Glamour from the 1920s, Goodness in 2020

Art Deco illustration by Jean Desvignes for Butterick’s Delineator magazine, November 1926.

Detail of an illustration by Jean Desvignes, January 1927, Delineator.

To celebrate the New Year, I’d like to share some glamourous gowns from the 1920s, and also something that gave me hope whenever the news from 2020 seemed too bleak.

Masks made for donation to a shelter, March 2020.

Most people realize that it’s hard to make a living in the performing arts under the best of circumstances. Here’s an old joke.

Q: An actor graduates from a top drama school and gets his first job. What are the first words he will speak in public?

A: “Would you like fries with that?”

Once, I was working in the costume shop at Stanford University. A student came in for a costume fitting, and mentioned that he had changed his major from Economics to Drama. “But my parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he said, “so I’m minoring in Art.” After he left, the theatre professionals agreed that he wouldn’t have much of a future in Economics….

For costume designers and technicians, the first months of the year are traditionally difficult. After the Nutcrackers and Velveteen Rabbits and Christmas Carols at the end of the year, there’s not much work for wardrobe, part-timers and overhires until March or April. But in 2020, theatres and performing arts companies shut down in March, and with COVID-19 still spreading they have not reopened. Suddenly, all the theatre workers I know were facing months of uncertainty and unemployment just when they were already at the end of their “off season savings.”

Immediately, the Costumers’ Alliance yahoo group I subscribed to began exchanging information about what organizations and hospitals needed facemasks, where you could find patterns online, who was willing to share elastic and other sewing supplies, and where you could donate masks. Hundreds of people who had just lost their income set to work as volunteers, using their skills and supplies. It was the same in most theatre communities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York…. (And those are only the ones I’m in touch with.) Home stitchers and quilters were also pitching in by donating thousands of hours of labor to supply communities in need.

Whenever I began to lose hope in our democracy, I thought of all those people who pitched in, and kept at it, during the darkest months of our lives. The instinct that says, “Let me help” is still alive.

And now, since we’re not going to any New Year’s parties this year, we can fantasize about wearing this couture from the past:

Two evening dresses by Chanel, illustrated by Desvignes in January 1927. Delineator.

Lavishly beaded couture gowns by Doeuillet and Patou. Delineator, November 1926.

It’s hard to show the detail of this bodice. The skirt is equally ornamented in a different pattern.

For more detailed images and information about these and other Chanel gowns from the same issue of Delineator, click here.  Wishing you a Happy and Healthy 2021!


Filed under 1920s, evening and afternoon clothes, Jewelry, Vintage Couture Designs

8 responses to “Glamour from the 1920s, Goodness in 2020

  1. Happy New Year to you too! Indeed, although people’s attitudes and selfishness have disappointed me in 2020, there are always good people around to restore the faith in humanity. 🙂
    Lovely illustrations! I have here a link for you, it’s on a blog of a lady who makes wonderful dolls clothes, she was active in the fashion world during her career. She posted beautiful photos of the Chanel expo in Paris.
    Also, glad to read (in your previous post) that you’re doing so great! I wish you a continuing good health in 2021!

  2. Thank you for these beautiful dresses! I particularly like the bodice of the Patou dress – very glamorous, really. I wish you a very happy new year, too! Please stay healthy and safe (maybe the worst is already over by now, let’s hope so!!).

  3. anna

    Here’s a question that’s been driving me mad. I read a lot of detective fiction from the 1920s and 30s. Not “set in” those decades, actually written then. They often speak of women wearing “washing-silk” dresses or “art silk” dresses. I understand art silk means “artificial” (ie the first synthetics) but what is “washing-silk”? Silk you can wash? Well as far as I know Japan never had problems washing silk kimonos a thousand years ago, from what I read of contemporary writers like Sei Shonagon. If synthetic, which fibres?
    Thanks for helping me with this.

    • They also referred to “tub dresses” meaning “hand washable.” Rayon was the first synthetic fabric in wide use. I believe that traditional kimono were loosely stitched so that they could be unpicked and washed and dried as stretched lengths of fabric, then reassembled. (The diagonal neckline is folded and encased, not cut diagonally!)
      Western clothing is usually washed as an entire garment, which then has to be ironed. Spot cleaning silk and wool makes sense if you have to worry about shrinkage and ironing after washing. The simple cut of 1920s dresses made it easier. Rayon is made from cellulose, like linen and cotton. It can be dyed like natural fabrics and woven to have a silky drape and sheen.

      • anna

        Thank you for that information! We often watch NHK World which is Japanese television in English. Yes, that’s exactly how a silk kimono is washed: unpicked, each length stretched and tacked onto a board, then the 6 rectangles washed and left to dry, and stitched again. Sei Shonagon refers to the ladies in waiting being asked to help at a festival, and sitting there stitching like mad because her kimono had just been washed and dried, since she thought she’d only be in the audience.

      • Thank you! My husband writes a blog about Japan on Film, so we watch a lot of Japanese films from the past. Looks like I need to take your book recommendation.

  4. I also often think about all the arts people suddenly without income and do so hope they are able to find other ways to support themselves. You’re right about there being so many good people in this world, and we need to amplify that goodness – brava for your post! xx

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