Fans of fashion rejoice: There’s a new fashion-focused exhibit at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
Called “Fashionable Frocks of the 1920s,” it will especially appeal to those missing (or rewatching) “Downton Abbey.” Curated by Diane Shewchuk, it shines a light on what Albany women wore during that era and dives into the Institute’s impressive fashion collection. The 20-plus dresses included in the exhibit sparkle and shine amidst illustrated backdrops and cutout models, the latter appropriately taken from 1920s fashion plates.
When many hear “1920s fashion” their minds immediately go to the rebellious flappers, who wore dresses with hemlines above their knees and bobbed hair. However, as the exhibition highlights, women wore styles that went well beyond that aesthetic.
Many dressed in silhouettes and styles akin to those seen on “Downton Abbey.” The popular historical drama was part of the reason Shewchuk wanted to feature the exhibit this year, coupled with the fact that it’s been nearly a century since the featured dresses were created.
“I felt like we have the real things so why not show the real things? And it’s so rare for us to be able to show the real things because it takes a lot of work to get them on the mannequins and to repair the beading,” Shewchuk said on a recent tour of the exhibit.
This exhibit in particular required extensive research and repairs. The hemlines changed quite a bit during the decade; starting at the ankles, then going up and back down again by the end. To make sure that she got the height of the mannequins correct, Shewchuk looked into the passport records of the women who owned these dresses, many of which she was able to find, including the wedding dress of Josephine Dean Cameron (1895-1974).
The petite bride came in at 5 foot 1 and the height of the mannequin the dress is featured on reflects that, situating the dress’s hemline right where it would have rested on Cameron, just below the knees. The intricate wedding dress, with its hand-stitched lace inserts and scalloped picot edges, was designed by Albany-based designer Leta Turner, one of the few local designs included in the show.
Not too far away is another wedding dress, this one worn by Theresa Agostino (1910-1936). The short-sleeved gown has two rows of glass bead fringe, along with glass beading on the bodice, creating a necklace with diamond-shaped pendants on the front and back of the dress. A long train is shown unfurled around the front of the dress and a headpiece sits atop the mannequin; echoing a photo from Agostino’s wedding day which is on view near the dress. To get that train just right, Shewchuk and a team of volunteers had to carefully steam it and replace the tulle which was rotted out in the center.
Other dresses required simpler repairs and because of how delicate some of the beadwork and materials are, the process was time-consuming. However, it all seems to have paid off.
Among the stunning dresses is a sleeveless pastel green frock, with intricate silver beadwork featured throughout, making the dress shimmer in the exhibit lights. Dated from the mid to late 1920, it was most likely worn to a chic supper club or dance.
Nearby is a subtly impressive frock, with an outer layer made of black fringe and a layer of sheer organza and opaque satin beneath. It would have been ideal for dancing, making the fringe fly to the steps of the Charleston.
A delicate black lace dress, with a vibrant pink slip underneath, is featured not too far away. While the slip is modern, in the 1920s, the wearer could have purchased a costume slip from Montgomery Ward, a national retailer that had a location in Menands. The slips were used to alter the look of a dress, swapping out a purple slip for a green, among other shades.
Montgomery Ward catalogs are also featured in the exhibit, highlighting the fact that women living in upstate New York could order stylish readymade garments during the 1920s. They could also have a custom dress made by a local dressmaker or design one themselves, perhaps inspired by fashion-forward publications like Vogue and Tres Parisien.
As noted in the exhibit’s opening label copy, French stylist and fashion authority Marceline D’Alroy visited Albany in 1925 and just before she arrived said “I have heard women in Albany are as smart, as up-to-date, as keen about styles and fashion as the women of New York City.”
This exhibit certainly proves that point. Beyond the dresses, there are beaded bags, brocade shoes and fans. There’s also a section dedicated to the delicate and laborious process of hand-beading, which nearly every dress in the exhibit features. Partnered with a frock featuring incredibly precise beading and sequin work is a case about tambour beading, which is still used today, though mainly by haute couture houses.
“Fashionable Frocks of the 1920s” is every bit what the title promises, with bonus catalogs and accessories added for good measure. It’s slated to run through January 2. For more information visit albanyinstitute.org.