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State of the Art (Deco)

Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition revisits Jazz Age fashion and design

By Steven Rosen · October 19th, 2011 · Visual Art
art_deco_fashion_betty_colker_2Dress from the Betty Colker Collection - Provided by the Cincinnati Art Museum
The promotional material for the Cincinnati Art Museum’s new Art Deco: Fashion & Design in the Jazz Age does something I haven’t seen before in the world of art-museum marketing: It headlines, “From the Curator that brought you Wedded Perfection.”

Pop culture does that a lot — “from the director of Jaws” — but fine-arts institutions? This is a sign of how highly the museum thinks of Cynthia Amneus, curator of fashion arts and textiles, after her show last year featuring two centuries of wedding gowns drew 63,000, breaking an attendance record.

When I asked Amneus about this, during a tour of her Art Deco, she laughed and said the promotion wasn’t her idea. And, in fact, Art Deco — on display until New Year’s Day — isn’t the right exhibition to raise Wedded Perfection expectations. It’s in a smaller gallery and has a much narrower time span: the Roaring Twenties/Jazz Age, basically, especially the years immediately surrounding the famous 1925 Paris exhibition that introduced the world to the stylized, jazzy, geometric and modern designs and patterning of the Art Deco movement. That’s when the chevron, ziggurat, frozen fountain and sunburst symbols became popular. 

Yet to say Art Deco isn’t Wedded Perfection isn’t to put it down. First of all, there is a narrative here, even if a subtle one. These were times of women’s empowerment and stirrings of social freedom, and the exhibit makes that point. Also, Amneus has once again shown her discerning eye and understanding of how the avant-garde fits into a broader arts/social picture. And she has again delivered a show of great beauty. 

It’s also a far more varied than what it could have been — a relatively straightforward fashion exhibition displaying a new gift, the Betty Colker Collection of 1920s gowns. 

The 19 gowns on display are the exhibit’s core, but they fit into a larger context — the elegance, excitement and sense of self that women could display during the Roaring Twenties/Jazz Age.

Amneus, with help from other curators, has gone through the museum’s vast storerooms to find other objects, from a small comb to a large dressing table, from sheets of furnishings fabrics presciently purchased by the museum in the 1930s to original plates from a French fashion magazine of the era. (Yes, this is quite literally an exhibition for fashion plates.)

Colker, a Cincinnati native who lives in Huntington, W.V., collected vintage gowns and other apparel on her many trips. The 19 that Amneus has chosen (all are French designs) are gorgeous, such as a black-and-gray wool cape, its glass beads embedded in a sunburst design that suggests a galaxy of sparkling stars in a night sky. This would have made quite a big bang at nightclubs of the day. Most are shorter (knee length) and freer in shape than those that preceded them, although Amneus points out that length began to grow in the late 1920s.

Two gowns side-by-side on a raised platform reveal the widespread global influences on Art Deco fashion. A richly salmon-colored evening dress, silk with glass beads and sequins, is a veritable canvas of Chinese-inspired imagery — swirling clouds, mini-pagodas and more. To its left, a silk dress with glass beading is in the Japonesque style, with demure and calming colors and asymmetrical floral embellishments. If the first is for a wild night out, the second is for the quiet, dreamy morning after.

The gowns, however, share top billing. Though this gallery is relatively small, Amneus has been able to carve out a space that serves like a mini-boudoir. There she has displayed a few choice interrelated objects from the museum collection. A 1927 dressing table/stool by Paul Frankel, an Austrian-born U.S. designer, is a fantastic, fascinating thing — a huge oval mirror, with carved ornamental jackals on its wood frame, dominates so much that the small curved tabletop in front of it is hard to see. The accompanying stool is a parade of bright colors and has a pronounced Egyptian motif. This is a piece suitable for a Jazz Age Cleopatra. 

“I’ve never seen (it) on view and I’ve been here since 1991,” Amneus says. “He was such an important figure in Art Deco. He was considered a pioneer of American modernism.” 

Among the other accoutrements in this room is a 1925 silk handkerchief, its red background the setting for a happy scene of a young couple kissing in front of an abstracted landscape. Illustrator John Held designed it; there is no evidence it was actually used for any practical purposes. Another object here, sadly, might not survive too much longer: a lovely white comb, which is made out of cellulose nitrate, is deteriorating. 

Amneus’ department has 20,000 objects of all types, including 5,000 dresses. But its strength, she says, is 19th-century women’s fashion. She would like to upgrade the collection with contemporary examples that reflects how late-20th-century and current fashion trends changed us — especially where the avant-garde made an impact. 

Japanese designers are one collecting focus, but there are others. “We added a Versace, a Vivienne Westwood — we need more — and we recently purchased a piece designed by Ossie Clark, a British designer,” she says. “In the 1960s/1970s, a lot was going on in London.”

Dare we hope for a Contemporary British Fashion: Mod to Punk anytime soon?

ART DECO: FASHION AND DESIGN IN THE JAZZ AGE continues at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 1, 2012. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



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