Oh, what a relief it must have been for women to ditch the corsets, voluminous dresses and mountains of hair typical of the late Victorian era for the freewheeling fashions of the Roaring '20s.
Think about it. Gone were the miserable corsets used to lace up women into an hourglass shape, whether they had one or not. Hemlines went up, up, up, and so did the hair, cut into fashionable bobs. Really daring women rolled down their stockings and (gasp!) showed their knees.
The University of Saint Francis opens an exhibition Saturday with 32 stunning Art Deco dresses representative of the 1920s and '30s. “Fashionable Art: Apparel from the 1920s and 1930s” is just a portion of local collector Don Orban's dresses from that era.
Orban, who is Fort Wayne's historic preservation planner, initially had no interest in fashion, but having studied architecture, he did like the Art Deco buildings from the '20s and '30s. And he used to buy vintage clothing for himself.
Coincidentally, he had a friend who collected mannequins and who brought one over to Orban's home one day, insisting he needed one in his house. Of course, once he had a mannequin, he had to dress her. The seeds of a collection were planted.
Orban combs flea markets, antique shops and websites for vintage dresses. He estimates he has about 130 pieces from the '20s and '30s, as well as some from the '60s. He keeps them stored in archival boxes, except for the one that hangs on the mannequin at home.
“I view them as artwork,” he said.
With their intricate beadwork — which Orban sometimes has to repair — they are works of art and examples of fine craftsmanship, but the dresses are also impressive for their historical significance.
As an art historian, Elizabeth Kuebler-Wolf, assistant professor of art at Saint Francis, researches how art and history relate. She explained why women's fashion changed so radically in the early '20s:
World War I had just ended, Prohibition was over and women had just recently earned the right to vote.
Women went from wearing corsets that emphasized the hourglass figure to undergarments that worked to conceal curves. Dresses particularly in the '20s had straight silhouettes and short, kicky skirts for dancing. The dresses were often low cut, made out of thin material and “much more provocative than you might think,” Kuebler-Wolf said. “They were designed for movement.”
The dresses reflected a devil-may-care attitude, she said. “People were, of course, shocked,” she said. The dresses “seemed to be so blatantly flaunting sexuality.”
By the '30s, fashion had changed, and dresses again began to emphasize the curves of the female body.
Amassing the collection has led Orban to a greater understanding of people from that era.
“I do a lot of architectural tours,” he said. Learning about the fashions of the '20s and '30s has helped him fill in details of what people were like during that time period.