Before everybody buys, borrows, or burrows in a closet for something to wear for Cranbrook Center’s annual House Party, let us consider the fashions of the times. We’re going back to the 1930s, to celebrate the heyday of Loja Saarinen, doyenne of the Cranbrook art scene as designer of interiors, weaver, fashionista, textile designer, businesswoman, landscaper, and modelmaker. Between husband Eliel, daughter Pipsan, and son Eero, the Saarinen family had inventiveness, imagination, skill, and audacity all sewn up. With the Saarinens’ extensive network of friends, colleagues, and students, the atmosphere at the Art Academy must have been rarified indeed.
Small wonder, then, that when it came time for parties, Loja Saarinen could craft her own iconic evening attire for the Art Academy’s Crandemonium Ball of February 1934, including that of her consort, as you can find in the photograph on the flyer for the event of May 21, 2022.
Four our House Party, if you were thinking of the little black dress, Coco Chanel brought this simple concept to the public eye in 1926, with Vogue Magazine proclaiming it “Chanel’s Ford” in homage to the Model T which famously came in any color you wanted as long as it was black. Do note the chevrons (just visible in the Chanel dress) on the Saarinen dress also.
Post WWI 1920s design was the big break away from the 19th century drapery which required all kinds of padding and corsetry. Chanel prided herself on getting women out of corsets, and they never went back into them. The fashions were shapeless, short, and sack-like at their extreme, with lots of embellishment for evening dresses to make up for their lack of pizazz. Think Fitzgerald and Gatsby.
At this time too, the tuxedo or dinner jacket was becoming acceptable for ordinary men who were not English royalty or American billionaires.
The tuxedo changes over the years with choice of fabric, color, shirt, collar lapel, and tie. More details are the number of jacket buttons, vents, vest or not, and shape. Above is a modern suit worn with a vest and patent leather shoes. The shoulders are solid without exaggeration, the sleeves the right length, the pants skimming the shoes. Overall, what matters is that it fits the wearer, looks impressive, and provides a good accompaniment for a partner.
By the 1930s, fashion for women had softened a bit, and hemlines moved down and waistlines up. Enter the bias-cut dress designed by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris. Her dresses, and those of Madame Grès, swirled about the body with minimum fabric adapting to the shape of the woman inside. They became all the rage, easy to wear, infinitely variable, requiring only simple underpinnings to hold things in place and stockings up, should you so please.
The great Hollywood movies of the time showcased this style of dress to great advantage with Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Carol Lombard slinking about in luxurious silken gowns. The big shoulder was becoming popular to make the waist look smaller; a longer skirt in back lent height; a belt with a jeweled buckle offered sparkle; frills, flounces, or feathers could show off or disguise.
Closer to home, we have in Cranbrook Archives a photograph of a Kingswood formal dance from September 1933 showing the young women and men dressed in best 1930s fashion. It’s not a fashion shot, but it does show precisely what people could be wearing at a given time.
I would guarantee that most of those dresses are bias cut silk or satin, and every one is a long dress. You can see how the weight of the fabric pulls it down over the body for a flattering fit on practically everyone. There are some bedazzled belts, and the young lady at bottom right has frilly or feathery shoulders à la Rita Hayworth.
For the men at the dance, there is a curious mélange of a wing tip collar with a black or white bowtie—a throwback to the white tie and tails of Fred Astaire movies. Look in the back to the older members of the orchestra where they have a soft collar and a black bowtie, which if not the norm then, will certainly get there.
So, what should you wear if you were invited to a 1930s evening event? Let’s hope it’s bias cut for ladies, let’s hope it’s a tuxedo for men. If you come from a culture which has different evening dress, then you could wear that, be it sari, salwar kameez, agbada, or kilt.
Ladies, you could always opt for a Marlene Dietrich look in a tuxedo, seen in the photograph below scandalizing the public in 1932 with Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper. Note that where Chevalier is wearing white tie and tails, and Cooper a business suit, only Dietrich is in a tuxedo.
Gentlemen, I quote A. A. Milne from his play, The Romantic Age, where the heroine, Melisande, laments her beau’s lack of proper evening attire:
Oh, Bobby, everything’s wrong. The man to whom I give myself must be not only my lover, but my true knight, my hero, my prince. He must perform deeds of derring-do to win my love. Oh, how can you perform deeds of derring-do in a stupid little suit like that!
To be fashionable is to be appropriate.
– Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research