Trousers & Trumpets: The 1930s As Social Rebellion

As I’ve come down with something all of a sudden, I live in fear I may not be able to go costume hunting Thursday, which is an essential task we have to get round to ASAP. However, by hell or high water, I will be in London Thursday and Friday. I’ve also bought a ticket for ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest: The Musical’ and I refuse to miss it.

However, due to my illness, I have been able to indulge in watching  a show my costumes goddess Lulu introduced me to; Downton Abbey. A show I dismissed after a lacklustre first episode, having bought the first series and watched the whole thing I’m madly in love. There is so much of Evelyn Waugh in a period drama like that (admittedly set the other side of WW1) that at times the story of Mary’s romance was ripped from Nina, and at times I saw elements of so much of Vile Bodies in the TV show.

What it also showed, however, was the vital importance of clothing at a time like that. Clothing said an impossible amount about a person, it was a sort of language. One remembers the scene in Brideshead Revisited set 20-odd years later during which Sebastian comes down to dinner in tweeds, which is a horrid shock for all who know and adore him.

Vile Bodies, therefore, is almost obsessed with the clothes of era. Vile Bodies has to look and feel cool, like a party you wish you were invited to, especially at the start of the show. Warwick graduate’s adaptation of ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ really got this feeling across; I wanted to get up on stage and join them when I entered the theatre. As soon as everyone begins performing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and the cast erupts on stage in a firework of hedonism, I want goosebumps down the audience’s neck, and I want them to immediately think ‘wow. Ok. This is pretty great.’ And the clothing is another part of that whole aesthetic.

Lulu was desperate to do it, having an obsession with period vintage clothes and wanting to delve into it more, this was a perfect excuse. We spent hours looking at crazy pictures, talking about themes and motifs and colour schemes, and it was eternally satisfying. The costumes we hunt for in the days running up to Christmas will be a centre point of the show, as dressing that way will effect everything just that little bit.

A big thing about the costumes is androgyny, and one of the first things Lulu and myself said was that Agatha and Miles were going to capture this completely; Agatha will be in men’s suits, her hair styled like a man’s, but most importantly she’ll be the only woman wearing trousers. Katherine Hepburn (pictured above) caused a sensation doing this herself, and I remember that when I first heard about Hepburn’s trousers I was in awe of such a shocking choice; indeed, as Lady Sybil shows in Downton Abbey, trousers were a big statement for a woman. I’m not sure how aware Agatha is of this statement in terms of politics and feminism, but the important thing is she’s going to look bloody fantastic.

I could not be more excited to explore the clothing of the era with a dear friend and fellow obsessive of the 1930s like Lulu. It’s been utterly essential that the team have the same interest and passion for the era and style that I do. One of the most difficult things I think early on will be to get away from the 1930s as a gimmick and instead make it a part of the overall tapestry of the show. Whilst the show IS a period piece, it’s very easy to be a bit panto with the RP and the clothing. It’s also very easy to forget the 1930s had a distinct sartorial identity separate from the 20s and 40s either side of it; I myself had done that very thing, and I feel like a fool now to have not seen it. It’s also going to be essential that we abandon the feeling that this sort of swing jazz is just elevator music, which could be an issue; the music we are using has connotations of National Trust properties, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and retirement. What needs to be remembered by everyone and relished by everyone (and Hen could incite passion for black people into the KKK) is that the music of the show is not tame, it’s dirty and its sexy and it’s unusual. Saxophones, trumpets and the like are suddenly being employed to make the sounds of voluptuous women strutting, and people swinging their dance partners round, and new sexy costumes and dances. Jazz was the punk rock or grime of its day and the cast need to appreciate the dirtiness whilst also enjoying the chance to play with it’s dual role as calm and pleasant background music when the tempo slows down.

All in all, this is a show that seeks to explode the incredibly important social changes of the 1930s. Julian Fellowes talked of how Downton shows a rarely displayed era which he felt odd about because the 1910s was crucial to the development of England. But whilst there was definite steps taken to Suffrage, and technology leapt forward a thousand bounds, the 1930s are equally important and equally peculiar for they lie on the precipice of war. The 1930s was post-chanel, post-suffrage, post-flappers, an era of jazz and sex and economic frenzy due to the wall street crash and yet here we have aristocrats still doing cocaine off the Prime Minister’s table and having sex with whoever and whatever they liked. This isn’t wartime stoicism, this isn’t Brief Encounter, this is sexy and uncouth and louche, and I hope the cast enjoy every second.

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