’30s fashion expo on the birth of glamour


A new exhibition in Brussels looks back at a decade when the influence of the silver screen was felt on high street

Elegance and sophistication

Gowns were long, black became fashionable, and ladies of all social classes longed to be glamorous. The 1930s changed women’s fashion quite remarkably, and it’s the subject of Glamour: 30s Fashion now on at the Brussels Museum of Costume and Lace.

“The exhibition starts with two contrasting silhouettes, one from the 1920s and one from the ’30s,” says the museum’s director Caroline Esgain “While the dress from the ’20s is short with a low waistline, the ’30s dress is floor-length and has a high waist.”

More than 50 outfits showcase the trends from 1930 to 1939, an era of elegance, which found its way into all levels of society. “Movies became popular in that decade, with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo,” Esgain explains. “For the first time, women of all social layers wanted to look as sophisticated as the actresses on screen.”

To create those long dresses with a high waistline, fabric was often cut on the bias to maximise its stretchy capacity. “As a result, these dresses really showed off a woman’s figure, which made wearing a girdle a necessity,” Esgain says. “The exhibition features a lovely dress from 1939 by Madeline Vionnet, a French designer who mastered the bias cut. And next to it we show a rather uncomfortable looking girdle.”

Changing society

The long dresses in Glamour are by designers such as Chanel (pictured), Lanvin and the third generation of Charles Frederick Worth, the inventor of haute couture. They come in all colours, from intense purple to bright gold, deep brown to sparkling silver and, for the first time, black. “Coco Chanel designed some black dresses in 1926, which was quite revolutionary. Before that, the colour was only worn for mourning,” explains Esgain. “In the 1930s, black became a lot more common.”

These dresses really showed off a woman’s figure, which made a girdle a necessity

- Caroline Esgain

But it wasn’t all glamour, of course; the 1930s are marked by crisis and unemployment. “Work hours were cut, and many people were on the dole,” says Esgain. But for those who were working, a fixed amount of holidays was awarded, and “families also had more time off than before; that’s how casual dresses came into fashion as well, often made from less luxurious fabrics such as linen.”

The exhibition also features 10 children’s outfits: Girls’ dresses and boys’ suits. “Children visiting the exhibition will get the chance to dress up in ’30s-style clothes as well.” There is no menswear on display, as the male suit didn’t change drastically during the decade.

Visitors will also see some old pictures of Brussels. “We’ve worked with the Brussels archive and found pictures of a garden party at the Chalet Robinson in Terkameren Bos, people gathering in front of the Cinéma Métropole in Nieuwstraat and a workers’ demonstration in the streets of Brussels, during the crisis,” Esgain says.

The catalogue for the exhibition is in Dutch, French and English.

Until 1 February 2015
Museum of Costume and Lace
Violetstraat 12, Brussels

About the museum

The Brussels Museum of Costume and Lace opened in 1977. “The idea was to showcase the lacework from the archives of the city of Brussels,” Esgain says. “Lace was often a part of costumes, and that’s how the museum got its name.”

Throughout the years, the collection grew to about 200 outfits and thousands of objects, ranging from buttons to gloves, shoes to hats.

“We buy some of the items at auctions or from antiquarians. Some were donated to us,” Esgain says. “The oldest piece in the collection is lacework dating to the 17th century. The most recent is a 1930s-style dress made especially by Brussels designer Nicolas Woit for the Glamour exhibition. For every exhibition, we commission a garment from a designer, to expand our collection with something contemporary.”

Lace and textile are delicate, which means they can’t be put on display permanently. “Our collection is showcased through temporary and thematic exhibitions,” Esgain explains. “We carefully regulate light and humidity levels so as to not damage the fabric of the garments too much. We restore where possible, but some outfits will eventually be too distressed to be shown again.”

Previous exhibitions at the museum include last year’s fashion of the 1970s and, in 2010, the institution’s most popular one ever, fashion of the 1960s.