Cars and Clothes: The Evolution of Fashion and Automotive Design

Pairing the classics of fashion and automobiles at Petersen Museum's Automotivation exhibit
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We can sit here and tell you automotive and fashion design have traveled parallel lines, both influenced by modern technology and sensibilities. You may believe us, or not. But Petersen Automotive Museum goes one step further and shows you with its Automotivated: Streamlined Fashion and Automobiles exhibit running through January 23.

The exhibit pairs fashions from the Phoenix Art Museum with Petersen's classic automobiles from the same eras to graphically illustrate the evolution of both from pure function to art.

Cars as Art

According to Leslie Kendall, Petersen's curator, people in general-not just devoted gearheads-recognize "cars as art." His counterpart in Phoenix, Arizona, Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design, had developed displays and commentary to prove the same thing about fashion. The two concepts came together when Petersen lent three of its classic autos to Phoenix.

"Dennita showed me her fashion exhibit," explained Kendall, "and we realized how putting the two together would add texture to both." This pairing eventually moved from idea to exhibit and the result is a fascinating trip through history and culture.

"It took a while for the auto to gain its own identity," observes Sewell. Photos of the early horseless carriages look exactly like that-buggy sans horse. Even the first aftermarket products used to distinguish one car from another were borrowed from buggy upgrades. By the early 1900s, Vogue magazine recognized that the car would be a permanent fixture in modern life. That realization came about in 1909, the same year that the first Model T, the Universal Car, rolled off the Ford assembly line.

Fashion Follows Function

The early auto, open to the elements and prone to mishap, required a new approach to clothing. Specialized dusters were designed to ward off both cold and wet, along with the grease and grime of performing mechanical repairs on the roadside. Even in the early years of the Model T, autos provided transportation for the upper class who had to swath themselves in dusters, scarves and hats to protect destination-appropriate fashion underneath.

Before fashion and culture had a chance to adequately deal with the auto, electric starters and more enclosed chassis changed the dynamic. Driver and passenger could actually look chic behind the wheel. At the same time women gained the right to vote, driving took less brawn. But, more importantly, manufacturers had to recognize the woman's influence on buying choices. More value was put on details and manufacturers realized their palettes could extend beyond black. Bold colors began to appear in all forms of design arts. Eventually, the elite would do lunch with both their coachbuilders and designers to create color and style coordinated autos and clothing.

Women and Wheels

At the end of World War I, women who had served as ambulance and truck drivers expressed their new independence with bobbed hair and short skirts. In the 1920s, the car began to morph from a big square, black box to something that eventually was described in the feminine terms of shape and form.

Clothing also morphed from austere, won't-show-the-dirt dusters to light-colored summer suits and the extensive use of fur in the winter. Coco Chanel "invented" the basic black dress, referred to as the Model T of fashion. Her inclusion in the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, from which the term Art Deco was derived, announced the shift away from rigid, stuffy and formal.

The exuberance of the Twenties gave way to the grim realities of the pre-war, Depression era of the Thirties and design followed with an emphasis on streamlined efficiency. The perfect streamlined form is the teardrop, rounded, tapered contours marked with parallel flow lines. It's hard not to draw parallel lines to current auto design based on the aerodynamically efficient teardrop shape. This leaner/meaner look showed up in both autos and fashion. Auto designers incorporated more fluid, graceful lines in cars. In fashion, Madeline Vionnet originated designs from fabric cut on the bias (at 45 degrees to its warp and weft threads) for a smooth, slender silhouette. The era demanded efficiency in design as well as the human body. Gowns cut on the bias highlighted a toned, muscular shape. Again, the parallels to 2010 are a little uncanny.

Men weren't spared from this idealized body shape. The boxy jackets and wide trousers of the Twenties tightened up significantly for the Thirties. Men's suits created a wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped shape that celebrated a flat stomach and straight back. As money tightened for even the upper class, fabric, auto components and even the human body tightened as well.

Technology and Textiles

According to Sewell, advances in the Age of the Machine encouraged the idea of streamlining. Bias cuts had been used in fashion before, but were restricted to simple elements. Technology and new materials like aluminum also allowed car manufacturers to create smooth, flowing, elegant lines. Fussy trimming gave way to a sculpted look in everything from cars to undergarments and shoes.

By the mid-`30s, the pendulum swung back toward the reality that not all bodies are long and lean. Fashion designers created more volume below the hipline. Autos were now described as voluptuous. As the Depression lingered and war in Europe loomed, Hollywood popularized movies, and the fashions, of more idyllic historical eras.

World War II shut down the auto assembly lines and all but shut down any thought of fashion. When both emerged in the mid Forties, they did so with gusto.

With the styles in auto design and fashion laid out in historical context, it makes you wonder what a similar exhibit, some 80 years from now, would look like for the 2000s.

Source

Petersen Automotive Museum, www.petersen.org

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