Several thousand feet over the Atlantic may not be the most obvious place (or space) to encounter some high-end dress history. Yet, courtesy of American Airlines’ in-flight entertainment menu, we are being served up Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013). It looks as though it will be beaded chemises all the way to JFK.
The costuming in this film is nothing short of spectacular and in many ways the film is really all about the costumes. This is a dreamlike, theatrical, heightened interpretation of F. Scott’s original text of 1925. And the costumes – and I use this ordinarily problematic term for dress historians freely here, given this is the big screen – play a vital role by both signifying and mobilising the Jazz Age in visual and material ways. The costumes tick all the ‘roaring twenties’ boxes: eye-poppingly vibrant colours, shift-style dresses for the ladies and caddish blazers and boaters for the blokes. And, as every fashion student will tell you, it’s not just about the garments per se. The term fashion, thanks to the legacy of Joanne B. Eicher, encompasses styling, accessorising and also the sensory experience of wearing clothes (the jangle of a thousand bugle beads on a Flapper’s dress, for example. Plus the way those very same beads hang, move and shimmer during a Charleston. Not to mention their weight – those frocks were heavy – and what that meant for the embodied experience, too).
Of course, there’s an important and perfectly valid difference between the outfits presented in Luhrman’s cinematic extravaganza as representative of the Twenties and those surviving garments with historical provenance originating from that era. I understand that they aren’t meant to be one and the same. As I drink in the glorious and (let’s throw in some Umberto Eco) hyperreal offerings on screen, I am reminded of the accounts I’ve read detailing the banalities – and social agonies – of dress and dressing at this moment in history quite removed from Gatsby. With non-fast fabrics, for example, a sudden downpour could leave a young lady’s legs stained with dye. Decorative, lozenge-shaped beads made from a wax composite were also reported (if I recall correctly) to melt under the strain of laundering and exposure to heat. It appears that ‘clothing malfunctions’ pre-date Janet Jackson by quite a stretch.
As I embark on my latest phase of dress history research, then, this encounter with Luhrman serves to remind me of the balance to be struck between the generic and the specific. The Style Stakes Project is about the dress of a decade – the 1930s in this instance – but it is also about the dress of individuals and their idiosyncrasies, too. The challenge ahead is the capturing and understanding of both.