Is the past our fashion future?
That appears to be one of the questions that is being asked in a new virtual exhibition titled, “The Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties.” The cultural revolutions that emerged during those decades and how they each helped to redefine the modern woman are explored in the digital experience.
A joint effort between FIT’s School of Graduate Studies and The Museum at FIT, the virtual-only show was organized by students from the Master of Arts program, Fashion and Textiles Studies, History, Theory and Museum Practice. The ’20s saw hemlines rise and waistlines drop as jazz-fueled dancing took hold. Art Deco, Cubism and other art movements shone through. In turn, the tubular silhouette became increasingly popular with designers. Along with the Space Age, the ’60s ushered in the A-line skirt and miniskirts and an appreciation for Op Art and Pop Art.
In the ’20s and the ’60s, the cultural shifts were intertwined with calls for social justice and racial and gender equality. Similar discussions and movements exist today. All in all, co-student curator Summer Lee would like people to consider the times that we are experiencing today and how fashion could be impacted “by all this upheaval and turmoil.”
“Something that really comes across in this show is how social movements and current events influence fashion and how that is read so faithfully in women’s fashion,” she said. “With the ’20s and ’60s, we argue that it is kind of a case of history repeating itself and so fashion repeats itself.”
Building from the idea that both the ’20s and the ’60s were revolutionary decades, the exhibition highlights some of the similar changes that happened in fashion during those periods. Garments are displayed together to illustrate that. The combination of a gold-colored Paul Poiret silk chiffon evening dress with beads and rhinestones circa 1926 paired with a vibrant yellow Mila Schön dress from 1968 open the show. Their strength, vibrancy and boldness are meant to be reminiscent of the Art Deco and Op Art from those respective time periods.
Online visitors can explore six themes — Twenties Nostalgia; Dreams and Discontent; Obsession With Youth; Music Mania; Cultural Appropriation, and Mode and Modernity. These different facets are being told to explain what was driving the similar changes in fashion, “which was essentially redefining what the modern woman is” in both decades, the curator said. Online, there is also a 15-minute curatorial walkthrough of the exhibition. Archival images and content are featured to show the parallels between the two decades.
Visitors are encouraged to post about how the progressive spirit of the 2020s may impact fashion, and how those designs rank compare to the ’20s and the ’60s. Unable to brainstorm in person, the entire exhibition was coordinated remotely via online learning and collaboration. Each year, the creation of the public exhibition is part of the curriculum for Fashion and Textile Studies graduate program.
Not being limited by a physical space, as was originally planned, the team could include more objects. “And it’s a great benefit that you don’t need to be in New York to see the show anymore,” Lee said.
In the end, 26 objects were culled from the MFIT’s personal collection and fashion illustrations from FIT’s Gladys Marcus Library Special Collection and College Archives. “We really went through everything because we were looking for specific things to compare similar looking dresses,” she said.
Coincidentally, the format of the exhibition — playing up pairs — is somewhat similar to what was done in “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” the now-closed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. But the idea for MFIT’s exhibit was formulated in March 2020 — months before “About Time” opened.
While economists and analysts are predicting a Roaring ’20s-style consumer spending comeback as more businesses yawn back to life once more vaccines are rolled out, Lee repeated that the idea for the show was sparked a year ago. But as 2020 unfolded, she said, “It became clearer and clearer to us how many parallels we were seeing between the time we are living in today with the ’20s and then also the ’60s,” she said. “We’ve ended up thinking about, ’Are the 2020s going to end up feeling very similar to the 1920s? When everyone is finally free, is there going to be this renaissance similar to the one in the 1920s?’”
In addition to the fashion, there are illustrated timelines for the ’20s and ’60s. On March 25, a free virtual event, “From Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie; Jazz and Black Glamour” will be held. There are also downloadable patterns that were made based on vintage ’20s plus-size dresses that students used a lot of legwork to find.
As for whether hindsight now makes Lee feels prescient, she said, “Oh, my goodness. It feels like a lot of coincidences. Sometimes it works out that way.”