Vibrant patterns and bold colors are common characteristics of textiles dating from the 1920s. Rejecting the Belle Epoque palette of off-white and cream accented with pale pink or soft blue, textile designers drew from a variety of eclectic sources to create patterns showcasing a rainbow of saturated colors. Design inspiration came from near and far, with elements of European folk art, modern art movements, non-western cultures and classical civilizations all influencing 1920s textile designs. Though noteworthy in their own right, these textiles were also part of a larger design movement called Art Deco. Originating in France around 1910, Art Deco was based on a luxurious interpretation of modern life. The movement influenced all areas of design, including architecture, fashion, graphic design and decorative arts. Disseminated via the well-attended Paris Exposition of 1925, Art Deco became a universal style that influenced both mass-produced and elite design throughout the world.
Dating from the mid-1920s, this evening dress incorporates the luxury fabrics favored by practitioners of Art Deco. Delicate see-through sleeves of gold lame ribbon and metallic machine lace are paired with a bodice of printed silk. Remarkably, the metallic lace is untarnished. The printed textile pattern used in the bodice is probably a western reimagining of a Chinese textile pattern. East Asia was a strong influence on Art Deco, with elements borrowed from both Japan and China making frequent appearances. In 1925, an article in the New York Times described a dress embroidered with Chinese-style birds as an example of the influence of Chinese art on contemporary fashion. According to the article, "Chinese art is a source of inspiration from which are drawn many of the costume [fashion] designs now in vogue."1
The large, multi-petaled pink flowers seen in this textile pattern are probably chrysanthemums, a flower often portrayed in East Asian art. Native to China, chrysanthemums weren't widespread in Europe until the 18th century. The long-tailed birds seen perched on branches are portrayals of the mythical phoenix. Though the phoenix appears in a variety of cultural traditions, including Egyptian, Persian and classical Greece and Rome, the red, blue and orange feathers seen here are more common to Chinese portrayals of the bird.
The tiered skirt is of an entirely different, though equally luxurious, brocaded silk textile. Though this combination of textiles might seem eccentric to our eyes, Art Deco fashion sometimes combined varied textures, colors and patterns. This c. 1923 pink dress with geometric appliques showcases this aspect of Art Deco fashion. Because of its wildly varied textiles, our dress might have been pieced together with fabric remnants leftover from other projects. Though the style of the dress is that of the years 1925-27, the two naturalistic textile patterns featured in the design might have been designed and manufactured a few years earlier. In the later years of the 1920s, Art Deco textiles moved towards more geometric interpretations of natural forms. A frugal dressmaker, or her client, might have saved these remnants, combining them to create a new dress for a special occasion.
1 "Colorful Attire Shown." New York Times. 18 Oct. 1925: X12.