Flapper dresses

Dazzling symbols of a decadent era, these 1920s treasures are dancing in the fashion limelight, says Elisa Anniss

1920s sequined and beaded tulle dress from Virginia Bates’s book Jazz Age Fashion
1920s sequined and beaded tulle dress from Virginia Bates’s book Jazz Age Fashion | Image: Malcolm Venville

Flapper dresses last shimmied back into town in the 1970s, when Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba label celebrated all things Jazz Age and Twiggy starred in The Boy Friend. Some 40 years later, things have come full circle, with gloriously glittering examples playing a starring role in a flurry of recent Roaring Twenties-themed films, such as The Artist, Midnight in Paris and, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Meanwhile, catwalk creations by the likes of Gucci, which featured 1920s-inspired dresses in its spring/summer 2012 collection, have also piqued the interest of collectors.

But for style aficionados, an original beaded flapper dress from the 1920s is where the romantic glamour truly lies – although with each subsequent “fashion moment” prices soar, laments Cameron Silver, founder of antique clothing specialist Decades in LA. He heads to Europe to find dresses with a flattering fit (“not everyone can carry off a drop waist”), such as a black example from France that has caviar beads, a rhinestone band and chiffon inserts ($4,800).

French c1928 beaded silk georgette dress, £650, from Annie’s
French c1928 beaded silk georgette dress, £650, from Annie’s | Image: Charlie Bibby

Straight up and down, drop-waisted, sleeveless and mostly black, fashion’s homages to the extravagance of the era were designed to flatter the gamine and highly modish “garçon” silhouette. The most elegant styles featured ornate geometric repeat patterns or blooms in sequins and exquisite glass, metal or jet beads – such as the deliciously named ornamental “vermicelli”. These embellishments survive in greater numbers on muslin tulle, while fragile silk dresses have become extremely rare.

The small jet beads once favoured for Victorian mourning clothes were here used on dresses worn to celebrate life. Sequins, however, were made of less stern stuff; crafted from gelatine, contact with water caused them to melt. So, with all that furious dancing, disintegration under the arms was inevitable – although today such party-distressed wear is a mark of authenticity. LA-based writer and film director Liz Goldwyn says her vintage dress with gold bugle beads embroidered on to nude-coloured net “is so delicate that it could only ever be worn once”. Nonetheless, “when I wore it, I felt magical”. She also cautions that these beaded dresses should never be hung, but stored horizontally and wrapped in tissue paper for protection.

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As original dresses move on to their third or fourth owner, examples in mint condition are increasingly hard to find. When Virginia Bates opened her dreamy Holland Park antique-fashion shop, Virginia, in the 1970s, supplies were plentiful. Now there’s only ever a handful in stock, and the prices reflect their rarity. Some feature in her recent book Jazz Age Fashion, such as a fuchsia, vermilion and moss-green number, and a striking silver frock with pops of gold and turquoise. A gold tulle gown with a light scattering of sequins and beads is currently for sale in her shop (£1,200), alongside a black one with jet and gold glass beads (£2,500).

Coco Chanel is the epitome of the liberated woman of this period, and Kerry Taylor, of Kerry Taylor Auctions, sold a black fine-chiffon ribbon dress (circa 1926) by the famous house last December for £20,000. But flapper dresses by Chanel and other master designers of the era, such as Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet, are few and far between.

1920s sequined and beaded gold lamé lace dress from Jazz Age Fashion
1920s sequined and beaded gold lamé lace dress from Jazz Age Fashion | Image: Malcolm Venville

For the most part, dresses found today are unnamed or feature a simple “Made in France” label. In her June 25 sale, Taylor offered a black satin dress with red-beaded peonies and a sapphire chiffon dress with a silver and blue beaded fringe, both of which were undoubtedly French and sold as a lot for £420. “Made in France dresses can be stunning, but when it comes to haute couture you need to add a zero. Instead of paying between £200 and £2,000, you’re looking at £2,000-£60,000,” she explains.

“In the 1920s, wealthy Americans, English and South Americans would come to Paris to have their dresses made, and many good dressmakers were able to copy haute-couture styles,” says Sarah Rozenbaum, proprietor of French boutique Chez Sarah. She categorises flapper dresses as “Robes 1920” or “Charleston”, and says that the beading, details and colours – such as on the yellow silk dress with silver beads (€3,500) she currently has for sale – make even those that weren’t created by a famous couturier highly sought-after.

Early 1920s couture sequined and beaded tulle dress, £2,550, from Designer Vintage at Liberty
Early 1920s couture sequined and beaded tulle dress, £2,550, from Designer Vintage at Liberty | Image: Charlie Bibby

“The market interest is in the beauty of the beadwork and the condition,” agrees buyer and shop proprietor Annie Moss, of Annie’s in Camden Passage, London. A storied wardrobe that is often raided for period films, the shop has been selling a steady supply of flapper dresses for over 30 years. Its current selection includes a cherry-blossom-pink fine-cotton dress embroidered with white and gold beads (£790), similar to the one borrowed for The Great Gatsby; a silver-beaded lavender-grey example with an unusual crenulated hem (£690); and a white one with subtle vermicelli beading (£790).

Condition, quality of the beads, and detailing, as well as significant pops of colour (rarely found), do help make a dress more desirable, advises Stelios Hawa, buyer for Designer Vintage at Liberty, which is offering a white gown with glass beads for £2,950. However, not all fans buy flapper dresses to wear. Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising in Notting Hill, has amassed a collection of more than 20 beautiful pieces. Helped by Tin Tin Collectables owner Leslie Verrinder, he has hung some of his most prized dresses on mannequins and kept them behind glass. “I love the detail and the Egyptian influences,” says Opie. “I’m always looking for the wow factor, plus an avant-garde deco style that is low cut and simply amazing visually.”

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To some, though, it might seem a betrayal of the dresses’ spirit to lock them behind glass. Light should bounce from their beads as they jangle on the dance floor in their full glory, surely?

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