When Perry Ellis’ lanky models took their first strides down the runway last fall, clad in their new spring best, the fashion groupies crowding the New York showroom breathed a collective gasp. To the strains of the Vangelis sound track for Chariots of Fire, the models paraded in the longest and leanest skirts, sweaters and jackets shown on Seventh Avenue that season. Almost every other designer had celebrated the flirtatious, knee-baring skirt—but Ellis, long a mini devotee, had revived the slinky silhouette of the Roaring ’20s. Close-fitting hats, argyle socks, saddle shoes and croquet mallets compounded the sense of déjà vu. That was only the beginning. By summer women had taken Ellis’ clothes from store racks to the streets, and other designers were busily exploiting the ’20s mood. With that, the unabashedly elegant era of -
Chariots of Fire, Reds and Brideshead Revisited was reborn.
Ever the innovator,
Ellis firmly denies any inspiration from the past: “It’s just one of those things that happened, a coincidence.’’
And, for their part, -
neither such moneyed blue bloods as Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte nor high-minded athletes such as Chariots’ Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams would have deigned to view themselves as fashion trend setters. Yet those well-bred, impeccably dressed young men and the lean-hipped women they squired have pointed the way toward the most pervasive direction in fashion this year.
That fashion mirrors film should come as no surprise. Just a few seasons ago, Annie Hall sent legions of young women scouting for baggy Little Tramp pants and string ties. Rarely, however, has the impact of the screen been so striking. It shows up this summer in boyishly feminine, dropped-torso dresses such as the ones worn by Sebastian Flyte’s sister Julia (many even have hip wraps). The period theme continues in drapey blouson jackets and a multitude of white nautical blouses, skirts and pants. With the fall season, nostalgia will loom even larger as pretty flapper outfits give way to classic English tweeds in the Brideshead tradition and Chariots-inspired Cambridge gear.
Abrahams’ Fair Isle sweaters and bow ties sent both menswear and womenswear designers scurrying for their sketch pads. So, clearly, did the navy blazers, white cricket sweaters and straw boaters of his Cambridge classmates, not to mention the lapelled vests and tweedy jackets of his archrival, Liddell. Also noted were Sebastian Flyte’s white flannel
Nostalgia looms large as ïïapper dresses hit the streets and classic tweeds make an appearance in stores
Oxford bags, rakishly belted with a school tie. Almost always it is the period’s menswear that has caught designers’ eyes. Women will find store racks swelling with clothes that exude the aplomb of the Roaring ’20s dandy.
Indeed, few eras can match the reckless verve of the Jazz Age. As an anthem of the period put it:
There ’s nothing surer /The rich get rich and the poor get poorer /In the meantime, in between time /Ain't we got fun.
Those were the years when raccoon-coated students toting hip flasks dashed from party to party in their roadsters; when socialites flocked to Harlem to dance the black bottom. Forward-looking women bobbed their hair, shucked their corsets, and hiked their skirts. Independence, like the quest for good times, was in fashion.
Still, despite those thoroughly modern ideals, it was the moneyed aristocrats who set the prevailing style—a style as haute as it was lavish. Muses American designer Bill Blass, whose fall collection includes blouson jackets and blouses topping slim skirts, as well as Lady Marchmain steamer coats: “There was a more gentle way of life that’s very appealing right now.” At Clotheslines, Canadian designer Bernard McGee concurs. And he adds: “There’s an appreciation for the quality associated with that time. People are investing in classic, good pieces, both in their clothing and in the decor of their homes.”
Twenties fever has so far proven a uniquely North American phenomenon. But if Europe has given it barely a nod, several U.S. luminaries made it the focal point of their fall collections shown recently in New York. Ralph Lauren paired Norfolk tweed jackets with slim skirts. Meanwhile, at Anne Klein, designers Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio virtually enrolled at Cambridge: their collection features navy-and-burgundy-striped bathrobe coats and sleek navy cardigans with school insignia on the breast pockets. Quick to cash in on the trend, moderate-priced sportswear companies have turned to the ’20s with such enthusiasm that some fashion insiders blanch at the mere mention of the period. Complains Lauren, who has always favored the ’20s style: “When everyone jumps on a look, they kill it.”
