Madeleine Vionnet silk evening gown, 1937
Madeleine Vionnet silk evening gown, 1937

The word “recession” tends to call to mind “austerity”, but as a new exhibit at New York’s Museum at FIT demonstrates, this may be misguided. “Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s”, which opened on Friday, spotlights the refinement of the era’s clothing and, as such, is relevant to our equally economically challenged era – especially to what we might expect next week as the autumn/winter womenswear season begins.

One of the show’s focal points is a collection of couture ball gowns that are easy to picture on Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo. These dresses – the antithesis of boxy, flashily beaded 1920s flapper gear – are all about their exquisitely crafted details: stripes of embroidered black paillettes, precise little pleats with neat rows of hand-stitching, shirred linen embellished with silk floss. Some are designed by brands that are still well known, such as Chanel, Balenciaga, Vionnet and Schiaparelli, while others come from lines that will be discoveries for some viewers, such as Augustabernard and Helen Yrande. Augusta Bernard was a French designer from the 1920s and early 1930s known for elegant formal dresses, typically cut on the bias; Russian-born Yrande specialised in full-length silk negligees to wear around the house.

These pieces are decades old but their body-conscious draping and fluid lines feel contemporary enough for a Bafta or Oscar red carpet. But what’s really salient about the show is its selection of men’s clothing. There are jackets, suits and tuxedos that show off the impeccable construction of the era’s top tailors, who created a softer, more natural silhouette than that of previous decades. Some of the labels still exist today, such as Harvie & Hudson, Charvet and Davies & Son, and many of the pieces look strikingly current.

“Many designers – Ralph Lauren being the best known – constantly reference the 1930s, from a visual point of view and from the point of view of construction,” says Patricia Mears, the museum’s deputy director and the show’s co-curator. “The creation of modern clothing as we know it comes out of this period. It is considered the golden age of menswear.”

München wool swimsuit, c1930
München wool swimsuit, c1930

Valerie Steele, the museum’s director, says: “It’s too easy, especially with a period as gorgeous as the 1930s, to just fetishise beautiful bias-cut gowns. There are plenty of those to salivate over but by showing them with the menswear you get more sense of what the 1930s were like aesthetically.”

Also on display are less formal pieces, from the sublime (a men’s silk brocade dressing gown) to the rather fabulously ridiculous (a women’s costume-y Amelia Earhart-esque flight suit, and several wool bathing suits). There are also hats and shoes, including eight pairs originally worn by Fred Astaire. With period music playing in the background and sleek raised displays for clear sight lines of each piece’s details, it is easy to imagine these pieces being worn, instead of being simply on display.

‘Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s’, Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Museum at FIT, New York, until April 19


If you want to get ahead, get 300 hats

Lars Nilsson was recently appointed artistic director of European brands for Fast Retailing (the creative force behind Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princesse Tam Tam) but a slower passion project of the designer’s was unveiled this week: Hats Off! is an exhibition of 50 hats collected by Sweden-born Nilsson over almost three decades, on display at the Hallwyl museum in Stockholm, writes Sarah Hay.

“Hats are a difficult thing to collect. They’re quite fragile, you need space and you need to take care of them quite carefully because most of them are made of straw or feathers,” says Nilsson. Nevertheless he has amassed more than 300 during the course of his career, including pieces from the couture collections of Lacroix, Schiaparelli, Alaïa and Yves Saint Laurent.

The venue is appropriate: the Countess Wilhelmina von Hallwyl was one of Sweden’s most famous collectors, and on her death everything from European paintings to matchboxes, lingerie, fans and Chinese porcelain was donated to the state – a total of 50,000 pieces. “They [the museum] had heard about my collection and asked if I would like to do a show,” says Nilsson.

Alongside his hats, a further 100 unique accessories from brooches to photographs will be displayed to reveal the lives and craftsmanship behind the delicate pieces. Thus a photograph by Irving Penn of a hat by the celebrated milliner Philip Treacy for Chanel in 1992 might sit alongside the titfer itself, or a wooden sculpture upon which a straw Lacroix piece was moulded might rest next to the original piece.

What links Nilsson’s career to the exhibition is his curiosity about, and wonder at, craftsmanship. Nilsson says, “Millinery is a sculpture process, because you design the hat on paper; then somebody’s sculpting that in wood; then there’s another person who makes it in straw and shapes it on the wood – and only then does it become a hat.”

In his own career Nilsson himself has worn many hats (excuse the pun), with a CV that spans many of the key fashion houses of Paris and New York. His life is intricately entwined with those of the designers whose work will be displayed.

After fashion school, and a tailoring apprenticeship at Chanel, Nilsson found his way to Lacroix’s atelier, and remained for nine years, finishing as the head of the couture studio in 1997. He then moved to Dior, where John Galliano had just arrived, where he was head of the couture studio for two years. From there, he relocated to New York as design director for Ralph Lauren ready-to-wear, and afterwards succeeded Bill Blass at the eponymous American fashion house before returning to Paris as creative director of Nina Ricci; all the while quietly continuing to collect pieces of millinery.

Matching pair of ribboned hats by Christian Lacroix
Matching pair of ribboned hats by Christian Lacroix © Carl Bengtsson

Highlights from the exhibition include a striking headpiece made solely of velvet on metal, and worn by Carla Bruni in 1994 for Balmain when Oscar de la Renta was at the helm. “That small shape sits on the chignon of the head. It’s quite heavy actually, it must have been secured with a lot of hairpins but that’s the magic of hats,” says Nilsson. Another is a matching pair of ribboned hats by Christian Lacroix that exude the designer’s fascination for bullfighting attire, and a wide-brimmed straw hat that elicits the windswept fields of his native Arles in the south of France.

Nilsson’s collection is due to be documented in greater depth by photographer Carl Bengtsson, in a book to be published this autumn.

Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm, until June 8

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