4 min read

How the glittering Jazz Age set the course for modern fashion

a black and white photo of a powman in a sequined jazz era dancee costume with plumed hat

Andree Spinelly Paris 1927 Courtesy James Abbe Archive

The American Museum in Bath celebrates the glittering Jazz Age through fashions and photography

Women’s clothing in the 1920s reflected dizzying social change on an unprecedented scale. From Paris and London to New York and Hollywood, the period following the Great War offered the modern woman a completely new style of dressing.

But it was America in the 1920s that provided the creative inspiration for a Europe still staggering out of the fog of war. From the East coast to the West, the United States was producing icons on an industrial scale— from stars of the silver screen to skyscrapers, and it was the impact on women’s fashion that has left us with arguably the most tangible and enduring notion of what the Jazz Age was.

1920s Jazz Age: Fashion and Photographs, at Bath’s American Museum in Britain, examines how the fashions of this glittering period ushered in a new age – when the world saw the US as the global taste-maker and trend-setter.

This flowering of female expression is explored via a stunning collection of clothes from the period together with a famous photographic archive of images that seem to perfectly capture the glamour of 1920s stage and screen.

a photo of two women dressed in glamorous costumes

Dolly Sisters 1923. Courtesy Private Collection. James Abbe Archive.

a photo of a woman with a twenties flapper dress and short hair

Gilda Gray. 1925. Private Collection. Courtesy James Abbe Archive

a photo of a man wearing a beret and a woman wearing a silken gown

Fred and Adele Astaire on the set of Lady Be Good 1926. Courtesy James Abbe Archive.

a photo of a glamorous woman in a long dress and headdress

Dolores Costello 1919. Courtesy James Abbe Archive

The photos come via the archive of James Abbe (1883 – 1973). His photographs documented the world of Hollywood stars and he is credited with creating the modern-day concept of celebrity through his portraits of stage and screen stars such as Gilda Gray, the Dolly Sisters, and Louise Brooks.

One of the leading American celebrity photographers of the 1920s, Abbe moved to New York in 1917 and quickly established an international reputation as a stage and film photographer. His photographs were soon being published in Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Ladies Home Journal.

He visited Hollywood in 1920 and 1922 and took portraits of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and even found time to direct a film for silent film director and founder of Keystone Studios, Mack Sennett.

After working for seven months on location in Italy on the Ronald Colman – Lillian Gish film, The White Sister (1923), Abbe switched his base to Paris where he photographed French stage and revue stars, introducing them to a world-wide audience through his picture syndication. As the decade and its fashions waned he returned increasingly to photo-journalism, but left behind a body of work that defines classical Hollywood cinema and its fashions, tastes and imagery.

a film still of two people in their lyjamas on a film set

Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in London Calling 1923. Courtesy James Abbe Archive

a photo of a woman with bobbed hair wearing a swimsuit and smoking a fag

Louise Brooks Prix De Beaute 1929. Courtesy James Abbe Archive

a photo of a woman demurely wearing a fur coat

Bessie Love, 1925. James Abbe Archive.

a photo of a couple wearing male and female flamenco outfits

Rudolph Valentino and Natasha Rambova. New York 1922. James Abbe Archive.

a photo of a woman in a flowing gown leaning against a pillar

Norma Talmadge, 1922. Courtesy Private Collection. James Abbe Archive.

a photo of a woman wearing an Egyptian inspired costume including Cleopatra style headdress

Beatrice Pratt as Isis.

Many of Abbe’s sitters had personal connections with Beatrice Pratt, the mother of one of the American Museum’s founders. A regular in gossip columns on both sides of the Atlantic, the four-times married socialite and fashionista was famed for throwing extravagant parties, her ground-breaking outfits filling column inches in the likes of Vogue and Town and Country.

Pratt’s extensive archive is held by the American Museum and the show includes a display of photographs, letters, press cuttings, and items of clothing, all of which tell the story of her position as a fashion icon at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Also on display is a stunning selection of over 100 fashion objects from a private collection comprising haute couture and ready-to-wear from the period 1919 to 1929, including printed day dresses, fringed flapper dresses, beaded evening wear, velvet capes, kimonos, and silk pyjamas. Accoutrements – including jewellery and feather headdresses – also reveal the glamour, excess, frivolity, and moral modernity of the decade.

See a selection of dresses featured in Jazz Age.

a photo of a 1920s dress on a mannequin
rear view of a black and white and silver 1920s dress with a cape featuring a white fringe
a photo of a black and white coat with Egyptian motifs on a mannequin
photo of a coast with Egyptian designs
A photo of a black dress with a pink flower motif
a phot of a a two pice pajama suit with flowered waistcoat and flared trousers
a close up of a beaded dress wiht sequinns
a close up rose designs on a glittering gold dress
a photo of a yellow 1920s dress
a photo of a 1920s pink dress with tassles hanging either side of the waist to below the hemline
a drey 1920s dress with peacock feather motif
rear view of a a coloourful blue, white and pink dressing gown
a photo of a long elegant dress in gold with pink roses
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The exhibition makes the case for the period after the Great War creating a major shift in moral, social, and cultural attitudes and that 1920s fashion gave everyone from fashion designers to suffragettes a new way of presenting themselves to the world.

“The seismic cultural and social changes that occurred during the 1920s were clearly conveyed through women’s fashion,” says American Museum Director Richard Wendorf.

“Jazz Age demonstrates to the visitor just what a magnificent variety of options women now found available to them. These new designs gave them unprecedented opportunities to express themselves and engage in activities that were once almost purely the preserve of men. Arguably the Jazz Age set the course of modern fashion history.”

1920s Jazz Age: Fashion & Photographs is at the American Museum until October 29 2017

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Founded in 1961, The Museum has the finest collection of American decorative arts outside the United States. Displayed in a series of period rooms, the collection illustrates how early Americans lived between the 17th and 19th centuries. Interactive galleries offer an introduction to American history, while special collections highlight the…

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