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Capturing the escapism of the 1930s at the Fashion and Textile Museum

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Following on from the success of the 1920s JAZZ AGE: Fashion & Photographsexhibition in 2016-17, the Fashion and Textile Museum is currently showing ‘Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs’, which explores how the social, cultural and political landscape of the 1930s impacted the period’s fashion and photography.

Working on the photographic displays in ‘Night and Day’ were Curator of Photography, Terence Pepper, and Curatorial Assistant of Photography, Grace Lee. Together, they selected a range of fascinating images for the exhibition, many of which are from the Terence Pepper Collection, including studio and press photography.

Terence Pepper and Grace Lee at ‘Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs’ at Fashion and Textile Museum // Image credit: Laura Brown

The National Student sat down with Pepper and Lee to hear more about their work on the exhibition.

Terence Pepper, who owns an extensive collection of historical portrait photography, approaches the exhibition with incredible photographic expertise, having worked as Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery for 40 years.

“My whole life has been devoted to trying to promote portrait photography [and] fashion photography,” he tells us.

‘Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs’. Image courtesy: Fashion and Textile Museum

Having recently completed an MA on the history of dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Grace Lee worked with Pepper to contribute her in-depth understanding of fashion from the period.

“I met Terence shortly before I was graduating, and my MA was about 1920s-60s fashion and photography so it was a perfect match,” says Lee.

With Pepper’s photographic knowledge and Lee’s fashion knowledge, Pepper says, “We complement each other.”

Just as they complement each other, their photography curation aims to complement the vintage garments on display.

Genevieve Phillips wearing a sheer evening gown. Still taken from ‘My Weakness’, 1933. Courtesy of Old Visuals/Everett Collection/Mary Evans

“We wanted the photographs to complement the wonderful collection of vintage dresses lent by Cleo and Mark Butterfield’s extensive collection of vintage '30s clothes, so showing how clothes were worn, bringing clothes to life,” says Pepper.

Important aspects of 1930s fashion, Lee tells us, are the developments in “fabric technology and ready-to-wear”, with the emergence of department stores and artificial silk and rayon which aimed to replicate the glamorous, expensive materials of celebrities’ garments.

“The influence of cinema and music and magazines were a very important way of displaying clothes through photographs, and people would look up to celebrities and… through patterns and sewing, copy what they were wearing,” she says.

Elinor Glyn with her two cats Candide and Zadig, photograph by Paul Tanqueray, 1931. Image courtesy: Private Collection

At the heart of the exhibition is a theme of escaping reality. With extremes of wealth and poverty in 1930s society and the widespread struggles in the years leading up to and during World War II, people in the 1930s could be seen to find comfort in Hollywood films, window shopping and women’s magazines, highlighting the power of fashion to offer a glamorous escape from difficult realities.

“This exhibition is about escapism,” says Lee. With the political uncertainties of our contemporary society, she says that the exhibition is timely, adding, “It’s a good escape for people right now.”

Pepper agrees, "It's a change from Brexit."

‘Night and Day: 1930s Fashion & Photographs’ is open at Fashion and Textile Museum, London until 20 January 2019. You can find out more on their website here.

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