Guest Post: How to Dress Art Deco

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by Barbara Pickell

Barbara Pickell

About the Author: Barbara Pickell received her BA and MBA degrees from Binghamton University in New York State.  She worked in healthcare management and sales for over 30 years before retiring to Sunny Isles Beach in 2012. Shortly after moving to South Florida, Barbara and her husband became active members of MDPL where she completed the Tour Guide Academy and volunteered at several Art Deco Weekends.  Barbara has combined her interests in history and Art Deco architecture with an interest in vintage clothing. This paper is a result of those interests.

A year ago November 2019, the only thing I knew about “how to dress Art Deco” was the stereotypic outfits in movies like “The Great Gatsby”.  But that’s not how people dressed to go on a walking tour, attend an afternoon tea or lawn party, have lunch with friends, or be a guest at an evening soirée and dinner, etc.  My husband Joel Levine had scheduled a trip for us to the annual Art Deco Festival in Napier, New Zealand for February 2020.  Because Joel was one of the speakers, the Chairman offered to host us at five major events over a four day period—only one being a “Great Gatsby” formal party.  We were told we had to dress in 1920’s inspired clothing.  Thus began my crash course into the fashion of the 1920’s! 

The styles for men are easier. Basically a boater hat, a bow tie and suspenders and you’re set.  For example, you can get a “starter set” for less than $22 on Amazon by searching for: “boater hat + bow tie + suspenders”  (See Joel’s picture at MDPL museum in our “trial run” of Art Deco clothes.)  For Napier, we wanted to assemble at least two complete outfits for daytime and semi-formal wear.  It turned out that Joel’s Glen Plaid suit from the 1990’s was perfect, especially because the trousers were pleated and cuffed and even had buttons for the vintage-style button suspenders!  All he had to do was add a shirt (solid color or with narrow vertical stripes), a bowtie, and a hat (such as a boater, a Fedora, a Panama or a “Newsboy” cap).  Voila!  Done.  Another day Joel wore his blue blazer which we paired with white cuffed chinos and a shirt with vertical stripes.  Added clip suspenders, bow tie and boater hat.  A well-dressed man wore shirts with white collars and white French cuffs (requiring cufflinks) and I managed to find a vendor for these, although it turned out most men at the Napier Festival didn’t dress to this level of detail.

Clothing for women is more difficult because most of us don’t have loose-fitting, drop-waist midi-dresses in our closet (think Downton Abbey).  Dresses were basically a shapeless tunic, slipping over the head (zippers not yet in use.)  For formal evening wear, you could don a feathered headband and a long necklace of beads or pearls and you’d be in the spirit of the period.  For example, go on Amazon and search for “1920’s feathered headband and long necklace”.  If you want a 1920’s inspired look, you could accessorize a below-the-knee slip dress (even layering one slip over another).  Add a long necklace of beads or faux pearls  and a shawl (velvet or faux fur or sheer with embroidery).  For a Gatsby-type event, you could splurge and google for a flapper “Great Gatsby” dress.  There are many inexpensive costumes (usually sequined and with fringe) which are fun.

Daytime and semi-formal dresses would be quite different from a formal evening affair.  More subdued.  No beading, sequins, fringe, or feathers.  In summer, fabrics were light and sheer (including cotton, silk, organdy and linen).  Colors could be white or usually any light color such as dusty rose, blue, yellow, pale green, or lilac.  In winter, fabrics were heavier (such as light wool, taffeta or heavy cotton). For a casual event, sailor-style dress were popular.  From your closet, you might be able to pair a tunic top with a plain or pleated skirt (below the knee length) to have a drop-waist outfit (fastening a long scarf or sash around the “drop waist” at the bottom of the tunic).  Styles evolved during the 1920’s.  The iconic tubular, drop-waisted dress with a just-below-the-knee hemline appeared around 1923.  Gradually, skirts flared out with triangular inserts (hanky hems) and uneven hemlines.

Social custom required that women wear hats and gloves.  In daytime, the cloche (bell) hat is particularly associated with the 1920’s.  In the evening, women would wear a decorated head band with feathers.  Gloves would be short for daytime and long (opera style) for evening. Women’s shoes were low or mid-heeled with a closed-toe and closed-heel.  (Women wore stockings and those stockings had seams with reinforced heels and  toes, so no one was going to expose their heels or toes!)  The most common shoes were “Mary Jane” and T-strap pumps, unless you wanted to be very casual with white canvas sneakers (KEDS Champion Oxford) or two-tone “Saddle” shoes.  Stockings were nude or light colored.

Women’s purses were small, clutch style or with a thin strap, but never a shoulder strap.  Some pocketbooks were small boxes with short handles.  Many were made of hand tooled leather.  For evening wear, purses would be quite small and very elaborate, made of beads or metal mesh.  A truly vintage evening purse for a formal affair will not be large enough for today’s cell phone, so measure your phone and the purse, before purchasing even a 1920’s inspired purse. 

Eyeglasses consisted of full rim, small round frames made of tortoiseshell or metal with the temples (arms) attached to hinges at the middle of the sides (not the top).  Find “John Lennon” glasses and they will be perfect. When I learned I’d have to dress in 1920’s inspired clothing, my first call was to MDPL

tour guide Julie Fornary who collects vintage clothing.  In addition to shopping with me on Lincoln Road (lots of good finds), and lending me some clothing and accessories, Julie directed me to a website which turned out to be the most comprehensive source of information anywhere:  https://vintagedancer.com  This site provides examples of what to wear along with web links to merchants who sell it — modern pieces that have a 1920’s look.  The volunteer author of the website (who does not receive commissions of any kind) is Debbie Sessions who generously answered several questions from me. 

When you are shopping, always look carefully at the return policy.  Many merchants have strict limits such as notifying the company within 48 hours that you plan to return the item. Some of them only give store credit.  (I learned this the hard way.)  AMAZON has been known to close accounts due to “too many returns”.  The most common on-line sources are ETSY and AMAZON.  These are perfect for accessories where size doesn’t matter much, such as jewelry, gloves, fancy headbands, suspenders, bowties, inexpensive hats, etc.  I did find one vendor on ETSY that makes high quality, handmade 1920’s-inspired dresses and cloche hats for day wear and semi-formal events.  “LaVieDelight” will even customize them for you, usually at no additional charge.  From this shop in Thailand, I purchased four dresses for my four days in Napier.  To find something flashy for the Great Gatsby event, I had to find a different source.  It was a challenge to find a fancy midi-length dress.  Most modern formal dresses are above the knees or ankle-length.  Eventually, I located a beautiful mid-calf length dress at a department store in a Florida mall.  The dress was more snug than a 1920’s dress (which were always loose), but it had the right pale color (a dusty rose) and was sequined with beautiful Art Deco designs.  You can always google phrases like “flapper”, “Downton Abbey”, “Great Gatsby”, “1920’s”, “Miss Fisher”, “Charleston” plus the word “dresses”.  There will be a plethora of choices!  

If you have a Facebook account, another great source of information is the “1920s – 1930’s Costumers Support Group”.  Although many of them sew their own outfits, they help each other with ideas of where to find modern substitutes for a vintage look.  I enjoy this group a lot: click here to visit. After four days immersed in the 1920’s, Joel and I departed from an afternoon lawn party — still dressed in our vintage inspired clothing — and began our drive to Wellington, our next destination in New Zealand.  Suddenly we had advanced 100 years — to a population wearing shorts, jeans, t-shirts, sandals and other clothing apparel incongruous to what we’d been living for four days. We felt like we’d just experienced time travel.  So much fun.

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