Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Shiny, Shiny Great Gatsby Flapper-Girl Frocks

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ premieres in London tonight.  I’ve been on the internet and  have picked up some of the excitement Leonardo di Caprio fans are experiencing as they wait for his red carpet moment.  I’ve also watched the film’s trailer on You Tube, and as a result can confirm that I’ll be going – though not tonight, and it’ll be to Old Potts Way, Shrewsbury, not the Odeon Leicester Square.  I’ve seen the Robert Redford film, so it’ll be interesting to find out what Leonardo makes of the part.  I’ve also read the book [by which I mean F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, not Baz Luhrmann’s!].  In fact, over the years I’ve read it several times.

I love the writing of F.Scott Fitzgerald.  I even love ‘Tender Is The Night’, which I’ve heard described as ‘about nothing’.  I particularly love Fitzgerald’s long short story ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’, but I love ‘The Great Gatsby’ too.  More than the story itself, it’s Fitzgerald’s cool, pared-back style that grips me.  But his classic tale of glamour and greed, privilege and decadence in the jazz age is pretty gripping too - and as relevant now, I’d suggest, when divisions between rich and poor are growing, as they ever were.

Over the coming weeks I’m guessing that interest in Twenties clothing, especially those of wealthy, party-loving women, is going to be booming.  I was on St John’s Hill today, in the vintage clothes shop, E. A. Jones, looking at Emilia Jones’s collection of 1920s dresses, jackets and coats. Some items are for sale, but most of what I’d come to look at and photograph form her own private collection. 

And what fabulous stuff she collects.  Where to start sharing it with you? Certainly this beaded, flame-orange dress from the early ‘20s is an important one in Emilia’s collection.  It was one of her first pieces, bought at a Christie’s auction when she was only fourteen.  Young, you might think - but Emilia was a collector before that.

‘It was through my dolls that I first became interested in clothes,’ said Emilia.   ‘My first doll was brought for me when my brother was born. I was two and a half at the time and I grew to love the clothes, the dressing of dolls and exhibiting them. But I was never interested in playing.  It was always collecting that I wanted to do.’

Now Emilia’s collection of dolls extends from the eighteenth century onwards.  Most are British or German, some are tiny, others almost life sized.  Emilia also collects early clockwork toys, which she says drive her poodle crazy.  And then there are the clothes.  Emilia’s parents are collectors too, and at around the age of twelve, inspired by her mother’s collection of period costumes, Emilia moved into vintage clothing. 

The purchase of the orange dress was a defining moment, however. Emilia had never bid in a big sale before.  She left commission bids on everything she fancied, with no idea how successful she’d be, and waited to see what would happen next.  It was really exciting to learn from Christie’s that many of her bids had been successful, and even more exciting when her purchases started turning up in the post, all individually packaged, carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper. 

Emilia had bought a wide range of items from a variety of periods, and now found herself inspired to find out more about them and research the history of fashion. ‘But it was the orange flapper dress that turned me into a collector of 1920s clothing,’ she said. ‘The rest was interesting, but it was the 1920s I fell in love with.’ 

I looked around the shop, its rails hanging with dresses, skirts, blouses and coats, its walls with pretty frocks on hangers, its stands with jewellery and hats.  It was a perfect treasure trove.  I wanted to know how Emilia made her choices about what to buy.  Her shop was packed with not just clothing but pieces of period furniture and little knick-knacks, and downstairs I found a whole room full of vintage fabrics and another of men’s period coats and suits and assorted hats. ‘Of course I buy what I think Shrewsbury people will like,’ Emilia said, and I’ve been here long enough now to have an idea of what that might be.  But I’ll also try to buy things that are special, that belong to a particular moment in history like the 1780s dress I bought last week, and that lovely 1948-50 New Look coat on the rack over there.’  

All the while that she was talking, Emilia was taking dresses out of boxes, shaking them out of their tissue paper and hanging them up.  On one wall hung a shocking pink velvet coat [shocking pink as a colour was first named in the '20s by Elsa Schaperelli], lined with something soft and beige that looked remarkably like fur.  I had to try it on.  It felt like drowning in warm milk - a surprisingly agreeable experience. I thought it looked rather fetching as well, and imagined the stir it might cause if I turned up in Waitrose wearing it. Oh, for a bit of glamour in our lives!

Suddenly out of tissue paper emerged a beautiful black dress, as light and fine as gossamer, decorated with beads and tiny dots of silver. Its hemline was scalloped, beaded and embroidered and a sash hung down one side of it, creating an asymmetrical effect. Emilia said this dress would have come from the late 1920s. By that stage designers were getting away from the tape-chested androgynous look, waistlines were rising and the desired effect was becoming more feminine.

This dress was definitely feminine. Everything on it shimmered. I’ve seen butterflies in the jungle, and I’m telling you they didn’t shimmer more.  But then everything about the 1920s, apparently, always had to have a shine on it.   We moved on to a black flapper dress which was absolutely smothered in beads, its skirt made of rows of shiny silk tassles under which could be seen a flash of red silk.  Emilia dated it  around 1925.  The beaded orange dress was 1922, she reckoned, when the whole flapper thing was really kicking off.  Then there was a light, white, sleeveless dress beaded with silver, which she dated around1926. Then, draped over a dummy was a black long-fringed shawl covered in snow-white silk embroidery that shone like moonlight on a midnight lake.

