Museum of Vancouver's Art Deco Chic is guaranteed to make your heart thump
Do the beaded works on Boardwalk Empire make you drool? Do you secretly wish The Artist was shot in colour, so you could see the full splendour of those amazing dresses? Did you pay just as much attention to Marion Cotillard’s wardrobe as you did to the plot when you watched Midnight in Paris? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you should get your cloche-loving ass down to the Museum of Vancouver for its latest, and possibly greatest, clothing exhibition, Art Deco Chic: Extravagant glamour between the wars.
Cocurators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke have decked out dozens of figures in some of the most stunning women’s fashions from the 1920s and 1930s. With the exception of four pieces that belong to MOV and a couple that were given by private donors, everything on display comes from Sayers and Jahnke’s private collections—collections that have been lifetime obsessions for both men since they were teenagers growing up in the Okanagan.
“I had my first museum set up in a garage when I was 13,” says Sayers, who recently gave the Straight a sneak-peek tour of the exhibition—which runs from Thursday (March 8) to September 23. “I was always interested in history. But I started to collect clothing because no one was interested in it, so it was a way for me to deal with history in a way that didn’t compete with anyone else.”
Jahnke, on the other hand, didn’t show his first collection till the ripe old age of 16. Like Sayers, he was drawn to the historical significance of all types of vintage clothing. However, he was forced to tweak his niche once he met Sayers.
“I realized that he had this enormous collection,” recalls Jahnke. “So I thought in order to not compete with him, I would have to collect something completely obscure, so I started collecting just fashionable clothing from Germany and Austria.”
Thus the tangerine suit on display at MOV. This silk-crepe slim skirt and matching knee-length jacket with art deco–floral detailing belonged to an American woman studying astronomy in Vienna. She wore it on the day she met Albert Einstein in 1936.
As for other highlights in this exhibition, there are too many to list all of them. But here are a few that left me gobsmacked. There’s the black-lace drop-waist dress with the rhinestone–bow tie belt from the early ’20s, the yellow-silk chiffon dress with repeated geometric forms made from opalescent white crystals and bugle beads from the late ’20s, and the sky-blue sequined jacket and dress suit from the early ’30s—very Jean Harlow.
As if those weren’t enough, at one moment during the tour, Sayers points to an enclosed glass case and says the magic words. “This is the Chanel.”
Heart be still. It’s a 1928 silk-crepe little black dress that appeared in British and German Vogue in 1928. In another enclosed glass case is the black and shocking-pink Elsa Schiaparelli wool-crepe coat from the late ’30s. The brass buttons were designed by Salvador Dalí and made to look like little Aladdin lamps. Each of the six gold-embroidered pockets resembles porcelain urns.
“This is surrealism—it’s a joke,” explains Sayers. “Schiaparelli was the great prankster in haute couture in the ’30s, even in the ’20s for that matter, and her work is among the most collectable in the world nowadays.”
So how far will these men go to get their hands on pieces like that?
“Prostitution knows many forms,” jokes Sayers, who recalls stalking one particular item for 11 years. His Summerland high-school drama teacher tipped him off to a lady living in Penticton who owned an underutilized sequined cape.
“She bought it in Paris in ’24 to wear to her 21st birthday party at the Savoy Hotel in London, so you can understand why I coveted it,” says Sayers, who was denied on that first meeting. “So when I moved down from the Okanagan, I would phone her about once every six months to beg her to sell it to me.”
She never did.
“I had to wait till she died,” admits Sayers. “And there’s more convoluted plotting and planning than you’d ever want to know.”
Now the scalloped black, blue, and purple peacock sequined cape is his, and you can check it out as part of this awe-inspiring exhibition. Be warned, though, Sayers and Jahnke have ulterior motives for sharing their insanely beautiful art collection with the public. No, not money. (Admission is $12 for adults.)
“We’re hoping that this exhibition will inspire Vancouverites to get more dressed up,” kids Jahnke, before adding, “so that we lose the status of the third-worst-dressed city!”