Sleek silhouettes, flashy metal trim, shiny accessories and practical touches in smoky glass, leathers and fine woods. And a natural evolution from lavish, wide-paneled and somewhat cumbersome models to abbreviated sporty editions of the same concept.
Cars of the 20th century? Yes, but also the clothing styles and fashions that were shaped and molded by the same outside forces that influenced the changing shape of automobiles.
That’s the premise of a traveling exhibition established by a group of Metro Detroit car and clothing enthusiasts, and it’s back on public display this month just in time to be part of our annual auto-show mania celebrations.
“Fashion and the Automobile, An Exhibit in 10 Eras,” will be displayed at the LaFontaine Automotive Group, a car dealership in Highland through Jan. 24.
Creator Victoria Mobley, along with colleagues Lynn Anderson and Elaine Veermeersch, developed the exhibit in 2010 and continue to grow and curate it through acquisitions and donations.
“I’ve always been interested in cars 24/7,” said Mobley, who also serves as an officer in a local chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians. “And I thought, there has got to be some connection between automotive design and fashion design.
“Skirts came up shorter, the bustle was gone and they had to adjust their outerwear for how they were using the automobile.”
Big, open horseless carriages bumping along unpaved roads, for example, led Edwardian ladies to adopt the duster, a long protective garment long worn by cowboys to protect from the grit of the trail. Women’s versions in linen were popular around 100 years ago, as were sheer veils to anchor those big-brimmed hats to wearers’ heads. Catalogues began to show smaller motoring bonnets not so prone to fly away in a breeze.
“Cars and fashion have always had a symbiotic relationship,” said Abigail Cucolo, a fashion historian in Pennsylvania who has written about the effects of “the wheel” on apparel. “Special attire was invented for it just as special clothing was invented for tennis and other sports.”
The cloches and sleek, narrow driving coats of the Roaring ’20s echoed the freedom females gained by piloting their own vehicles. Some wealthy women even wore entire ensembles to complement their cars, Cucolo said.
After the Wall Street crash of 1929, both cars and clothing became more subdued; wartime shortages and austerity further influenced both dress and driving — and then in the 1950s, prosperity and conspicuous consumption returned, along with big, bold vehicles and full-skirted gowns.
Indeed, it seems car-inspired fashion never goes out of vogue. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that current men’s fashion designers are celebrating the hip look of ’50s and ’60s driving icons, with nods to car coats, aviator sunglasses and perforated-wrist band watches.
The “Fashion and the Automobile” exhibit, which has appeared at several area automotive museums and events, is open to the public in the LaFontaine Automotive Group showrooms. A dressy fundraising event will take place Jan. 16 — the night before the big auto-show charity preview in Detroit — for those looking for another excuse to don eveningwear finery. Any level of donation (which will benefit a childhood cancer campaign that La Fontaine supports) will provide admittance to the gala, which features a strolling fashion show, refreshments and entertainment. For information, visit www.fashionandtheautomobile.com
In addition to the 10 decades of women’s fashion, the exhibit at LaFontaine will feature a military fashion display and, in the dealership’s Cadillac showroom, a special exhibit of wedding dresses through the era. The nuptial wear ranges from the early 1900s through the 1970s, including a 1930s-era velvet wedding gown donated by a local auto executive. A 1957 Eldorado brougham, with its built-in vanity set, will provide a glamorous background for the bridal gowns.
“We love the appeal of combining the fashions and the automobiles,” said Kelly LaFontaine. “It’s a great tie-in, and everyone is welcome.”
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org.