12 October 2018 – 20 January 2019
Free entry for under 12s.
The 1930s, like many decades of the 20th century, are defined by dynamic and rapid changes to social, political and economic norms, contributing to a unique cultural experience for the individuals of the period. The Fashion and Textile Museum’s newest exhibition Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs seeks to conceptualise the social and cultural mentalité of the decade through the lens of women’s fashion. From glamorous evening gowns to the practical ladies’ suit, Night and Day engages the visitor with both the dreams and realities of the women who once wore and championed the various pieces on display.
The exhibition’s contrived layout creates a seemingly new world within the confines of the museum’s walls, contributing to the presence of metaphor and contradiction within the messages of the entire composition. The ground floor sweeps the visitor away into a world of Hollywood fantasy, dance hall intrigue and magazine influence, all set before a backdrop of a grand cityscape. Sequins, velvet, crepe, satin, cloqué and lamé dazzle in the lights of their displays as they compose a world of wonder, beauty and romance. An immediate reaction to the hardships of the stock market crash of 1929, women looked to the glamorous world of fashion and cinema to escape from reality and to instead engage with their fantasies through the guise of convention. The escapist world of the 1930s is demonstrated in physical, material form as the ground floor becomes a façade representative of the ones created by women of the period. The contemporary gowns on display provide exquisite examples of the variety of the styles that sought to accentuate a feminine figure, moving away from the popular androgynous shape of the 1920s while maintaining its element of choice and statement. The visitor feels herself give way to the desires and temptations of the unobtainable fantasy world created by the contemporary photographs and magazine covers that adorn the walls, simulating the experience of so many women before.
The first floor provides a stark contrast to the glamour of the ground floor, revealing the reality of most women’s lives during the 1930s. Rather than presenting dazzling eveningwear, the first floor displays women’s daywear as commentary on the various aspects of daily life. Simpler day dresses with print designs (as opposed to embroidery) reveal the practical and clever ways in which women would seek to live on a budget. Mass-produced dresses distributed and sold by department stores further allowed textiles such as rayon and Celanese silk to make a reputation for themselves as inexpensive alternatives to the textiles they mimicked. Material displays of suburban life reveal the many roles women played. Endearing printed dresses were worn by the homemaking and social woman, a role still defined by the strict gender roles of the period and glorified by popular women’s magazines. The working woman is represented by a display of clothes typically worn in an office setting and a domestic setting, revealing the modern and traditional spaces women held within the labour force. A beachwear scene draws attention to the English seaside resorts, made popular by the pressure to enjoy an economical leisure and holiday experience. Flowing in a similar patriotic vein, the final scene displays the 1937 coronation of King George VI, complete with outfits displaying the recommended colours for the occasion. The Night and Day exhibition provides a glimpse into the everyday lives of women of the 1930s, revealing both social changes and fixations through the relatable lens of fashion.
Together, the two oppositions that make up the title of the exhibition create a compelling overview of the social and cultural world of the 1930s, providing the visitor with material, tangible and relatable pieces that convey depth and meaning in unique and daring ways. The dreams and realities of women during this period make themselves known in a beautiful duality of stark contrast and ambiguous relation, lending a quality of complexity captured by the ever-fluid, yet representative, world of fashion and textiles.
The Night and Day exhibition is accompanied by a smaller display entitled Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s – Fashion, Film and Fantasy. This display presents Cecil Beaton’s photographs in a collective, glamourous way while maintaining the definitive fantastical element of 1930s cinema and popular culture.
Night and Day is curated by Dennis Nothdruft (Head of Exhibitions, The Fashion and Textile Museum) and Cleo and Mark Butterfield (C20 Vintage). They are assisted by Teresa Collenette (Co-Curator). Cecil Beaton is curated by Terence Pepper. Both exhibitions will be available to view from 12 October 2018 – 20 January 2019.