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If you go
What: “Fashionable Art: Apparel from the ’20s and ’30s”
When: Opening gala is 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Weatherhead Gallery, University of Saint Francis, 2701 Spring St.; gallery is off Leesburg Road
Cost: Free
Also: A lecture with collector Don Orban and professor Elizabeth Kuebler-Wolf is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the North Campus auditorium. The exhibit will be on display through Oct. 12. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
David Kirk Photography photos
A 1930s evening gown of azure blue fabric woven with silver metallic threads is part of the exhibit.

Exhibit spotlights fashion of 1920s, ’30s

This mid-1920s dress of periwinkle blue silk crepe is decorated with sequins and beads.

What does it take to become a fan of vintage clothing? One late-night trip to a 24-hour grocery store.

Because halfway between the cans of Beefaroni and the rows of sweatpants, you’ll look around at your fellow shoppers and start longing for the days when men wore hats, women wore gloves and no one dared shop for eggs while wearing a thong, a tube top and a tattoo that says “hot mess” across her coccyx.

Whether it’s a knee-bearing flapper dress or a floor-length Depression-era gown fit for a foxtrot, clothes from the early part of the 20th century have retained their glamour decade after decade, garnering fans from every generation.

This weekend, those fans are invited to see 32 formal gowns from the 1920s and ’30s at the Weatherhead Gallery, courtesy of local vintage apparel collector Don Orban.

“Just looking at these dresses is an escape,” gallery director Justin Johnson says. “The unbelievable bead work, the embellishments. Everything is done by hand, with such attention to detail. This was the first time in American history where women were defining themselves based on what they were wearing and it shows.”

Unlike the bustled gowns and overdone Gibson Girl hairdos of the Edwardian era, women in the 1920s cut their hair short, eschewed stuffy girdling for dropped-waist dresses and dared to expose those joints of seduction, the knees.

Many of these changes were inspired by shifts in popular culture, such as the rise of jazz music and Prohibition, says Beth Kuebler-Wolf, assistant professor of art history at the University of Saint Francis.

“There was a certain post-World War I nihilism,” Kuebler-Wolf says. “Excess and abandonment were part of the culture. We were tired of being serious. Things were prospering. Women now had the right to vote. They were cutting their hair short, listening to jazz, smoking on the street. And clothes become a part of this whole revolution.”

Most of the dresses in the exhibit were created by American designers who were inspired by French fashion, avant-garde art movements such as surrealism and events such as the opening of King Tut’s tomb, Kuebler-Wolf says.

“You see an Egypt-o-mania in the early ’20s,” she says. “Egyptian-inspired design was showing up everywhere – movies, art, architecture. Broadly, there was an interest in non-Western culture, in things that were deemed ‘exotic.’ This included fashion.”

But by the 1930s, the excesses of the Jazz Age were replaced by the Great Depression and a new austerity. A level of sophistication infiltrated popular culture and fashion became a form of escapism, Kuebler-Wolf says.

“The movies at the time are a good example of this,” she says. “Every setting, every costume – it’s all extremely elegant, extremely sophisticated. Every setting is a yacht or a penthouse. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are dancing in tuxedos and gowns in these spectacular musicals. It’s all a chance to escape.”

The change in the country’s mood changed fashion. Hemlines lowered, as did necklines. Fringe and heavy beading was traded for silky fabrics, cut on the bias to highlight the female figure. Rather than embellishing an entire dress, small areas such as cuffs and collars were given special attention.

And it worked, Kuebler-Wolf says. Design elements from the 1930s are still considered a touchstone of sophistication.

“When you look at these dresses now, they still have that power,” she says. “They are breathtaking.”