Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Geometry of Fashion: Art Deco in Black and White

I got this skirt for about ten dollars on sale at JQ Clothing a few days ago. It's one of those asymmetrical ones, shorter in the front, longer in the back, not a style I've thought would suit my short frame. But it's slimming, and fun, and very comfortable, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Even for me, the mixing of patterns in this outfit was a bit daring: black and white stripes, with grey and black swirls on a white background. But what the hell? What do the kids say these days? YOLO? Okay, why not?

Skirt: ?; Shirt and blazer: Reitmans; Boots: Ecco
My poses and locations for photos were inspired by the geometry of the prints in this outfit. Though the cut of each piece and the overall ensemble don't really resemble fashions of the 1920s and 30s, the prints on the fabrics do. 

Fashion and glamour photos of the Art Deco period are often about geometry on geometry so I kept posing in front of (or amidst, or behind) interesting lines and angles.

Joan Crawford

Still, I wasn't totally aware of just how inspired I was by Art Deco photography ... 

... until I got the photos I'd taken home and looked and looked at them on the big screen.

It was a time when harsh angles were everywhere in fashion, and backdrops seemed almost as much a part of an outfit as the clothes themselves did.

Large ring: vintage; Top stackable ring and faux eternity band: boutique; Lower stackable band: Etsy
I tried to pick jewelry to match my look and to photograph it too with its own appropriate background.

There was a lot more motion in my outfit and a lot more curve in my body than was common in '20s and '30s fashion ...

Top left ring: Birks; Bottom left diamond ring: heirloom from 1936; Thin silver ring: boutique
 ... and only my grandmother's engagement ring was actually period specific, but it was all somehow very evocative of a period, and became more so with the ways I asked Beau to photograph me.

I think that it was a time of a kind of perfect confluence of fashion, art, design, and black and white photography, each complimenting and enhancing the other. 

And that photography got pretty artsy at times.


Interior design, architecture, clothing ... it all became of a beautiful, stark, angular piece.

So I thought I'd get a little artsy with it too. Here, the lines of the chair reminded me of Art Deco, and I thought they contrast interestingly with my skirt. Regardless of whether it worked, it was a fun experiment.

As I was setting up shots, I kept thinking of the angular lines of Louise Brooks' iconic black bob against her sculpted white face ...

Definitely Busby Berkeley. Which film? Let me know.
 ... and 1930s musicals, especially those choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Women's bodies became a kind of geometry unto themselves. There is something slightly vulgar about it, and offensive, but it's also amazing. 

If you've never seen any of Berkeley's choreography, do look it up. It's ingenuity and symmetry will make your jaw drop.

Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor (I think), in Broadway Melody of 1938
Vertical lines -- clean and crisp, black and white -- are absolutely everywhere in 1930s musicals.

Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street
The new, urban landscape, with its stepped sky scrapers, was a major inspiration for the aesthetic of the day. This is part of why I'll never understand why people so frequently confuse Art Deco with Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was known for its flowing, organic lines inspired by nature, whereas Art Deco was known for its harsh, angular lines inspired by new technology and architecture.

Many would have seen it as relatively gritty, a Modernist aesthetic of the machine age.

Brooch: Robert Larin

In this sense, it has far more in common with the later Brutalist movement than with dreamy Art Nouveau.

I got this signed, Robert Larin brooch for about eight dollars. I looked up the artist online and found that his pieces are selling for between one hundred and three hundred dollars. If anyone knows any more about the designer, I'd love to hear from you. It's weirdly, appealingly ugly. Should I sell it?

The harsh angle and vertical line were in, baby, in in in!

In, I tell you, in!

It was simply too divine!

My own figure, with its ample curves, is much more of an Art Nouveau figure than an Art Deco figure. 

And if you think different body types don't go in and out of style just like skirt lengths and lipstick shades, well, you're living under a rock.

I can't really make my own body one more column amongst the others in an Art Deco photo, but I can still have great fun playing with the lines.

And with the dramatic facial expressions and poses.

Like Theda Bara doing her best "exotic" expression as Cleopatra.

Or Louise Brooks' dance partner's expression in Lulu. Oh the intrigue!

Oh, the heady drama of the early, silent movie queen!

Or of Bette Davis' eyes.

Dare I flatter myself and say that, as I get older, I'm getting Bette Davis eyes?

See what I mean? I think Bette and I both had bags under eyes since birth. I choose to use them for drama, and not see them as unattractive.

I think she and I have the same forehead too. May I now formally and for the record make a plug for actresses and women in general choosing to keep their foreheads natural so that they actually, you know, move when they express emotions? No botox, please! All hail the mobile face!