Canadian retailers have no such worries. Enthuses Elizabeth Storms, fashion promotions manager at the Bay: “The look is comfortable; it’s functional and it’s versatile. It can be worn dressed up or down.” Le Château recently filled its Toronto windows with mannequins sporting hip-banded sundresses and Pola Negri head wraps, while at Eaton’s sales of Perry Ellis’ spring collection
topped last year’s figures despite higher prices. Nostalgia means business for Canadian designers, too. When Lipton’s Toronto store featured Debora Kuchmé’s white linen flapper dresses in its windows, the 27-year-old immediately sold out her entire production of 2,000 items.
In New York City, executives at the influential Bloomingdale’s department store opened a Brideshead boutique to entice youthful browsers. The enclave of ’20s trappings is garnering sales 18per-cent higher than the predecessor that occupied the same spot last year. Small wonder that Eaton’s, Simpsons, the Bay and Holt Renfrew are thinking of following suit. At Bloomingdale’s, however, nostalgia reached such a pitch that Lord Snowdon was flown to New York to photograph Chariots star Ben Cross in clothes fit for the dapper Abra-
hams. The resulting promotional campaign drew an “outstanding” response, reports the store’s vice-president of fashion, Kal Ruttenstein. “In a time of difficult business,” he says, “it’s often good to promote the romance of another era.” The most obvious result of this fascination with the ’20s is the return of the straight silhouette. Gone are the multilayered, voluminous clothes of last fall, which, by and large, languished in the stores. “People are tired of layers of bulk. They want to tear down and simplify,” explains Etta Froio, senior fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily, the opinion-shaping fashion trade newspaper. “It was a natural step for designers to go for leaner clothes.”
But what began in designer showrooms has arrived on the street, and some die-hard fashion trend watchers are seeking more than the slim line. They are ransacking the vintage clothing shops of Toronto’s Queen Street and Montreal’s Prince Arthur Street for authentic ’20s finery. Unlike the bowling shirts of the ’50s and the rigid Day-Glo minis of the ’60s, however, such finds do not come cheaply. Genuine flapper dresses, a rare commodity, command more than $300, says Andrew Deacon, owner of Toronto’s Mood Indigo Nostalgia store. Deacon should know—he recently sold two black hand-beaded sheaths for $650 apiece.
Undaunted, young experimenters are bringing their own eclectic interpretations to the ’20s look. On Montreal’s Crescent and Prince Arthur streets, oversized Sebastian Flyte topcoats have turned up on both sexes, reports Iona Monahan, fashion editor of the Montreal Gazette. “Young people here pick up on any flash date, but they do it in such a personal way,” she says. In Toronto the
mini brigade evokes the heyday of the § Charleston, with long T-shirts or g skinny cardigans pulled down over short pleated skirts. Their escorts, with slicked-down, front-parted hair, don tuxedo or wing-collared shirts and ; white waistcoats. In New York’s artsy SoHo, straw boaters occasionally bob along the streets, and T-strap shoes like £ Zelda Fitzgerald’s stroll from gallery to 1 gallery.
It remains to be seen just how serig ously more cautious Canadian women . will take designers’ current fascination. “Most people will just go on wearing their polyester georgettes,” asserts Toronto Star fashion writer Jane Hess. Adds The Vancouver Sun’s Nancy Knickerbocker, herself an enthusiast: “I think women will just buy one or two of | the pieces, like a long sweater or a blazI er.” Champions of the Jazz Age style hasten to respond that these clothes are made to be worn to the office, not just to costume parties. Stripped of the period accoutrements that appear on fashion runways—brow-hugging cloche hats, cascading pearls—they could well appeal to the shopper who simply wants -comfortable clothes to wear.
For some converts, however, fantasy | is the whole point. And there is no stronger testament to its appeal than the current flurry of ’20s parties. At one such affair in Toronto recently, guests 1 donned pearls and skinny black dresses to sip tea and eat watercress sandwiches. The event proved so successful that one of the hostesses, interior designer Maureen Milne, is planning a second party for the fall. “The boys will hold a race, and the girls will sit in antique cars and sip champagne,” she says. “Then we’ll hold a croquet match and have afternoon tea.” Even Sebastian Flyte would approve.
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