Tuesday Artist Date: A lost era

Vionnet dress

Dress by Madeleine Vionnet, 1929

As a former historian and a vintage fashion fan, I have a few favorite eras. One of my most enduring periods of interest has been the 1920s, which captured me the instant I read The Great Gatsby in high school. (I dressed up as Jordan Baker for a class presentation!) I wanted to be Louise Brooks in a sleek bob and a cloche hat, dancing the Charleston with beads and fringes flapping (the Charleston link is an awesome video, btw). The fascination still stands. I actually own a beaded 1920s black cocktail dress, for which I paid an exorbitant amount (and which I wore happily to a historical-dress dance ball at UCLA). Period jazz gets me bubbly every time I hear it.


Lacis store/museum front

For this week’s artist date I was excited to catch the exhibit, “Night and Day: The World of the Twenties,” at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles. I had been to Lacis once before, on a previous artist date, so I knew it was a trove of beautiful textiles and fun things to buy.

Imagine my disappointment when I got to Lacis and saw scarcely a trace of anything 1920s. Just like last time, I found the place’s ambience off-putting; while all the staff were polite, I felt as I were intruding on their work. I wandered the crowded aisles for a while, pretending to look at ribbons and embroidery scissors, before I finally mustered up the courage to “interrupt” someone long enough to ask about the exhibit. She told me apologetically that the museum’s owner had decided to close it down two days early. Bah!! Not only did I not get to see what I’d come for, I was also thwarted as a shopper: since the museum and retail store share space, the most interesting part of the store was closed off while the staff took down the exhibit. I left Berkeley disgruntled.

My alternate artist date

My alternate artist date, including peaches from last week's date!

As I walked back to the train station, I remembered the giant fashion book I bought at the beginning of this year, and decided to get my 1920s fix that way instead. It wasn’t a bad substitute. I didn’t get to see the clothing up close, but I did get a lot more historical context than I probably would have at Lacis, and close-up photos are really as good as physical proximity for examining detail. Since the book’s examples come from the Kyoto Costume Institute, the Poiret, Vionnet, and Chanel frocks I pored over were likely much finer samples of the era’s couture — though there’s also an argument to be made for not focusing on high fashion alone.

Delong evening dress

Evening dress by Delong, mid-1920s

I’m glad I found a way to have my artist date, in spite of Lacis’s early exhibit closing. And I’m even more glad to have finally had an excuse to spend time with that fashion book. Taken as a whole, it was too overwhelming to look at, but the 1920s section was perfectly manageable for an hour or two of avid perusal.

Quick sketch

Quick sketch I made after my "date"

It occurs to me now I could have put on my OKeh Ellington while immersing myself in the dresses, but since I didn’t, I’m sharing the link with you now. Close your eyes, give it a listen, and imagine yourself in the 1920s!