Ventfort Hall Tea & Talk: How fashion reflects social changes

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LENOX — It's said that hemlines and heel heights are indicative of global economic health.

In the 1920s, hemlines were raised as the economy soared and women showed off their silk stockings. But when the stock market crashed, hemlines plummeted too, hiding legs of women who could no longer afford stockings. The opposite is true of heels, which creep higher and higher in height during a financial downturn.

"The first thing I like to tell people is that fashions change during great economic, social and/or political upheaval. That's when you often start seeing a dramatic change in the way people dress," said Susan Jerome, collections manager of the University of Rhode Island's Textile and Costume Collection, during a recent interview.

Jerome will speak about fashions worn during the time period of the popular television series "Downton Abbey," as part of her visual presentation and lecture, "Downton Abbey Style: The Influences on Fashion, 1912 - 1925," 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum.

"It's a very interesting time period because of so many issues," she said. "From 1912 to 1925, you not only have World War I, but you have women both in England and in the United States being able to vote and, that, really is indicative of a lot of social changes taking place at that time. You see it reflected in women's fashions, particularly from 1912 to the mid-1920s."

Also impacting a change in fashion in the early 20th century was the death of Queen Victoria and the beginning of her son King Edward's reign, which ended a period of societal restraint.

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"He really reflects a loosening of social constraints that you see in clothing," she said. "You can see that people, through fashion, are experimenting with different looks."

And more changes came with World War I, which saw more women, especially in England, taking over jobs traditionally held by men.

"That leads to changes in the way society looks at women; women being able to vote and such," Jerome said. "The 1920s is a really interesting time period, because it's a great time of change in the United States, as more people start to live in cities than in the country. We begin to become an urban country, not an agricultural and rural country."

At the same time, women's clothing changed dramatically when a certain garment — the corset — went out of fashion. Without the corset pushing and prodding women into sculpted forms, designers were faced with the challenge of making clothes for the female form, resulting in both the invention of the brassiere and the drop waist dress.

"Suddenly, the shape you wanted to have was quite up and down, almost as if female form was almost hidden. You see that not only in the flapper dresses, which almost seem to not have a waist, but also in the rise of the ability to make knit garments. We also see the arrival of the skirt," Jerome said.

And with the rise of the middle class and an increase in leisure time, she said, the industry began producing both casual clothing and sportswear.

The talk will also touch on changes in men's fashion and discuss the influences of designers Paul Poiret and Lucile (Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon) and couture fashion house Redfern.


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