In the late–1910s, there was a new kind of music floating from cocktail parties or whining from the cranked-up horns of phonographs. Jazz, a fresh form of popular music in America, was hitting the mainstream, beginning to change the way people talked, danced, dressed and socialized. In the Museum of Fine Arts’ latest exhibition, Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age, those parts of the era are on display with all the opulence you can feast your eyes on including glamorous dresses, accessories and artistic representations of the “anything goes” period in American culture.
When planning the museum’s upcoming Sculpted In Steel exhibition, opening in February and featuring 14 automobiles from the same time period, curator Cindi Strauss got the idea of what a night out in the 1920s would include.
“Particularly with the cars [in Sculpted In Steel] we were thinking about the kinds of events that people might drive these cars to. That kind of led up to evening entertainment,” says Strauss, who worked alongside curator Christine Gervais in both exhibitions. The pair rifled through the museum’s collection of art pieces, including photographs, paintings, drawings, and evening accessories, like cigarette cases and clutches, to outline the theme of nighttime pursuits at a time when going out meant going all out.
“There are some specific themes we’re exploring such as nightclubs and cocktails, the ballet, and the kinds of costumes or dresses that one might wear to such evening events as well as accessories for cocktails—everything from cocktail ensemble of shaker and glasses to swizzle sticks,” she notes. “—the decadent side of the Jazz Age.”
As music plays from a phonograph, guests take a visually interpretive tour of what getting ready for a night out might have looked like, all wrapped up in Art Deco's richly colored, energetic and bold geometric style.
“This focus on exoticism, a focus on luxurious materials, on one-of-a-kind objects that kind of set the style, gets widespread and comes down to the middle classes and even to affordable goods.”
Even though the interwar Jazz Age—most notably made popular by American expatriate writer F. Scott Fitzgeral in his romantic tale, The Great Gatsby—is a bold piece of American history, it has strong ties to its European roots. The 1920s was a time, notes Strauss, when young Americans flocked overseas, experiencing everything from artistic freedom to wild living stalled by the Great War.
“In the decorative arts this is the time of the Arts Nouveau style, which is really coming out of European city centers, like Paris and Belgium, but spreading worldwide,” Strauss says. “One of the major goals of the 1925 Paris World’s Fair, which introduces the Art Deco style to the world in a very profound way, was to show people how artists and designers could be aligned with industry.”
Even though Deco Nights is a prelude to the upcoming Sculpted In Steel exhibit, it holds its own as an exhibition filled with storytelling, touching on the excess and luxury of America’s first generation of "Me" and nights filled with roaring music, sex, scandal, sparkling colors, hurtling, ecstatic bodies, swinging pearls, and flying tuxedos. We'll drink to that.
Dec 12–June 5. 1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300. mfah.org