another of the stars of the show is a black knee-length 1928 Chanel that was featured in both British and German Vogue.
It was even used as the image on greeting cards.
When it comes to Chanel, there are knockoffs — and knockoffs of knockoffs — out there, said Jahnke. But the one on display is the real thing.
It goes without saying, it won’t be in the fashion show.
“We’d never show this on a human. It’s too valuable and too fragile,” said Jahnke.
While most of the pieces were found in the collections of Vancouver and Victoria women, one of the articles in the exhibit has a local connection.
A burgundy wool coat with black fur trim, from the 1930s, belonged to an Aldergrove woman whose father repaired watches for Birks.
It’s unusual to find a daytime coat in coloured material worn during the Depression, he said, because neutral shades which could be worn anywhere and with anything were favoured.
When it comes to the garments, though many of them are striking to look at, it’s the stories that are often the most interesting part, said Jahnke.
“For most people who collect, it is ‘how do I look in this and how does it fit?’
“For us, it’s the history that brings it to life.”
Art Deco Vintage Fashion Shows at the Fort Langley Community Hall on June 1 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Admission is $20 per person, and tickets, which must be purchased in advance, are available from the museum. Call 604-532-3536. Learn more at museum.tol.ca.
Art Deco Chic: Women’s Fashions of the 1920s & 1930s, runs until Aug. 4 at the Langley Centennial Museum, 9135 King St. in Fort Langley.