Jessica Hope delves into the glamour of the Jazz Age with the opening of a new exhibition at the American Museum in Britain dedicated to 1920s fashion

Immerse yourself in the glamorous sights and sounds of the roaring ‘20s at the new exhibition dedicated to the fashion and photography of the Jazz Age at the American Museum in Britain.

From sparkling flapper dresses to couture, evening capes to ready-to-wear garments, 1920s Jazz Age: Fashion and Photographs allows you to get up close and personal with more than 100 exquisite pieces from the era. The exhibition challenges the stereotypical idea of the flapper from the 1920s – through the pieces on display, it reveals how there was such a variety of fashion at women’s fingertips in this decade, from tea dresses to swimming costumes, formalwear to brightly patterned silk pyjamas.

As popular music from the time fills the exhibition room, visitors can gaze upon different collections of garments according to a scenario or event that these clothes may have once been worn to, such as the theatre, a wedding or a trip to the seaside. The picnic scene is a particular favourite theme of mine – nine dresses, all in different shades of yellow, mustard, white and pinks, stand on a parkland background, the cascades of lace reflecting the romanticised and feminised ideas of women in the early 1920s that you would find in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel.

The 1920s has been hailed as a time of great social change in both the UK and the USA. The end of the First World War in 1918 brought considerable moral and cultural changes, and with this women’s fashion changed dramatically. Hemlines got higher, waistlines dropped, and haircuts got shorter and more stylised. With the growth of department stores and ready-to-wear items available at lower prices, fashion became a way that women from all areas of society could express themselves.

Moving through the exhibition to evening wear, the sumptuous layers of velvet, fur and silk are a feast for the eyes, and the countless amounts of sequins and crystals shimmer in the light.

These ensembles wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Hollywood film, demonstrating how women were attempting to emulate the glamorous actresses on the big screen at the time. Women in cinema were moving away from the submissive characters seen in silent movies and were becoming more modern, sexualised and dangerous, just as portrayed by the likes of Joan Crawford and Colleen Moore, and female viewers wanted to be just like them. This was what we might argue the creation of what we would consider the modern day celebrity.

In addition to these glamorous dresses and fur-trimmed coats is a gold lamé wedding dress which visitors were drawn to almost immediately at the opening of the exhibition. The dress is made of a silk and metallic thread weave, lined with silk tulle and is almost medieval in its style, mirroring the gothic revivalism in architecture at this time.

“women were attempting to emulate the glamorous actresses on the big screen at the time…”

The lack of glass casings mean that visitors are free to get close to the items and see the extent of the detail on each garment, which is rather rare when most exhibitions have to present items behind glass cases. Only a handful of pieces are too delicate to hang on mannequins, so these are laid out flat so visitors can see just how well preserved these items are for their age.

Alongside the tantalising dresses on display, the exhibition includes the enlightening work of photographer James Abbe, who captured portraits of some of the most notable names of the early 20th century, including The Dolly Sisters, Noël Coward and Gilda Gray. Abbe lived in Paris in the 1920s, working in the centre of the high fashion and cultural industry and documenting the lives of the celebrities of the day from the stage and the screen. The collection includes photographs of Dolores del Río, considered by many as the world’s first supermodel, theatrical brother and sister duo Fred and Adele Astaire, and iconic flapper actress and dancer Louise Brooks, allowing visitors a snapshot into the glamorous careers of these stars.

Andree Spinelly in Paris, 1927, courtesy ® James Abbe archive

Illustrations by American designer Gordon Conway are also on display, demonstrating how graphic art was used to influence the consumer market in the 1920s. Many of Conway’s bright illustrations featured in Tatler magazine and reflected the way consumers were becoming bolder and more daring with their choices of clothing and hair styles compared to previous generations.

The museum has also explored a personal connection with the Jazz Age within the exhibition. Beatrice Pratt, the mother of Dallas Pratt, one of the museum’s founders, was a prominent socialite and fashionista in the early 20th century, known for her flamboyant style and love of haute couture. The museum has dedicated part of the exhibition to the oil heiress’ influence on the social and fashion scene during this era.

We left the exhibition in awe of the beautiful items on display and in search of a hairdresser to create the perfect Gatsby-inspired wavy bob . . .

1920s Jazz Age: Fashion & Photographs is on until 29 October 2017, open Tuesdays – Sundays from 10.30am. There is a free shuttle bus to the museum available from Terrace Walk (Bog Island). The museum will be holding a variety of 1920s themed live music events, family fun days and film showings throughout the year.

Visit: American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor, Bath, BA2 7BD. Tel: 01225 460503,
web: americanmuseum.org.