I asked my friend, the silent film blogger, editor and noted frock fan Pamela – to accompany me to the event Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fasion & Film in the Jazz Age at the British Library in St Pancras on Friday. I could pretend that this was a research trip, but really it was simply a cheap ticket (£5 for students!) to indulge my two favourite hobbies – watching old films and ogling pretty things.
That said, we (me) here at Kine Artefacts take an all-encompassing approach to moving image history, heritage and preservation. Therefore, we (I) declare that fashion and design – and its relation to the moving images that show it off – is a perfectly cromulent topic for scholarly consideration.
This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.
Evidently, so too does the British Library. I found out about the event through the Library’s ‘Inspired by…’ blog. Sceptics could see events like these as a cynical way to cash in on the current love of vintage style, but I also think that such events do at least show that there is a breadth in the collections of the British Library, and that its remit covers a lot of material and formats other than published books and the Magna Carta. The event also coincided with the announcement of the new News and Media Room in the St Pancras site (after the closure of the historic Colindale facility), and given that at least one of the talks was based partly on analysis of 1930s film journals and magazines, it was a neat way for the library to demonstrate that it could be of use to film and fashion students looking for newspapers, magazines or journals from the period.
The event cannily presented both historical and critical methodologies for looking at fashion and film, in a way that was informative without being dry. Amber Jane Butchart began with a demonstration of the influence of Hollywood on British fashion through an analysis of reception and marketing materials in magazines and journals. Butchart touched upon the complexity of this relationship, describing how the judicious use of high fashion in Hollywood cinema, and its presentation in supplementary ephemera, worked together to promote that iconic Jazz Age look without diminishing the glamour and extravagance of the clothes on screen.
Butchart looked a sequence from the 1935 film Roberta as a case study. The film culminates in a fashion parade narrated by Fred Astaire, in which starlets such as the very young Lucille Ball model some of RKO designer Barnard Newman’s most ostentatious designs. Butchart then discussed the increasing importance of fashion in films, citing Adrian’s famous Letty Lynton dress, which spawned thousands of replicas for all the ‘little Joan Crawfords’ across the world, as a prime example. The dress is perhaps now better remembered than the film itself, which is mired in legal issues and thus very difficult to get hold of (though it does, thankfully, survive).
The second talk, from Chris Laverty, took a different tack in that it assessed the costume design of a contemporary TV show set in the Jazz Age: Boardwalk Empire. Laverty analysed the costumes of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Chalky White (Michael K Williams) in order, and made use of stills and John Dunn’s original costume designs (complete with fabric swatches!) to demonstrate just how true the costumes are to both the characters and the context of the show.
Generally speaking, the gangsters of the period are popularly thought of as wearing shiny, monochrome, pinstriped suits and white carnations, when in reality the heavy woollen fabrics and decorative flourishes where far more varied in colour, texture and fit. Everything from the fabrics, the patterns to the accessories serve to give context to these characters. Laverty likened Darmody’s wardrobe to that of a modern-day gangster, who goes from sportswear to bling depending on status. All the gangsters, though Chalky White in particular, embody the persona of the ‘dandy gangster’, wearing outlandish outfits as a way to establish power and prestige. I’ve never actually watched the show other than the pilot episode (for PhDs are long and time is short), but I know of Michael K Williams from The Wire, and I would suspect that Williams’ star persona had as much an influence on his costuming in Boardwalk Empire as Joan Crawford had on Adrian’s dress.
Butchart and Laverty both made impassioned pleas to bring back certain trends from the Jazz Age: flouted, ruched, puffed and generally awesome shoulders; and the Norfolk thick wool sporting jacket (respectively). I discussed these fashions with my own dandy fella, and we agreed that these would both be trends that we would welcome.
The talks were followed by a cocktail party, which was a bit less Jazz Age-specific and catered to a more general vintage-themed crowd. I drank a serviceable French 75 and an almost Mary Pickford cocktail that was tastier due to the omission of grenadine (on the theme of starlet-named cocktails, I prefer the Ginger Rogers). There was a vintage band, vintage hairstyling and hopefully-not-vintage pork pies on offer (?!). The atrium of the British Library, with its white, curved stairways and mezzanines, looked rather like an Art Deco dancehall and decidedly unlike a library.