The Cincinnati Art Museum’s current show, “Art Deco: Fashion and Design in the Jazz Age” is an exhibition contextualizing evening dresses from the Betty Colker Collection with textiles, prints, jewelry, furniture, and sundry other art objects related to the Art Deco aesthetic. The exhibition is decidedly female centric, focusing on the material trappings and images of women from the 1920-30s, and is a testament to the freedom (albeit arguably fleeting) that women experienced during the interim between the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment & the Great Depression. Organized by Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles, Cynthia Amnaeus, the show continues her ongoing exploration of clothing’s connection to women’s roles in society.
Near the entrance to the exhibition is a small nook featuring a wood and silver leaf dressing table with large circular mirror and painted stool (1927) by Paul T. Frankl, a leader of modern furniture design in America. Lalique perfume bottles, a dainty handkerchief, purse, compact with watch and lipstick, and an ivory hair comb also share the space, lending it an air of a woman’s dressing room. As so many of the items within the show pertain to the paraphernalia associated with female life, it seems only fitting to allude to this very feminine place of literal & metaphorical reflection.
The decadence of the era is made visible throughout the exhibition, in the ornate embellishment of the nearly twenty dresses, which are the true highlight of the show. As one can imagine, conservation and restoration were necessary considering that the dresses typically consisted of heavy embellishments upon unstructured fabric and were worn by women who often didn’t consider the garment’s future century of existence. One dress alone took up to 350 hours of restoration, sewn by Costume Assistant Marla Miles, and the labor involved speaks to the role of museums as guardians of our collective cultural history.
Glass beads, tiny sequin paillettes, sheer chemises, and rich satin velvet throughout the exhibition dazzle the viewer with a kind of hedonistic impulse that begs to be touched. Several show-stopping dresses are sure to dazzle viewers, and on the Friday afternoon I attended, the exhibition was bustling with visitors oohing and aahing over each one. Included are not only those cropped, fringed, drop-waist flapper-esque dresses we think of as quintessentially from the Roaring Twenties, but a range of dresses that demonstrate the development of French couture, as Paris was the center of Art Deco’s genesis.
Several of the dresses demonstrate Art Deco’s cosmopolitan style and the European infatuation with all things “Oriental” in their incorporation of Japonesque asymmetry, Chinese motifs, and black satin chinoiserie. Another gold and salmon colored Robe de style dress, (pioneered by French Couturier Jeanne Lanvin,) strikingly diverged from the typical androgynous straight-cut chemises with its full tea-length skirt and nipped in waist.
The exhibition labels for the dresses reflect the amount of knowledge (or lack thereof) the Museum staff were able to glean from whatever labeling may have remained (or ever existed) on the garment; most are listed only by their country of origin, accession number, and materials. But other objects included in the exhibition like framed yards of fabric designed by internationally recognized artists and couturiers like Raoul Dufy and Paul Poiret, respectively, demonstrate the cooperative nature of such artistic endeavors.
Art Deco was a marriage between art and industry, at a time when being “modern” practically required reliance on mechanized production. As the exhibition labeling astutely points out, Poiret’s Atelier Martine—a modern design pattern making “school” for teenage girls—was a successful commercial endeavor for Europe’s most revered couturier, and he depended on their “authentically childlike” designs for nearly two decades to produce his folk art patterns used for clothing and furniture alike. Behind every successful artist is… a troupe of devoted laborers, focused on a goal of making aesthetically pleasing objects. And Poiret’s “École” was just one such example of the interdisciplinary cooperation that went into creating such fine yet functional art.
With the assistance of Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, Amy Miller Dehan, Amnaeus’ vision of the (wealthy) woman of the early Twentieth Century is well fleshed-out. Dresses are shown alongside jewelry box-like cases of precious objects. Some highlights include a jade green Bakelite vanity case with face powder, puff, and mirror; various blindingly bejeweled bracelets & pendants; as well as a cigarette case that likely depicts the heavyweight fight between Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey, from 1927 at Yankee Stadium designed by Deco jeweler Gerard Sandoz. Architectural in detail and modern in composition, many are also glaring in their conspicuousness—a telling sign of the decadence of that era.
The exhibition is rounded out with a wide selection of colored plates from fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton. A standout of which is the work of Thayaht, a pseudonym for Italian Futurist artist Ernesto Michahelles, whose pieces throughout are easy to spot with his telltale cubist devices for depicting energy and motion around the subject. The aforementioned also had ties to Cincinnati (likely how the Museum acquired such work for their permanent collection,) as he was related to the sculptor Hiram Powers, and the exhibition organizers make a point of showcasing local connections to the Art Deco aesthetic.
One such included Cincinnati-based artist is William Hentschel, whose Rookwood vase and stenciled prints feature geometric motifs, African American women with bobbed blonde hair, and dancers in short skirts—illustrating the decade’s fascination with the flamboyant and free-thinking women of the era. A dozen or so photos of Cincinnati Art Deco landmarks like the Dalton Street US Post Office, Carew Tower, and Union Terminal round out the exhibition, providing local examples of Art Deco’s overwhelming influence on modern design.
Aptly, upon exiting “Art Deco,” an odalisque by Contemporary photographer Sheila Metzner faces the visitor—a clear transition from the three-dimensional heavy aforementioned exhibition to the two-dimensional photographic prints exhibition, “Deco Form: Sheila Metzner.” Interdepartmental coordination involved in putting on both exhibitions—each showcasing the work and form of women—echoes Art Deco’s interdisciplinary approach to art creation. Whether Art Museum staff research, restore, or otherwise contextualize the evening gowns in “Art Deco,” their labor mimics that of the various artisans, couturiers, and fine artists involved in the aesthetic movement’s production. Artistic cooperation, then—and not just the human instinct for vibrant decadence—may be the common thread in the work of all artists and art historians involved in “Art Deco’s” success.