The Chicago History Museum's New Exhibition Bills Costume Designers as the 'Original Influencers'

"From Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and '40s" demonstrates Hollywood's massive influence on fashion in one of America's most tumultuous times.
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An image on display at Chicago History Museum's new exhibition, "Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and '40s." Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

An image on display at Chicago History Museum's new exhibition, "Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and '40s." Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

The Chicago History Museum's new exhibition, "Silver Screen to Mainstream: American Fashion in the 1930s and '40s" invites visitors to "meet the original influencers." (And, imagine! There's not a selfie in sight.)

Showcasing 30 pieces from the museum's permanent collection, the displayed clothing illustrates how Hollywood replaced Paris as a nucleus of fashion trends during the tumultuous years between the Wall Street crash and World War II.

"I just thought it was a kind of interesting idea to pose the question, and answer the question, about the influence of Hollywood costume designers who often had another foot in the fashion world," says guest curator Virginia Heaven, associate professor of fashion design at Columbia College Chicago. "During the period before [the 1930s] — well, for centuries — Paris had been the center of fashion. And then the movies came about and people's focus was changed. The movies were remarkable in that they went across all social spectrums, from the poorest to the richest. As a consequence, the costume designers in movies were the early influencers."

But first, couture. The exhibition's starting point is a platform labeled "The Allure of Paris." Displaying 1930s pieces like a glittering Chanel evening gown and a silk dress by Madeleine Vionnet, the area provides a peek into what might have been the wardrobe of an upper-class Chicagoan.

"As the major manufacturing center in the country, Chicago had a lot of very wealthy people," Heaven says. "When they wanted their new attire, they whipped off to Paris, and got themselves couture garments."

She's the first to admit that the European dresses are "rather marvelous." But — before turning to a platform that shows off clothing from New York and Chicago — she puts in a plug for American design.

"I always think that European clothes are very much more about the designer than the wearer, whereas American clothes are very much more about the wearer than the designer. Even though there are distinctive brands, it's much more about the comfort and the movability — the being comfortable and beautiful and elegant. That's what American designers care about."

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Beauty, elegance, flow — there's plenty of that on the next platform, which displays Hollywood-inspired pieces by American designers. It's easy to feel a vicarious getting-ready-for-a-party thrill in this area, where an impeccable 1930's evening gown in burnt orange silk keeps company with a Bergdorf Goodman dress in gold lamé. An accessories case holds shoes and sleek clutches.

A dress by Bergdorf Goodman. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

A dress by Bergdorf Goodman. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

Of course, swell nights covered in silk weren't entirely par for the course during the Great Depression. Before moving on to the next platform, which showcases styles the middle and working classes would have worn, Heaven says, "Where there are people that are very poor there are also people that are still very rich, so this sort of dichotomy exists in the same space. But the thing that sort of joins them is the movies."

A nearby wall displays catalog clippings and dress patterns from the era. Speaking of influencers, the catalog dresses had labels "autographed" by screen sirens of the day, and movie stars' faces were splashed across the packaging for dress patterns.

The more modest pieces shown opposite "have soul," Heaven says, noting how obviously well cared-for the garments — which include floral-printed house dresses — were. "When people were that pushed, part of maintaining some sort of normality was keeping up the appearance that things were okay. When you let everything go, then you've lost control. So it was very important at that time for people to hold onto the little bit of dignity that they had left."

Gesturing to the opposite platform, with its silk and gold lamé, Heaven adds: "These are beautiful clothes, I'm not knocking any of that, or the French ones. But I do think these [more modest pieces] bring a dimension to the experience of being in the gallery, because this is the reality check."

The last platform shows clothing from costume designers who also had their own fashion labels. One of these pieces is a 1940 evening dress that Heaven calls the "key piece" of the exhibition. (It’s also her favorite in the gallery.)

A dress by Howard Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

A dress by Howard Greer. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum 

Stitched up by Illinois-born designer Howard Greer in 1940, the red and beige evening dress has a striking starburst pattern. Beside the dress is a framed still from the 1940 film "My Favorite Wife," for which Greer designed costumes. In the still, an actress wears a starburst-patterned dress that's remarkably similar to the one on display.

"The same year this movie was released, [Greer] had a piece in his custom line that was almost identical. So that was a perfect example of silver screen to mainstream," Heaven says.

But the exhibition doesn't just aim to demonstrate the influence that Hollywood had on mainstream fashion. Instead, as Heaven has hinted, it's meant as a testament to the influence of American fashion in general.

"The point I guess is to say that hey, wait a minute, American fashion and American style is very distinctive and it's really pretty great," Heaven says. "Even now people look to Paris and a lot of what comes out of America has been very, very influential. When you think of blue jeans and t-shirts, the power suit, this has had an effect all over the world. It's still being felt now."

The exhibition opens on April 8, 2019 and runs through Jan. 20, 2020. 

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