Flights of Fancy

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection.  An example of the Matletex process.

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection. An example of the Matletex process.

If my ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project brings together cowgirl dress, resort wear and 1930s fashion (which, I believe, it does), then my latest Youtube discovery is right on message.  My ‘find’ is a short, 20-minute film from 1940, titled  Fashion Horizons (click the link to watch).

Although new to me, Fashion Horizons has, so it seems, something of a cult following in the online world of discussion boards and fan sites, particularly so among aviation aficianados*.  While for some, the aircraft may be the star of the show, for me, and anyone with a penchant for American fashion history, the clothes are out of this orbit (to use a suitably airy phrase).  The location, the looks and also the brilliant musical score (which will stay with you as an earworm for days hence) are so evocative of the era.  It’s a must-see.

It’s difficult to fathom the provenance, or even the purpose, of Fashion Horizons.  The film is a travelogue made, I assume with some guesswork from the opening credits, in collaboration with Paramount Pictures and Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) .  It’s, presumably, a promotional piece that showcases a number of loosely-related creative industries: the sleekly modern aircraft of TWA; the burgeoning talents of ascendent Paramount film starlets, and the glamorous resort fashions of the early forties (just to clarify, the film was made in 1940 and debuted collections for 1941).  The somewhat curious premise is that Paramount’s leading lady, Mary Martin, along with some aspiring actress friends, are called to a screen-test ‘Out West’.  Taking the luxurious TWA Stratoliner (complete with its own ‘Charm Room’ to cater for the needs of female travellers) across the US from La Guardia in New York City to Los Angeles (via Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque), the viewer is treated to panoramic views and is tempted by a richly poetic (and, at times, socially and culturally problematic) narrative from CBS announcer Wendell Niles.  “It’s a fairy land of tumbling castles far above where the raindrops form”, goes Niles’s voice over.  Oh, what stirring stuff!

The fashions showcased in the film are described in great detail, and lingering shots, enhanced by glorious technicolour, give a sense of the vibrancy of resort dressing, which was fun, bold and colourful.  During their tour of the West, the would-be actresses stop off for a week-long vacation at Camel Back Inn in Phoenix, Arizona and this vignette offers a glimpse of contemporary ranch life.  A couple of the women go for a breakfast ride dressed in what is termed as ‘frontier costume’, comprising “frontier pants, western high-heeled boots and ten gallon Stetson hats”.  But the ranch vacation is depicted as far from being only about horses and cowboy hats.  All manner of (slightly bonkers) scenarios are deployed to display the latest fashionable styles: a dinner engagement; sun lazing by the pool; a game of shuffleboard;  a cocktail party; sightseeing; a boat trip etc.  The ranch vacation, as my thesis for the ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project asserts, required a diverse and distinctive wardrobe.

American sportswear of the thirties (or, in this instance of 1941) catered for women who required a versatile, practical, yet stylish, form of dressing (and I’ve written about this in previous blog entries such as this one in relation to the contemporary designer Elizabeth Hawes).   Fashion Horizons features an entire raft of examples, one such being when ‘Margaret’ plays a game of shinty, casting aside her wrap-around skirt to reveal a swimsuit worn underneath.  This mixing and matching of combinations was a typical feature of thirties (okay, 1941) fashion, which catered to the changing demands of modern lifestyles.  Midriff-showing shorts and cropped top combos, short-legged playsuits and swimwear separates were all the rage.  Importantly, for the dress historian, the narration goes on to describe to the audience the way in which Margaret’s swimsuit was manufactured: “shirred and elasticised in a new process called Matletex”, which had “a slenderising effect”.  Technological advances in textile engineering and clothing design were celebrated and lauded as a means to promote garments to women seeking to embrace innovation and a modern sensibility.

And a note of explanation for those not entirely au fait with Matletex.  Pioneered in 1936 by Margit Fellegi when she was working for the Californian swimwear label, Cole’s, Matletex enabled cotton fabric to be shirred (that’s a  sort of smocking technique) on elastic thread.  The result was an ability to manipulate style lines without sacrificing closeness of fit.  Figure-hugging designs and functionality were brought together.  Matletex gets several mentions in the film, which suggests techy-talk was a selling point for consumers: what those in the trade would term as a ‘value-adding’ property.  Consumers were seduced by the ‘latest thing’ and bought (literally and metaphorically) in to technology in order to signal their own credentials as forward-thinking and fresh.

It only remains, then, to quote from the closing lines of Fashion Horizons, which invoke a suitably awe-inspiring and thrusting tone.  Onwards, and, indeed, upwards!

 “…the girls are reminded that horizons in the air, like fashion horizons are reached only to reappear again and again.  As Tennyson said only a century ago, ‘For we dipped into the future as far as human eye can see/ Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be'”.

* You know who you are!