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On Exhibit: reviving the fashionable flapper

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Bobbing their hair, smoking in public, and going on unchaperoned dates weren't the only ways in which liberated women of the 1920s were acting like men. They also were binding their chests, "because they wanted to have that boyish figure," says Tim Long, manager of the Chicago Historical Society's Hope B. McCormick Costume Center. So in order to properly display clothes from the collection's extensive Jazz Age holdings for the exhibit "Fashion, Flappers 'n All That Jazz," Long and his colleagues had to take some drastic measures with the mannequins.

"We had to cut their breasts off," says Long. "We had to cut hips out. If the torso size was too long we had to cut the mannequin apart, take an inch out, and Bondo it back together." Using fiberfill and panty hose, they then built the shapes back up. "If you're trying to re-create a bound chest, you can't just take a chunk out and make it smaller. You have to imagine what it looks like if you smash a breast down--it goes in and then comes out at the sides." Correct hip measurements were crucial, because "all of these dresses sat right on the hips."

Once altered, the mannequins were dressed and placed into a series of tableaux depicting 1920s nightlife: two flappers getting dressed for the evening, a group of men and women outside a club, a nightclub full of white couples, and a scene set in a "black and tan," one of the south-side jazz clubs frequented by north-side whites and south-side blacks alike. The exhibit opened last week, and it'll stay up through next September.

"The 20s was when by far the most dramatic changes were happening in women's fashion," says Long. "You had women showing their ankles, cutting their hair, showing their arms." Women had abandoned corsets with the beginning of World War I and won the right to vote in 1920. Now, "they were wearing makeup, smoking, drinking, having sex with men they weren't going to marry."

As early as 1900, Paul Poiret--who was "appalled at corsetry," says Long--was designing dresses to fit the actual shape of women's bodies. The CHS show includes one Poiret original, an orange gown with black sleeves and black-and-white embroidery; the dropped waists of most of the other dresses on display clearly demonstrate his influence. Some garments are even less structured: a hand-painted silk wrap from Liberty of London--purchased, according to historical society records, by Mrs. Bernard Duis, who wore it on a crossing on the Berengeria in 1923--is basically a giant square of fabric trimmed with heavy tassels, the weight of which holds the garment in place.

Liberty, well-known for its prints, was also a leader in the dress reform movement, says Long. "They were very much involved, like Paul Poiret, in bringing women out of corsets." But not everything of the era was fluid and shapeless. Jeanne Lanvin's popular robe de style--originally designed for her daughter--featured a full, gathered skirt that was boned to create a silhouette that was slim from the side but exaggeratedly wide from the front. "A lot of her inspiration came from 18th-century dress," says Long, and at the same time she "wanted to bring art deco [principles] into the construction." The result: a dress with a structural geometry.

The exhibit's format also allows Long and his colleagues to display garments that are damaged or too delicate to hang on dress forms. A velvet Chanel coat is shown thrown across a coat-check counter, a pleated Fortuny dress peeks out of its original box, and a black beaded Henri Bendel gown is arranged on a bed so as to obscure its altered neckline, which isn't authentic to the period. A "closet" displays coats and hats. The bedroom tableau also features about a dozen pairs of shoes. "You can't put archival shoes on mannequins, because mannequins are too heavy, and because of the shape of the shoes," says Long. "And the shoes are specific to one size, so we'd have to do a lot of alterations to the feet to make them work."

CHS records tell who owned most of the clothes and when they were purchased, and most of the couture garments retain their original labels. (The collection also includes inexpensive evening wear, made with machined lace and press-punched beadwork.) But when one beautifully embroidered black dress turned up without a label, Long identified it as a Vionnet by looking through books. Imported clothes were subject to an import tax, he says, "which meant women sometimes took labels out of dresses before sending them back home."

When Long and his colleagues started looking at their holdings two years ago, they discovered that the clothes were in relatively good shape. Because no conservation techniques had been used on them, no inadvertent harm had come to them either. "Conservation in the past was not as proper as we'd like for it to have been done today."

As for all those butchered mannequins, "We saved all the parts we cut from them in case we have to put them back together," he says. "They'll just be in storage, waiting for the next time they're needed."

"Fashion, Flappers, 'n All That Jazz" runs through September 29, 2002, at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark. Call 312-642-4600 for hours and more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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