It feels like ages since I wrote anything here, I’ve been popping in posting guest posts and some notices but I haven’t sat down to write a post myself in ages.
So, what have I been up to? That’s a very good question and I’m glad you asked it, I can’t actually answer it because I appear to have no short term memory anymore – it’s entirely possible I hid it with the Christmas presents and will find it when I come to wrap everything. I hope so. I also hope I find various other things I’ve lost there too, including some presents I know I bought but am not sure where I put them. If not, my mothering credentials will have hit an all time low. But hey, if I don’t go and look then I don’t know for certain that I have lost them, right now they are potentially with the other things. Before it all gets too Schrodinger’s cat round here let me tell you what I do remember doing – I ran away from home for 48 hours and went here (I also went here and here but that’s another story) which is why I now have this as an ineradicable earworm.
Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, I have a passion for textiles so this (along with the V&A) is one of my favourite museums and whenever I get the opportunity I go and look at their exhibitions. This one, however, was for work purposes. Oh yes (and yes, I am aware that should I ever need an alternative career then spin would be a good choice). As you can see the Fashion and Textile Museum currently has an exhibition about the 20s – ‘The Jazz Age‘ and as someone whose researches includes the relationship between clothing and identity in the first half of the twentieth century, well, I had to go. Had to, I tell you. And, had to do it the week after a school holiday because, well, because otherwise I would have snapped and laid about me with a wooden spoon, but again, that’s another story.
The exhibition is beautiful – of course – but it also makes the point that the clothing we immediately associate with the 20s, the tubular, short, drop-waisted dress, was only one of several styles women could choose. I hadn’t realised that dresses with paniers (sticking out petticoats, see here for a more coherent explanation) were fashionable in the 20s, in fact I thought the whole stiff petticoat thing had ended with the nineteenth century but here was a very lovely gold example.
Nor had I realised that under those long, tubular, frocks was nearly as much corsetry as had been used to create the ultra-feminine look of the very early twentieth century.
Flattening and smoothing rather than squeezing and uplifting, equally unnatural, just a different sort of prescribed feminine shape. That said, this slender ‘gamine’ style was most emphasised- as with the ultra-feminine style – for evening wear, day wear was more relaxed and there was a new emphasis on sport, particularly swimming, tennis and golf, all of which were supplied with haute couture costumes, as well as the more freely available off the peg or home made ones.
And, with the new sporting look came a change in feminine beauty – the suntan, popularised by Coco Chanel. Instead of looking like you’d spent your entire life in an attic, it was now fashionable for women to be bronzed. Not too bronzed obviously, while Josephine Baker is celebrated in this exhibition, as are many black American jazz musicians and film stars such as Anna May Wong, the majority of those featured in the exhibition are Caucasian. This isn’t a criticism of the exhibition, it’s a criticism of 1920s society. Possibly a pointless criticism*, but, for women in the 20s it was now ok to look like you enjoyed being outside.
There was a post war relaxation around sexuality too, several films of that decade have as their theme women’s sexuality. Theda Bara, Anna May Wong, Joan Crawford and Clara Bow all starred in some pretty risque films and the museum has a cinema area where you can view various films. These are often cautionary tales, Anna May Wong’s Shosho is murdered in Picadilly and many of Theda Bara’s characters come to a sticky end, but outside these melodramas social mores had changed. Nightclubs, cycling clubs, tennis parties, the Kibbo Kift (not mentioned by the Museum but as you know I can’t refer to the 1920s pass without name checking the Kindred) were all places where young people could mix freely. The chaperonage of the pre-war era had gone for good.
Now, at this point I know you’re thinking ‘what has any of this got to do with archaeology?’ But, think about it, women’s clothing became looser, more easy to move around in, skirts got shorter (well, immediately post war they got longer then they got shorter) sporty clothing became acceptable, that lady up there is showing her knees, pre-war ankles were scandalous. And, pyjamas became fashionable leisure and beach wear – it was the beginning of women wearing trousers other than for heavy, dirty work.
You can’t play tennis or swim without developing muscles (I have no idea about golf, I’m afraid I’m enormously biased against golf and don’t really believe it’s a sport) and tennis will give your hands calluses. As does archaeology, and being outside digging will give you a sun tan – or wind burn. Men and women could now mix fairly freely without too much scandal, even mixed camping wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows. And in the new fashion of suits women had professional clothes in which to be lecturers and presenters of archaeology.
All of which means women’s participation in archaeology got a whole lot easier.
And archaeology, especially Egyptology, was enormously popular even before the Egyptomania caused by the discovery of Tutankhamun. Said** would have had a lot to say about the Orientalism of the detail on these dresses
But, obviously Egyptian motifs were the big fashion statement of the 20s
And a close up of that glorious embroidery
It’s a wonderful exhibition, informative, interesting, fun. There’s masses more to see than I’ve covered here so if you get the chance do go and see it before it ends in January. I’m going to end with an outfit that even I can’t pretend has anything to do with the history of archaeology, but it is too splendid to omit. If you can think of a connection, let me know, I’d love to use this image in lectures and talks!
Have a wonderful weekend, next week’s post is by Martyn writing about Constance Babington Smith, it’s super, you’ll love it.
*I was feeling somewhat depressed when I arrived at the museum having walked past Becket House the Immigration Compliance and Enforcement office and seen people, none of them white, queuing around the block to have their papers stamped. It was a freezing cold day and I felt shame and pity as well as anger at what my country has become. However, on the way back I spotted that two women were going up and down the queue handing out free hot drinks to those waiting. A small gesture of solidarity but it made my day.
**The chances that Edward Said would have taken an interest in embroidery and fashion is pretty minimal, I know, but I can dream, ok? And, if I want to fantasise about visiting the Fashion and Textile Museum with Edward Said then I will, so there!