Arizona ArtBeat: Fashion of the 1920s

More from this show

“Modern Spirit: Fashion of the 1920s” is an exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum that runs through February 10th. The museum’s curator of fashion, Dennita Sewell, talks about the exhibition and why the 1920s helped define modern fashion.

Ted Simons: The 1920s had a huge influence on modern fashion. And today, those fashions are showing up frequently in Popular culture. Films and television programs like the critically acclaimed PBS series "downtown ABBEY" Are showing off the style of An era that shaped how much Of women's clothing appears today. The Phoenix Art Museum is inviting visitors to step Into that style with modern spirit fashion of the 1920s. It's an exhibition that runs through February 10th.
Dennita Sewell: Fashion designers, others featured in this exhibition, were true artists in their own time. And these are some fine examples in the exhibition that define the 1920s, which was great decade of change and creativity. MM The 1920s is the earliest historical period that defines modern fashion. For the first time women wore their hair short, and hem lines were at the knee in 1925. And these clothes with shorter styles and more movement and lighter weight really defined the modern woman and the new active life-style of the 20th century.
Ted Simons: And here now to tell us more about 1920s fashion is the Phoenix art museum curator of fashion design. Thank you for joining us.
Dennita Sewell: It's a pleasure to be here. There were so many projects going on in recent popular culture, the films, the film, I thought it would be interesting while this creative spirit was in the air with the 1920s as an inspiration, that we would have the real objects on view at the Phoenix art museum.
Ted Simons: We saw a little bit there of what was included.
Dennita Sewell: Tell us more about what is on display? We have four sections. A section of evening wear. A section of day wear. We have art and a lingerie section. Each of these define the roles that women had in society, and some of the things that were going on. You have the classic flapper image, with the pearls, dancing, the Charleston. But also the day wear is there to show that there were many roles that women were taking on for the first time in society. Much of this change had started in World War I era and with the suffrage movement and the right to vote in 1920, so these pieces show all of the movement that was going on and the modernity for women.
Ted Simons: I was going to say, it seems like World War I was literally an earth-shattering event for so many cultures and so many societies, how do you -- was it basically let's break free? Let's get rid of this that happened back in those days? We're in the '20s now. Let's move forward and have some fun.
Dennita Sewell: Well they were called to duty, very serious duty in World War I. Ambulance drivers, went to work in the factories, and they adopted slightly more practical dress for those roles. As they moved into the 1920s, there was a sort of joyousness of the war being over, and that was coupled with these young women who really had come of age in these new freedoms, this new autonomy of having a little money for themselves the first time and new ideas about modern life emerging, and really moving forward with those ideas.
Ted Simons: I want to look at some of the fashion ideas that we have collected. And have you comment on some of these. Because, it is amazing that you -- the lightweight, airy nature of all of this. The first time ever that society accepted above the knee.
Dennita Sewell: Absolutely. It is really important, this decade of change, the 1920s. For the first time, the hemline is above the knee ever in history. This Chanel piece from 1928 is a stunning example by one of the more vanguard designers, Coco Chanel of the period. She never married. She had her own business. She had affairs with prominent men all around the world. And so she had the spirit of the modern woman herself as her own best model.
Ted Simons: And some of the other -- I guess there is a lot of CHANEL there, because -- very influential.
Dennita Sewell: She was highly influential. These designers didn't create the changes in society but they reacted to them. This dress from 1925, was -- has these wonderful dangling sashes, which would have been great for dancing the Charleston and that movement and that joyous spirit. Her designs always have a great deal of restraint and sophistication in the proportion. And really it is a brand that is still one of the most important brands today and it is largely what she set forth in the 20s.
Ted Simons: Talk more about that. How that style has influenced everything that came afterward?
Dennita Sewell: A lot of these clothes are made like modern clothing, and really this is the first historical period that is still modern today. That these clothes directly relate to what we wear. For example, those two styles just pull over the head. There is no snaps, no zippers, no hooks and eyes. It is kind of a very, very nice T-shirt-style dress. And so much more lightweight. They were wearing layers, prior periods they were wearing layers of corsets and petticoats and pieces underneath. Pieces like this dress --
Ted Simons: Look at the colors on that.
Dennita Sewell: Stunning. A great SYMBIOSIS betwee artists and fashion designers and art movements all mixing in this period for a vibrant and creative era.
Ted Simons: You are talking women's fashion -- but at the same time, we had art deco, automobiles, back in the '20s, still new and exciting and a lot of change was happening there as well.
Dennita Sewell: Absolutely. The automobile had a great deal of influence. A lot of automobile manufacturers were looking towards fashion and they still do today for color and trends and sought already by the 1920s to appeal to women. You will see pieces in the exhibition with pleated skirts and capes and things that were designed for automobiling, getting in and out of the car, going places and doing things.
Ted Simons: Interesting. Look at this. This is an evening coat. Is that what this is?
Dennita Sewell: This is an evening coat. And over these gowns, they needed a grand entrance coat. And this piece has orientalist influences in it. Keep in mind, this era, England and France were very important colonial powers. Not only were ideas flowing back and forth from Paris, which was the center of fashion, and these exotic LOCALS as they were thought of, but also goods and materials. One hat in the exhibition has monkey fur on it.
Ted Simons: My goodness. I will take your word for that one. Where did you find all of these things?
Dennita Sewell: Phoenix Art Museum has an extraordinary collection of fashion design. It was founded in 1966. And through the generous donation of many members of the community, of fashion houses, and purchases by the Arizona costume institute, a friends group for the fashion design department, we have amassed a terrific collection of fashion history. And so that's always the starting point for fertile development of the exhibitions.
Ted Simons: Last question, for folks who visit the museum and take a look at this exhibit, what do you want them to take away from all of this?
Dennita Sewell: Just truly how exquisite these pieces were. I think most people walk in and they say, you could wear that today. And it is true. But you realize these dresses are almost 100 years old now.
Ted Simons: Interesting.
Dennita Sewell: And that these important changes that formed in the 1920s, it is not just about a frivolous fashion, frivolous flapper, but it really created lasting and important changes.
Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us and good luck with the exhibition.
Dennita Sewell: Thank you.

Dennita Sewell:Curator of Fashion, Phoenix Art Museum;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

An armed forces bugler playing the trumpet in front of the United States Capitol building.
aired May 26

National Memorial Day Concert 2024

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: