The Great Gatsby: Clothes so beautiful they can never be worn

The release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is bound to spark a revival of 1920s fashion. Beaded flapper dresses haven’t yet been revived on my local high street – there are some Modernist dropped waists and a few fringes, but nothing to compete with the opulence of Luhrman’s film. Nevertheless, there is enough interest in the film’s costume design that the influence is bound to spread.

Costumes for The Great Gatsby were designed by Miuccia Prada and Catherine Martin. 1920s 'bling' plays a key part in Luhrmann's visual spectacle.

Costumes for The Great Gatsby were designed by Miuccia Prada and Catherine Martin. 1920s ‘bling’ plays a key part in establishing the tone of Luhrmann’s visual spectacle.

Curiously, much of this interest seems to come from those who want to admire these dresses from a distance, rather than wear them. Luhrman’s lavish party scenes are spectacular, featuring costumes in the style of Jazz era designers such as Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli. With their extravagant beading and shimmering colours, they are a visual spectacle. Unfortunately they are also remarkably delicate. The thousands of beads and sequins that adorn these dresses are not at home in a recession-proof wardrobe. We can adore these clothes from afar, and enjoy how they sparkle in the artificial lighting of a film-set, but would we ever really want to wear a tasselled cloche?

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Much of the online discussion that celebrates Gatsby style has focused on originals rather than on revival. Vintage clothing dealer Leslie Verrinder has taken the opportunity to advise audiences on purchasing 1920s partywear. Verrinder stresses that a 1920s dress is a wise investment, likely to increase in value if it is undamaged and unrepaired [1]. His advice seems to indicate that fans of the film might consider these costumes as a nest-egg: something to display and preserve; not something to wear.

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1920s party dresses by Paul Poiret and others. With their delicate beading, these are too fragile to be worn as vintage clothing, and instead have value as collectors items.

With their delicate beading, 1920s dresses by designers including Paul Poiret, are too fragile to be worn as vintage clothing. Instead they have value as collectors items.

In a previous post, I rallied against the notion that the dress “cannot be understood without reference to the body” [2]. Numerous texts have argues than a garment “exists only when it is in the process of being worn”. Alison bancroft goes so far as to say that clothes that are not worn have a “sinister otherworldliness”[3].  If this is true, what drives the desire to own an original piece that can never be worn?

There are financial incentives: a Poiret dress can fetch about £2000 at auction [4]. For most investors, however, it is akin to buying a piece of fine art. These dresses are not, and never were, primarily functional items. Despite being created in the era of Modernist fashion, when women were being liberated from the Victorian silhouette, these party dresses are all about ‘bling’*. The superfluous ornamentation is just as effective on a flat surface as a curved body. Indeed, many of these garments would sparkle more brightly in a display case than in a darkened ballroom.

Ornamentation exists only on the surface. Its superficial beauty is what has made it so controversial in design history. It has been variously seen as “a waste of manpower, materials, and capital” and “dishonest” in the way it apparently conceals that true nature of the object beneath [5]. This superficiality – that prioritizes style over substance – makes a garment ideal for collectors’ displays. In a cabinet, one can closely inspect the fine detail of the embroidery in a way that would not be possible in another context. The exquisite detail in these costumes can only be truly appreciated when we present them as art objects, and invite people to take a closer look.

Detail of vintage beading. When the dress is laid out for display like this, it is possible to examine and appreciate the craftsmanship. The beauty of the surface decoration makes 1920s dresses appealing collectors items, even for those who never intend to wear them.

Detail of vintage beading. When the dress is laid out for display like this, it is possible to examine and appreciate the craftsmanship. The beauty of the surface decoration makes 1920s dresses appealing collectors items, even for those who never intend to wear them.

[* Note: In contrast to the contemporaneous designs of Coco Chanel, which prioritized form over ornamentation. Chanel’s designs were functional, not decorative. Poiret and others used a similarly free silhouette to Chanel, but targeted a wealthier audience whose lifestyles demanded more extravagantly decorated clothes.]

[1] ‘Great Gatsby remake inspires 1920s fashion revival’, The Telegraph [online] , 24 April 2013,
[2] Enwtistle, Joanne, and Wissinger, Elizabeth (2006) ‘Keeping Up Appearances: aesthetic labour in the fashion modeling industries of London and New York’, The Sociological Review 54 (4), pp. 774-794.
[3] Bancroft, Alison, Fashion and Psychoanalysis, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 2.
[5] Twemlow, Alice (2005) ‘The Decriminalisation of Ornament ‘, Eye 58 (Winter 2005) (visited 24/10/2010)

See also:
‘11 Fresh, Modern Ways to Channel The Great Gatsby’,
and for those of you who would rather ogle at the Gatsby menswear:
‘Go Behind the Scenes of The Great Gatsby Style with Brooks Brothers’,

Great Gatsby stills: and
Vogue Gatsby photoshoot:
Vintage 1920s dresses by Poiret and others: and and
Close-up of beading:

Context is Everything: The meaning of lace

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It is the case with many artefacts that context creates meaning. A urinal in a bathroom is a utilitarian object, but displayed in a gallery and re-titled it ‘the fountain’, it becomes art. Lace is similarly affected by context. Even colour, which can have such fixed meanings in fashion, can be read differently in lace garments. Traditional colour meanings are over-ruled by context. White lace can be virginal in a bridal veil, but trashy in a peep-hole teddy. Lace has surprisingly little inherent meaning, as it varies so much depending on when, where and how it is used. In an Ann Summers lace body, lace is risqué; in Valentino’s S/S 2013 Couture collection, it is demure.

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Two properties have given lace its special status. Firstly, its complexity makes it difficult to manufacture. Historically, it was made by hand, using a laborious process that required time and skill. This made such an extravagance that for many centuries it was a privilege of the aristocracy. In the Baroque era, lace was so prized that it was worn in equivalent contexts to gold and jewels. Cuffs and collars of lace were as much signifiers of wealth as bracelets and necklaces. It is this history that Valentino or Ellie Saab have in mind when they send a model down the catwalk draped head-to-toe in fine lace and tulle.

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Lace’s second distinct feature is its ability to conceal and reveal simultaneously.  Lace is an ‘openwork’ fabric, meaning that it features open spaces. Through these spaces are revealed whatever is underneath: sometimes another layer of fabric; sometimes bare flesh. Lace is able to cover the entire body, while simultaneously revealing everything. This intermediate state between clothedness and nakedness is, argues Mario Perniola, more erotic than nudity. Any garment that suggests the “transit” from dressed to undressed is the clothing equivalent to a striptease [1]. It anticipates nudity, offering an illicit peek at the bounty hidden beneath.

By concealing and revealing in equal parts, lace is much like a glass half-full or half-empty. It down to the user to select his or her interpretation. The designer or the wearer can use lace for modest or immodest purposes. We may consider lace to be erotic in a bra and thong, but an identical lace can appear modest in a funeral veil. Here, the distinction is made between concealing and revealing the body. Lace lingerie covers parts of the body that are normally hidden: its purpose is to reveal. By contrast, a lace veil covers a part of the body that is normally on show: its purpose is to conceal.

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[1] Perniola, Mario (1989) ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, as cited in Barcan, Ruth (2009) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (visited 03/02/2011)

Black dress, Valentino S/S 2013:
White dress, Ellie Saab, S/S 2013:
Portrait of Anne of Austria (c. 1625):
Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1620):
Funeral veil: and
Maison Michel lace headpieces:
Anne Summers lace teddy:—black/1111614818.prd
Lise Charmel black lace lingerie ensemble: