The 1920s, neatly bookended by horror and catastrophe, was actually a pretty nice time – as long as you weren’t poor of course. It marked a seismic shift in the social status of women, and this change in women’s lifestyles is brought perfectly into focus if you look through a sartorial lens. New styles of dress were designed not just on fashion’s whim – ‘it’s all about the ankle, darling’ – but because social change demanded it. Structured as a day in the life of a (very busy) 1920s woman, with prettily painted backdrops behind the mannequins, this exhibition puts clothes in context; a crisp white tennis outfit shows how active women were becoming, and dresses with fringing to exaggerate movement highlight the importance of dance. Women in the ’20s were outward-looking; Chinoiserie jade-green beading and dragon-embroidered PJs show society’s fascination with the Far East, as do the Japonisme landscape scenes on a devoré evening coat.
Fashion gives us snapshots of history: fur was made stylish in the UK by Russian immigrants, so an ermine-trimmed coat is as much about refugees fleeing revolution as it is glamour. And sequins were made popular because they looked like the gold coins found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, unearthed in 1922. Described by curator Dennis Nothdruft as the ‘decade of accessories’, handbags were vital and not just to dance around in the jazz club: it was the first time that young women had a real sense of freedom, leaving behind their constraining Edwardian homes, which meant that they needed something to schlep their lippy and fags around in.
It’s a dense show about a complex decade, but happily a lot of it can be communicated via the medium of some stunningly beautiful garments. Miriam Bouteba