Vancouver Was Awesome: Art Deco Chic in the ’20s and ’30s


Ivan Sayers, a Vancouver-based fashion historian, says he developed “really sharp elbows” for his competition when he started collecting vintage clothing in the 1960s at his local: the Sally Ann thrift store on 12th Avenue, near Sophia Street.

“I’d go to the Salvation Army on Friday morning and the two women on the desk, Gwen and Ethel, would phone up to the sorting room and ask for the ‘old fashioned,'” he said.

“I tried to engineer it so that no drama teachers would be there.”

He was 19 and studying fashion at UBC, and had “no money,” but he worked his charm and no matter how much he wanted to buy each trip, the women charged him a dollar. After some time they got into trouble with the supervisor, and the price went up first to a dollar a bag, and later 50 cents a piece: the price Sayers paid for a dress from the 1860s, and a number of dresses from the 1920s and 1930s — two of which feature in the new Museum of Vancouver exhibit, Art Deco Chic.

The exhibit, which opens tonight with a dress-up party, features 73 principal garments — mostly dresses, capes, and coats — from the period between the two world wars, along with numerous accessories: shoes, hats, headbands, and other ornaments.

The garments come from all over the world: Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Shanghai, Karachi, and yes, even Vancouver. Four of the pieces belong to the Museum of Vancouver, and most of the rest have been temporarily liberated from the private collections of Sayers and a Vancouver-based colleague, Clause Jahnke, who collects vintage and historic German and Austrian fashions.

Early 1920s sex appeal: “The dresses are so understated. The beading is an important part of the design because it gives weight to the clothing. Even though you can’t see her body, when she moves, you are aware of it inside. And that’s what’s supposed to make it sensuous.”  – Ivan Sayers

Sayers’ most complicated find is a sequined and glass-beaded cape, pictured on the middle mannequin, above, which belonged to a woman who retired to Penticton. The woman, Ms. Margaret Raegh, wore it in 1924, at her 21st birthday party at the Savoy Hotel in London. She wouldn’t part with it when Sayers came calling but, some 11 years later (after she passed away), the cape ended up in the possession of the local figure skating club. Sayers found it, managed to buy it, and the money the club received went to buying some less-fragile and less-precious sequined and sparkly materials.

Desert Rose… Following the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, everything Egyptian became fashionable — even if just in name, as with the popular pink-beige colour “desert sand.”

Silver beading… “You wear clothing because you want to be thought of a as a particular kind of person. 
It communicates something to other people, so you can find people of like mind.” – Ivan Sayers

But who really cares about a bunch of old clothes anyway, you ask? (How dare you!) Well, even if you’re only marginally fashion-curious, there are plenty of treats in store at the Art Deco Chic exhibit, and here’s 10:


 10 Reasons the Art Deco Chic Exhibit is Awesome

10) If you’re into the classics: You’ll find a lamé printed dress that shows scenes of the Trojan War being fought. The wearer is, of course, as beautiful as Helen of Troy, and that’s why everyone is fighting over her — all over her.

9) If you’re into mathematical puzzles, take a gander at an enigmatic Möbius-strip-like Roman looping “rope” dress that evokes the movie-star romance of the 1930s.

8) If you’re into beer, then gaze upon a coat that belonged to Mrs. Heineken — yes, of the brewing family — that ended up in the collection of a Horseshoe Bay woman.

7) If you’re into unlikely bargains: You’ll see a long black 1930s gown that Sayers found in the Value Village on Victoria Drive near 49th Avenue, just four months ago! (It’s peeking out from under the big coat in the background in the photo directly above.)

6) There’s a perfume bottle made out of a tiny Schuco bear. It’s sitting in a case, in front of a leather clutch shaped like a VW bug, which was found in a Seattle vintage store about 20 years ago.

5) If you’re into local history, then be sure to spend a moment with the dress worn by the mysterious “Mrs. Schon” to the 1929 opening of the Commodore Ballroom.

4) If you’re into small miracles, examine the glass and brass details — meant to evoke 18th century French Sevres vases and Alladin’s lamp — on a Dali-esque Schiaparelli coat (above). A Vancouver woman used to wear it tobogganing when she was little (the coat belonged to a great aunt), yet it has survived!

3) If you’re a fan of physics or astronomy, lay your eyes the very same place that Albert Einstein once did: on the peachy embroidery of a visiting American astronomer’s 1930s outfit (above). The garment is now in Sayers’ collection, and on display at the MOV until September.

2) The exhibit display’s a rarity: The only dress ever found from the 1920s that has a Vancouver label (Company name: “Aurora”). Sayers found it in B.C.’s interior, and it’s now part of the MOV’s own collection. It’s polka-dotted and pretty cute, and definitely something to see in person.

1) There’s a 1928 Chanel “little black dress” that was featured in the German version of Vogue. Okay, that’s fashion-related, but it’s Chanel! Again, go see it in person. Pictures don’t do it justice.


Go see it all at the MOV (the Museum of Vancouver) at 1100 Chestnut Street in Kits: Art Deco Chic runs from March 8 to September 23, 2012.

And if you want to brush up on the theory before you go (or just get a demo of that Volkswagen clutch in action), watch the Museum of Vancouver’s video, Art Deco Chic with Ivan Sayers, below:

A footnote: Emerging designers are being invited to submit contemporary designs inspired by any of the garments in the MOV’s Art Deco Chic exhibit, with a chance to win funding towards making the garment, which will go on display with the exhibit at the end of the summer. Find more information on the Museum of Vancouver’s website.