On and on the items came - a velvet evening coat decorated with tiny flowers, which had been sold at auction as a 1970s coat, which Emilia said was a common mistake; a black velvet jacket with a quilted stand-up collar; a lilac and primrose frilled and layered fancy dress, trimmed with a hint of yellow down; a heavy black cloak literally smothered in the most intricate silver embroidery.  Talk about shimmering – it was hard to believe this piece wasn’t being exhibited in the V & A.

To begin with, E. A. Jones was very much a retro shop, selling to a young audience at the less expensive end of the market. Surprisingly, Emilia found that 1920s clothes didn’t prove as popular as Victorian or 30s and 40s items.  My guess is that after a few weeks of The Great Gatsby, this will change. By now, however, Emilia has developed a reputation for high quality garments with the sort of detailing and finishes that make them of value to collector, or to re-enactment enthusiasts.

There were a lot of these around, apparently.  Emilia said that frequently she attended events that might be anything from tea dances to weekend-long military re-enactments. One of these was coming up at Berrington Hall in June.  Last time Emilia was there, she said the front lawn was full of military vehicles, including a tank, and there was a fly-past of Hurricanes. ‘People come to these events dressed in the clothes of the day,’ Emilia said, ‘and they’re looking to buy more of the same.’

By the time The Great Gatsby has run its course, I’m guessing there will be ‘20s re-enactments too.  It was such an interesting time, Emilia said.  Certainly a time of dramatic change when it came to clothes. In a short space of time, hemlines shot up, arms and legs appeared and everybody wanted shiny, shiny clothes.  ‘Lots of glass, beads, sequins and metallic thread, ‘ Emilia said, bringing out a series of head dresses beaded in silver and bright colours and crocheted in gold.  ‘The flapper dress is very much a 1920s stereotype. It’s important to realize that not everybody dressed like that.  The whole flapper phenomenon was more of a showgirl thing. Amongst the wealthy, even in terms of evening attire, not everybody went for the full flapper look.  Clothes were being designed that were more beautiful and imaginative than flapper dresses. Some of the items here – the black evening dress with the scalloped edge, for example - aren’t what you’d call typical flapper dresses. But they are very much of the period.’

Today Emilia’s shop is a riot of periods. Rifling along the rails, I found Victorian lace nightdresses, satin 1930s knickers, a World War II ‘utility’ coat of a quality you’d never get today and a lovely lavender coloured 1930s evening dress. Emilia told me it was Madelaine Vionnet who first introduced this style of slinky, bias-cut evening-wear.  Plainly she knows her history of fashion. I loved the fact that all her clothes were labeled with where they’d come from, and when, and as much of their background as Emilia knew.

Emilia talked about how hard it was buying 1920s daywear.  She was always on the look-out for Chanel-inspired knitwear – sports suits, knitted skirts and jackets, and trousers for women. Behind her, as she said this, stood a massive wedding dress that was the polar opposite of Chanel.  It was a typical ‘Four Weddings & A Funeral’ meringue – a mass of swirling silk, net and God alone knows what else exploding outwards from a tiny waist. ‘Size 8, and taken in because, incredibly, it was too big,’ Emilia said.  ‘I didn’t know where else to put it but there in the window. Anywhere else, and it would fill the shop.’

Where did Emilia buy from, I wanted to know. She said some of her clothes came from France, others from the US.  American clothes were expensive, she said, because of customs charges. But there was a real difference between them and British clothes.   A 1940s American blouse would be more extrovert than a 1940s British one.  ‘The US one would be more confident,’ Emilia said, holding up an example to show me.  ‘The British one would be more demure.  The war hadn’t bitten so deeply over there, and it showed in the clothes.’  


There was a vast market in the US, Emilia said.  Vintage clothes that were hard to find here were readily available in the US, and the interest was huge. Many of Emilia’s clothes were bought online nowadays, rather than at auction.  She’d got to know a variety of sellers, not just in the US but around the world and in this country too. She knew what to expect from each of them, who to get in touch with if looking for something in particular. At the same time, she was working towards getting a name for herself as someone who sold exquisite, interesting things.

If you want to look at Emilia’s exquisite, interesting things, take a peek at her Facebook page, or better still visit her shop, E.A. Jones, on St John’s Hill.  Another way to find her is at some of the major antiques fairs.  Emilia was at one of the biggest, Antiques for Everyone at the NEC, back in April, and she’ll be there again in July.  Did she ever exhbit her collection, I wanted to know.  Emilia said she didn’t, but she did give talks.  The history of fashion up to the 1950s was her subject.  I bet she gives a fascinating talk. I’m sure she’d take bookings if you wanted to ask.

It’s time to pay up and leave. Not content with rifling along rails and chatting to Emilia over a cup of coffee, I’ve also been buying – a couple of small items that [just in case you get one for Christmas] I won’t describe here; also a green velvet Canadian coat that will be finish off my outfit for a friend’s wedding later this year. Given how much I love clothes, it’s amazing that this is the first post I’ve written on the subject for My Tonight From Shrewsbury. H & M, eat your heart out.  And French Connection, Fat Face and M & S too. Emilia’s shop, E. A. Jones, is to clothes what Shrewsbury Market is to fish, fresh meat, fruit and veg. In other words, this is the real deal - and I’ll be back. Oh, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’ve just started re-reading ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’.

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