Of course, in the second photo of Bette, her eyebrows are dramatically thicker and darker. This is a clear indication that it was taken in the 40s. That harsh eyebrow came around in the 40s and stuck around through most of the 50s.

And, since we're on the subject of the 40s and 50s, let me mention yet another inspiration for my photos that day: the use of venetian blinds and their shadows in film noir.

Isn't it just the coolest?

It's also a great excuse for me to finally post this wonderful shot of an overwintering hummingbird seen through venetian blinds. It had been a very harsh, stormy night, and I was glad to see she'd come through it okay. She just hung out resting on my balcony for a while. I didn't want to disturb her, so I photographed her through my own venetian blinds rather than opening them for a clear shot.

I've also been waiting for an excuse to post this great shot of a cat having the best of both worlds: in and out, of the world, and, simultaneously, not of it.
And this brings us to, you guessed it, vertical lines. They too were absolutely everywhere in Art Deco design.

The juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal lines together was a particular favourite.

With stairs. Everywhere, dramatic, harshly lit stairs in beautiful, stark black and white.

Like these? Okay, not like these, but KITTY!

Seriously though, these musical sets were phenomenal.

And massive.

Just like the set for this photo, right? Okay, not really.

I told Beau to "sit macho." He looked at me with utter bewilderment. "I don't know how to do that," he quipped. This was what he came up with. 

We got a good laugh out of it anyway.

This fluffy, grey and white dog also obligingly posed for her own Art Deco photo here, though I suppose she too is a little too roundy and fluffy for the Art Deco look.

She's not bothered by it and neither am I.

In the end, artsy or not, we should never take ourselves too seriously in our fashion shoots.

Where's the fun in that?


(I'd like to give a little shout out to 20th Century Decorative Arts, whose Facebook page has helped me learn more about Art Deco and helped to inspire this post. I got some of my photos from their page. I'm also linking up with Visible Mondays over at Not Dead Yet.)


  1. You are so creative. You really made me dwell on the Art Deco movement which has always intrigued me more than art noveau. Your photographic ideas were ingenious. I really like how you interspersed photos of yourself with the photos from the 1920s and 1930s. Thanks for the hard work you put into this post.


    1. Thanks, Sharon. This one actually was a lot of work. I knew just the sort of images I wanted to illustrate my points but I had trouble finding them.

      I do like Art Nouveau's beauty and it probably suits my frame, hair, and face better, but it's not as sophisticated and worldly as Art Deco. Luckily for me, I can change looks every day and wear both!

  2. You were right! Lots of fun and some interesting ideas. Doesn't get better than that. I grew up watching film from this period with my grandmother. All these periods, actually, in black and white. You really do have the Betty Davis look and appeal! Remember Susan Hayward? You resemble her even more, I think.
    In any case, you look very glamorous and your patterns are right on the money!

  3. Best outfit ever! Love it. The photo with the chair's modest immodesty made me burst out laughing- and then Busby afterwards and discussions about the female form...I die. Awesome. If you bought the brooch because you liked it, don't sell it. More cats! You've cheered me for the rest of the day (I hope). Thank you.

  4. Looking good. I enjoyed the pics!

  5. Such an amazing post with lots of hard work!!! Love all of it.
    Art Deco and the 20's and 30's are so glamorous!!! And you fit perfectly with the theme.

    Thank you so much for linking with Très Chic Style Bits!!

  6. Thanks for this wonderful post - so creative and educational too, about the Art Deco movement. Love that skirt, and I vote for keeping the brooch - it's jolie-laide. Thanks for sharing it all with Visible Monday.

  7. Very cool look, Charlotte! I love all of the pictures and I love Black & White! Hopefully, we will have that necklace for you very soon!

  8. What a fun post! I love your outfit - the stripes and swirls work so well together, and the shape of the clothes work together. Very flattering on you, too!

    And all those Deco pictures are fab! I especially loved the one of the woman by the fireplace - just so polished and calm. I think in this era the style still had some warmth to it before it got colder and harder with Brutalism, and Fascist and Bauhaus styles. Thanks for sharing all these gorgeous pictures!

  9. Jan nailed it; you're a dead ringer for Susan Hayward!
    So glad to see you know the difference between Art Deco and Art Nouveau (few do). I love the black and white vibe and all the geometric compository elements of your photos. Not a bad job of pattern mixing, either ;-)


  10. I love it how you mix your outfits with your take on different eras in art and fashion. It's fun and dynamic! Great pattern mixing, and yes - this type of top is very flattering n your figure! Love the photo with the chair! xxx

  11. I love the spontaneous nature of your blog.I hope a special 'someone' is looking after you because you are one sexy woman!