Fashion: Why the 1920s are still roaring

FASHION is fascinated with the past.

Every season, designers rehash the decades, with varying success. Eighties power dressing has consistently hit the hard shoulder; while nineties grunge and seventies bohemia summon the intense, but brief, interest of a pre-pubescent crush. Commitment issues have been rife — until now.

Since 2009, the runways have flirted with a signature of drop-waist dresses, Mary Jane shoes, art deco motifs, feather headbands and garçonne hair, sometimes in isolation, but increasingly together, leading to a full-blown love affair with all things flapper. The roaring twenties, despite being 90 years old, seem trend-proof. Not bad for an old dowager. So, what is the fascination with ‘all that jazz’?

One might ask fashion historian, James Laver, whose eponymous theory, Laver’s Law (1937), states that a trend’s appeal only achieves relevance 50 years after its time, when it is ‘quaint’. The years between 10 and 150 are judged on a sliding scale of ‘indecent’ to ‘beautiful’ with speakeasy styles edged between ‘charming’ and ‘romantic’.

This would, perhaps, explain the kudos of television programmes such as Mad Men (’50s-’60s) and Downton Abbey (’10s-’20s); matched only by this month’s cinematic release of The Great Gatsby — a reinterpretation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic, helped by fashion heavyweights, Miuccia Prada, Tiffany & Co and Brooks Brothers.

The film’s release, originally set for May 2012, has seen high street and high-end touting a flapper silhouette for several seasons straight. T-bar shoes, ostrich feather stoles, tassel-trim gowns and sparkling skull caps graced the spring/summer 2012 catwalks of Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs.

Fur-lined evening coats, gold lamé, and emancipating silhouettes followed for autumn/winter ’12, with spring/summer ’13 offering more of the same, Charlston-centric clobber, from Alberta Ferretti, Marchesa and Zuhair Murad. The sequin-clad cavalcade continues into autumn/winter ’13 and ’14, leaving one to ponder how one decade can cast so much clout.

“It’s an iconic age,” says Irish designer, Joanne Hynes. “It has a magical, transformative feeling about it. The real explosion of expression, which came through in clothing, meant it was a time for women to shine.”

Stylist Niamh O’Rourke credits the era’s strength with its mood. “People were in full-on party mode,” she says, “which makes it a nice era to go back to.” If fashion captures a mood, then the bubbling decadence of the jazz age, set against the hum of prohibition and bootlegging, makes the ’20s all the more enticing.

The unprecedented economic expansion that replaced wartime austerity enabled social reinvention through fashion. Pioneering styles from Coco Chanel reflected a new freedom. Corsets and bustles were relegated for shortened hemlines; while dropped-waists allowed women to walk faster, work better and dance more easily. The crop-haired, small-hipped, flat-chested gamine look established a new code of beauty — a nod to the emerging irreverence of youth culture. The times, they were a-changing, and spectacularly so.

The mansion-strewn setting for The Great Gatbsy — 1922 Long Island, New York — embodies this changing world order in microcosm; not least, the optimism and aspirations that represented the era and its sartorial legacy.

Academy Award-winning costume and production designer, Catherine Martin, was tasked with transferring this frisson onto the big screen.

Collaborating with director and husband, Baz Luhrmann, Martin avoided the precise-style vernacular of the era, mirroring Fitzgerald’s world with those who could modernise rather than eulogise the past.

First port of call? Friend and designer, Miuccia Prada, who created 41 costumes based on recent looks from her Prada and Miu Miu lines; plus 350 other women’s costumes, menswear and accessories made by 90 costumers, including six milliners who fashioned men’s hats from vintage blocks. Prada aficionados will recognise references to the spring/summer 2011 line, with its colourful, striped, fur stoles; not to mention the green-and-black striped dress from the same collection, upon which Daisy Buchanan’s ‘Irene Feathers’ costume is based.

“The collaboration was very clever,” says O’Rourke. “Prada can take any trend and work magic with it, and make it bang up-to-date.”

Although the freshness of the costuming can be attributed to the savvy Martin/Muccia partnership, its strength lies in the era itself. By the early ’20s, what we consider contemporary trends — asymmetric shoulders, sportswear, harem and military — had been conceived.

The ’20s embodied the zeitgeist as we know it; its language merely repatriated to suit a new age.

Martin dove deeper into the fashion annals by joining forces with Tiffany & Co, the luxury jewellery house of which Fitzgerald himself was a customer. In addition to making bespoke pieces for the film — Daisy Buchanan’s platinum, 5.25-carat diamond flower ring, her Savoy headpiece, and Indian, wedding-inspired hand-pieces, as worn by actress, Carey Mulligan — the store is showcasing these baubles (reportedly based on archival Tiffany designs) in a series of window installations at its Fifth Avenue flagship store. Like what you see?

Best have deep pockets. Rumour has it Mulligan had to be shadowed by a security guard during the making of the film.

As for the men, Martin partnered with Brooks Brothers — one of the original Gatsby-era brands — to design costumes for the film’s male characters, including the self-made American archetype, Jay Gatbsy, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

In addition, Brooks Brothers launched the Gatsby Collection, a line of men’s clothing, shoes, and accessories inspired by the costumes and the brand’s archives.

Hackett London has also tapped into the commercial potential of the ’20s, with their spring/summer ’13 offering a collection of tailored, double-breasted, three-piece suits in country-club cream, smartly complemented by club-collared dress shirts, Baker Boy caps, silk-pocket squares and natty tie bars.

Menswear, says Hynes, is key to the era’s appeal, in particular its influence on emancipated flapper fashion. “It’s exciting for me,” she says, “as women were wearing menswear at the time; take Coco Chanel, who would borrow her lover’s shirt and make it work for herself.”

So how does one emulate the pizzazz of the ’20s, while still resembling a thoroughly modern Millie? Hynes suggests a more left-of-centre approach to finding one’s inner flapper. “There’s something about the era that’s become a bit clichéd and overplayed,” she says. “I would put a lovely cashmere sweater with a shirt inside and wide, leg-tweed trousers.”

O’Rourke takes a similar styling approach to avoid a too ‘costume-y look’. “Forward-thinking fashion is all about sharper lines, so the key is to take one or two elements, like a sharp bob and a long head scarf; or a low T-strap heel and long beads — that’s all you need.”

Indeed.

There’s a fine line between immersing oneself in nostalgia and appearing drunk on bathtub gin. Such is the issue with courting the past. If unsure, a trip to Tiffany’s should suffice. Old loves die hard, after all.

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