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1920s Fashion in “The Great Gatsby”: Factual or Faulty?

As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” hits theaters today, we’ll finally get to witness for ourselves the kaleidoscopic display of pearls, feathers and sequins that has been splashed across TV screens  and magazines for months. The film, based on the great American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, takes place in 1922 – during a time known as the Roaring Twenties – and the characters’ wardrobes certainly reflect the decadence of the decade. But are they historically accurate? We spoke to an expert on fashion trends throughout history – Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection – to get her thoughts on all the glittering Gatsby glamor. Here’s what she had to say:

On the accuracy of the fashions…

From what I’ve seen so far of the movie, it’s not very accurate. The men appear to be more accurate than the women, which is very typical in period films. The costumes worn by women tend to be greatly influenced by current standards of beauty. A good example of this in the past would be the costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film “Cleopatra.”

The men’s costumes appear to be fairly authentic-looking and I know there was quite a bit of collaboration with the Brooks Brothers Archives. I also know they called in  Deirdre Clemente, a historian who specializes in the clothing worn in Fitzgerald’s books, to advise them. Tobey Maguire, in particular, looks great in his boater hat and bow tie. There are some creative liberties, of course, but the general look is correct.

The costumes worn by Carey Mulligan, from what I have seen, do not appear to be grounded in a similar approach to research. Miuccia Prada reinterpreted the 1920s look to appeal to the modern viewer and there are some notable differences. Generally, the women’s costumes are all too closely fitted to the body and consequently their breasts are in the wrong place. The evening dresses are also – and this way come as a shock to many – not bare enough to be fashionable in the 1920s- the necklines should be low and square and the back fairly plunging if they are going for a mid-1920s look. The leggings underneath the dress are a completely modern touch as the decade of the 1920s was obsessed with bare – or the appearance of bare – legs. Sheer stockings were the only fashionable leg covering. Slingback heels were also not worn in the 1920s.

Baz Luhrmann, however, clearly wasn’t striving for authenticity with that modern soundtrack! Even with this in mind, there seems to have been a bit of a disconnect between the costumes – did they want to be accurate or not? It may have been better for them to loosen up the menswear a bit and tone down the women to find some kind of synchronicity.

On comparisons to Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey…

Both Boardwalk Empire and  Downton Abbey are more concerned with historical accuracy. There have been some missteps along the way –such as the placement of waists and hemlines – but both are generally true to the period.

On elements of 1920s fashion in the styles of today…

Our love of loose and comfortable clothes, for one! The 1920s saw a widespread adoption of sportswear – pleated skirts and cardigans, jersey and knits for casual daywear. This was a revolution and is very much a part of our modern love of comfort and ease. Dresses in the 1920s were invariably variations on the rectangular tunic shape and not too different from the modern t-shirt.

On why 1920s trends are so enduring…

The silhouette was youthful and athletic, which has lingering appeal to modern eyes. The silhouettes were generally simple and they did not require elaborate underpinnings or reshaping through corsetry. This is appealing to modern consumers who can easily imagine trying them on.  It was also a very lavish period for eveningwear, and the beaded dresses, evening coats, and headpieces are a visual feast. It was a glittering glamorous look. Socially,  it was a very exciting and revolutionary decade and this is appealing to the modern consumer as well.

On her favorite 1920s items in Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection…

I have many – in fact, I will be teaching a Special Topics in Art History class this summer just on the fashions of the 1920s. A few highlights are:

A pair of black and red evening shoes with a “lightning bolt” bolt motif from the late 1920s. The shoes of the 1920s are spectacular. Skirts were the shortest they had been for a millennium, so sheer stockings and flashy shoes were the latest fashion. The lightning bolt motif was fashionable in this period since it was associated with modern technology such as the telegraph and radio.
A 2-piece day dress from the French couture house of Callot Soeurs from their fall 1927 collection. Callot Soeurs were known for their simple modern silhouettes as well as their lavish embellishment. This cashmere tunic-style dress has a Persian influence.
A day dress from the French couture house of Boué Soeurs, purchased at their New York branch circa 1925. It is a soft and romantic summer day dress of white cotton and lace trimmed with roses of ribbon embroidery. It would have been perfect for a garden party on a grand Long Island estate.
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