A review of the Museum of Vancouver's new temporary exhibit, "Art Deco Chic: Extravagant Glamour Between the Wars," that runs through Sept. 23 in Vancouver, B.C.
In a room full of head-turning fashions, she stands apart. She’s a stark column of black. A fur stole sits on her shoulders, a classic rope of pearls drapes her neck, a smart cloche covers her bobbed hair.
She’s a vintage mannequin wearing one of Coco Chanel’s little black dresses — the real deal, from 1928, featured in British and German Vogue magazines that year — and she couldn’t be lovelier.
The Chanel is but one of the treasures in the Museum of Vancouver’s delightful exhibition, “Art Deco Chic: Extravagant Glamour Between the Wars,” now at the museum in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C. Not just a fashion parade, it’s also a brief history of the Art Deco design movement that reflected — or ushered in — the sweeping changes in women’s lives in the 1920s and ’30s.
Gone were the cinched waists and flowing skirts of the Edwardian era. The Paris Expo of 1925, officially called “L’Exposition des Arts Decoratif et Industriels Modernes,” introduced a streamlined, definitely nonfussy look for everything from furnishings to buildings to clothing. It seemed just right for The New Woman, who at the end of World War I was going to college and the office, to nightclubs and the voting booth.
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Most of the 65 or so garments in the show come from Vancouver costume historians/collectors Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. Made for the enjoyment of women of means in the early 1920s to late 1930s, they are in remarkable condition. There are day dresses and reception dresses, tea gowns and evening gowns, capes and coats.
Especially fun are two garments that capture the fun of the Egyptian craze, born out of the 1924 discovery of King Tut’s tomb. One is a pale-blue column dress, painstakingly beaded around the waist with a scene of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. And the flashiest, she’s-taking-no-prisoners item is a black evening cape adorned with diagonal bands of iridescent glass beads from collar to hem. When the wearer wrapped the cape around herself, the bands of beads fell diagonally, resembling the wings of a deity painted on many sarcophagus covers. (It was worn to a 21st-birthday party in London by the guest of honor in 1924, and I’m guessing she took the oxygen out of the room when she walked in.)
The hallmark of fine 1920s wear was the shift from the cut of fabric to its decoration. Dresses hung straight from the shoulders. The focus was on the material’s surface, and the simple garments were made works of art by beading, sequins, extravagant trims and beautiful colors. A stunning example is a chiffon number whose basic cut and V-neck is a masterpiece, thanks to the silver crystals and beads floating across the front, and its rich violet color.
The fashion industry being what it is, styles changed dramatically by the 1930s. There was not enough fabric in a 1920s dress to create the longer, more demure shapes that designers rolled out. The trend is obvious in a long black gown on display with short, fluffy sleeves that are actually hundreds of hand-painted silk taffeta leaves.
Top designers of the interwar period are well-represented here, with pieces by Molyneaux, Worth and Schiaparelli. Cases of shoes, bags, gloves and jewelry will satisfy history-minded fashionistas, who know accessories really make the outfit.
If fashion’s not your thing, or you have fellow tourists in tow who need more visual stimulation, head down the hall at MOV to “Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver.” Visitors enter a darkened room containing lovingly restored neon signs that advertise everything from nightclubs to funeral homes. The signs (which emit a surprisingly loud, comforting hum) were rescued from the scrapyard, having been purged during the 1960s during a “visual purity crusade” — a movement led by folks who would undoubtedly be shocked to see this retro temple. The information-packed placards accompanying the signs detail the years-long fight over what Vancouver ought to look like, and, for those who forgot junior-high science, how neon signs are made.
The museum’s s permanent exhibits are reminiscent of those in Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry or in Tacoma’s Washington State History Museum, with plenty of artifacts, clothing, photos and bric-a-brac that tell the story of Vancouver’s last century and the people who made it happen.
Melissa Davis: 206-464-2506 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @duckmel.