This October, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is presenting two exhibitions which showcase some of the best of 1930s fashion photography.

The two exhibitions, Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs and Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s, provide a glimpse into the lustrous day and evening styles of the decade, while traversing some of the social changes that came with the period.

Michèle Morgan photographed by Ernest Bachrach. Photo: Fashion and Textile Museum Michèle Morgan photographed by Ernest Bachrach. Photo: Fashion and Textile Museum

Although the 1930s was a period of severe economic downfall, following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the era was also a time of iconic fashion design. Lengthened hems, butterfly and banjo sleeves, geometric patterns, clean and simple lines (to reflect the austerity of the poor economy), small and shallow hats, and dresses that emphasised the top-half of the torso.

The photography which immortalised this era of fashion and its champions introduced new techniques and revolutionary principles. Heavily influenced by the 1920s surrealist art movement, the photography of the era was unexpectedly quirky, giving visual expression to the unconscious mind. Juxtaposition was used to challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality and truth, and lighting was employed to provide stark outlines and emphasise shape.

Horst P. Horst, 1939 Horst P. Horst, 1939

The silver screen’s leading ladies were among the most popular subjects of these photographs. Glamorous, beautiful, and ever sensual, these women perfectly typified the chic fashion of the era.

One of the most influential portrait photographers to chronicle and capture these stars is Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE (1904-1980).

Beaton is often celebrated as one of Britain’s most influential photographers of the 20th century. Not only did he contribute to Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, The Sketch and Tatler, capturing the most notable names in fashion and film, but he was also a painter, interior designer and an Oscar-winning stage and costume designer for film and theatre. A man well-known and admired in the arts, Beaton’s formidable career spanned 50 years.

Cecil Beaton, The Soapsuds Group, 1930. Photo: Fashion and Textile Museum Cecil Beaton, The Soapsuds Group at the Living Posters Ball, 1930. Photo: Fashion and Textile Museum

In his youth, Beaton became part of the scene known as the ‘bright young things’ – a group of wealthy, bohemian-minded London socialites.

Then, having risen through London society, in 1929 he departed for New York at the age of 25. There he continued photographing, creating portraits of the famous and the cultured, eventually entering into the world of film and earning Oscars for Gigi (Best Costume Design) and My Fair Lady (Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction-Set Direction).

Eliza Doolittle's costume in My Fair Lady, 1964, designed by Cecil Beaton Eliza Doolittle's costume in My Fair Lady, 1964, designed by Cecil Beaton

Though Beaton later focused a critical eye on World War II, the Beaton-themed exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Thirty from the 30s, focuses on the photographer’s work from the ‘30s. Specifically, it presents some of his most influential and recognisable portraits – from Salvador Dali to Elsa Schiaparelli, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Mary Taylor and more.

Curated in association with the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s, the show will also provide a selection of images created at Beaton’s notorious and outlandish house parties, held at his captivating home in Ashcombe.

Cecil Beaton, Loretta Young, 1938. Photo: Sotheby's Cecil Beaton archive Cecil Beaton, Loretta Young, 1938. Photo: Sotheby's Cecil Beaton archive

We look forward to seeing more from the wonderful world of 1930s fashion photography, which opens to the public on 12 October.

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