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New Drexel exhibit highlights 10 ways the 1920s are the best fashion decade

Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Fashion Daily News

PHILADELPHIA — The 1920s marked the end of the corset. That’s reason enough to celebrate the looks of the Roaring ‘20s.

But fashion history owes so much more to this decadent decade. It’s when the little black dress became a wardrobe staple. Glitter and fringe made their clothing debuts thanks to the popularity of nightlife and dancing. Beauty products and underwear were mass produced for the first time and were sold in both department and five-and-dime stores.

Can you say life-changing?

“There is a big cultural shift that takes place in the 1920s,” said Clare Sauro, director of Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection and the curator of its newest fashion exhibit, Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age. “The promotion of fashion as a pastime for the American woman is born because department stores were not only importing French designs and selling clothes off the rack, they were hosting fashion shows and luncheons, and women were socializing while they shopped,” Sauro said.

"Venus & Diana" features 44 garments, many of which came directly from the closets of 1920 doyennes, including Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt, the granddaughter of Drexel University’s founder, A.J. Drexel. The collection dates to the 1890s, Sauro said. “In the 1950s, these were just old clothes,” Sauro said. “We’ve amassed a spectacular group of clothing during a time when vintage wasn’t valued.”

Sauro included a rare fringed evening dress from the house of Coco Chanel. There’s a trio of frocks from the equally talented, but lesser known Callot Soeurs that speak to early global influences as the designs are Japanese, Chinese, and Persian. The menswear-inspired tweed pantsuits produced by a Philadelphia tailor were considered scandalous, yet are wardrobe staples today.

 

“The women who wore these pieces were the children and grandchildren of the robber barons of the gilded age,” Sauro said. “This was a generation of young people who escaped the teens with their lives: Their boyfriends and younger brothers didn’t come back from World War I. They lost friends to the Spanish influenza.” In other words, they didn’t care about what the old biddies thought of their new sense of style.

Sauro planned to open "Venus & Diana" in 2020 as a 100-year retrospective, but the pandemic squashed that idea. Now, after living through such a tumultuous time herself in American history, she better understands the you-only-live-once sentiment of the 1920s.

“The Roaring ‘20s were a big party, but there was a lot of pain behind it,” Sauro said. “That’s why the exhibition will resonate.”

Here are 10 more reasons why the 1920s is fashion’s best decade

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