While Baz Luhrmann’s film interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” received lukewarm reviews by critics, the film was praised for the authenticity of its 1920s costumes, even winning the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for designer Catherine Martin.
The costumes were so beloved that the film has since inspired many Gatsby Halloween costumes and theme parties. However, not everyone has such a stellar opinion of the film’s costume design.
Christina Johnson, associate curator of Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum (FIDM), presented an overview of jazz-age fashions on Tuesday evening at the Pasadena Museum of History.
Johnson’s presentation briefly critiqued the film’s costumes as not being authentic to the times.
“Baz Lurhmann’s conception of the Great Gatsby is actually years later than the novels time setting so the dresses in the film don’t really match up with what was worn in 1922,” she said. “For the most part the dresses are all too short, and I think this is mostly due to the fact that shorter is sexier in todays world.”
There was a full house for Johnson’s lecture series composed almost completely of the over-50 crowd, many who were there for an evening of reliving their history.
Pasadena resident Bruce Walker wondered if women wanting to get rid of their uncomfortable Victorian type clothing was the reason for the transition to the flapper-type clothing.
“Back in the 1920s it’s actually true that the women who dressed as flappers were considered to be loose women, especially in Pasadena,” Johnson said. “In reality, they had to come up with new styles to accommodate women’s interest in physical activities such as dancing and sports, which is why fashion is always inspired by the needs of society.”
Johnson’s lecture continued for just under an hour, giving a full overview of the four main 1920s clothing styles; the Sportswearer, the Sophisticate, the Flapper and the Vamp.
The exhibit itself showcased a plethora of authentic 1920s clothing ranging from sleepwear, Victorian gowns, evening wear and fancy jewelry to silk lingerie.
Rhinestone art deco bracelets and belt buckles were displayed in glass cases, a symbol of a bygone era that now exists in the memories of the attendees.
Johnson’s lecture transitioned seamlessly between showings of actual historical drawings and photos to discussions of the film’s costumes and representations.
The moment that drew the most response from her lecture was her retelling of a story regarding the 1974 version of the Gatsby film.
“The 1974 rendition of the films costumes were made custom for the film and there were many valuable vintage dresses rented for the extras and the stars,” Johnson said. “The director decided at the last minute that the partygoers should all jump into the huge fountain, and actually all of those dresses were completely ruined.”
Johnson winced as the entire room audibly gasped in horror at the news that the dresses had been destroyed.
Despite the criticism of Luhrmann’s authenticity in Johnson’s lecture, not everyone agrees. In an article for The Atlantic, Deirdre Clemente believes historical accuracy is not necessary for this type of film.
“If you want historically accurate costumes, you’ll be better served by PBS,” Clemente said. “If you want to understand the social and cultural meaning of clothes in the 1920s, then this movie delivers.”
Johnson ended her lecture noting that audiences should not look to film for factual representations of any time period.
“Contemporary films are meant to paint a picture of an era, they tell a story or create a mood, but they’re never reality as it was lived,” Johnson said. “In considering the difference between movie costumes and actual period fashions it’s important to remember: never get your history from the films, but rather learn about history and fashion through primary resources created by those who lived it.”
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