Monday, May 20, 2013

High Flyers

The period between the World Wars has always fascinated me, and for a number of reasons, too.  Fashion was never chicer, homes never looked more cocktail party ready, and cars reached the pinnacle of their sleek elegance.  But the other reason for my interest is that this era also saw a lot of innovations that captured people's imaginations.  Take, for example, the airplane.

During the 1920s and 1930s, many social swells were besotted with the airplane, a fascination that was fostered by no less than Vogue, which encouraged its female readers to buy their own recreational planes.  (As one Vogue article noted, "As surely as the woman of yesterday was born to ride in a limousine, the woman of today was born to fly in an aeroplane.") A number of society ladies engaged in such high-flying pursuits, including the Duchess of Bedford, who unfortunately disappeared in her plane during a trip from Woburn Abbey. 

One had to dress the part, wearing aviation attire designed by Poiret and Patou.  In fact, the Vicomtesse de Sibour (née Violette Selfridge, daughter of Gordon Selfridge) went flying around the world with her husband, and because their small plane meant small luggage, Violette brought along four beige Patou outfits to get her through the journey in style.

Airplanes, or rather, the airplane motif, sometimes made their way into the home, appearing on wallpaper and fabric.  One such wallpaper, which you'll find below, was Aeroplane.  Designed by Raymond McGrath, an Australian architect, during the early 1930s, the paper was thought to have been conceived for the house of an aviatrix.  (The house, referred to as Rudderbar, was never built.)   I can just see this paper in the late 1920s home of the fictional Phryne Fisher, who, like many of her trailblazing female counterparts, knew how to pilot a plane.

As World War II approached, the airplane motif began to appear as a symbol of a different kind of freedom, one from Nazi tyranny.  Patriots, both in the U.K. and here in the U.S., proudly wore airplane-emblazoned attire as both an act of support for their troops and of defiance against the enemy.

Although airplanes may no longer hold the same appeal that they once did (frankly, they make me think of germs spreading through the air and passengers walking barefoot to the bathrooms,) it's interesting to see how they once inspired fashions for the body and for the home.

P.S.- If you want to watch a brief 1928 film clip that shows Mr. Selfridge sending off his daughter and son-in-law on their airplane trip around the world, click here.

Aeroplane wallpaper, designed in the early 1930s by Raymond McGrath, is still available today through Bradbury & Bradbury.

In 1926, Vogue suggested wearing a "knitted chiné woollen suit by J. Suzanne Talbot" when flying.

The interior of John Hay Whitney's two-motored Sikorsky Amphibian looked more like a residential interior than a plane.

An Art Deco Airplane Smoker's Companion, designed by J.A. Henckels in the 1930s, is available through M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans.

Vogue featured planes announcing the Paris openings on their March 1932 cover.  This image is available for sale as a print through the Conde Nast store.

Victory V cotton dress fabric, printed in 1941 by the Calico Printers' Association of Manchester, England,  was just one patriotic dress fabric produced during the Second World War.  The border features a pattern of three dots and a dash, which was Morse code for "Victory". (Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum)

Photo at top: Amelia Earhart, the most famous aviatrix of all.


  1. I adore this-such a researcher you are.

  2. Thank you Cynthia and Peggy!

  3. Anonymous1:54 PM

    That smokers companion may be the coolest thing I have ever seen, makes me want to take up smoking again!

  4. A marvelous post.

    Eltham Palace's Italian Drawing room (London) has a series of Art Deco plaster panels by Gilbert Ledward. They represent civilisation through time. Representing C20 is a male figure with aeroplanes flying above.

    People once dressed up to fly. Now it's like sitting in the very back of a station wagon on the way to the beach. Fine if you're five and going to the beach. But not to Paris or Prague or Boston.

    1. Pamela, thank you for the information on Eltham Palace's Italian Drawing Room. I will Google it pronto. It sounds very intriguing!

  5. Dear Jennifer I love, love your posts. So informative and I really do wish I had lived in that era!

    Come with me on my adventure in France.
    life, possibilities, grace
    a beautiful dream...

    Art by Karena

  6. You're very welcome.

    You would love Eltham Palace. It is where late medieval (the Great Hall) successfully meets late Art Deco and early mod cons. And it's surrounded by a moat (London's oldest working bridge built by Richard II). Design-wise it is superb. Then there's its history and its place in most of England's history. The Courtaulds (and their lemur Mahjung) used the Great Hall as a living room. I would live there if I could! It is so comfortable.

  7. I am coincidentally revisiting the style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor, who, introduced to flying at age six by her father (in a open bi-plane, in 1916!) began lessons at twelve--"Our pilot wasn't a bit happy about this idea.: back then nobody wanted to see a woman--let alone a young girl--fly a plane. But he had no choice."
    She went on to instruct Army Air Cadets during the Second World War,train with the US Olympic Ski Team, and become the first doyenne of Vail, Colorado...all while displaying inimitable style:

    It's difficult to find many photos of her homes, but in the film accompanying the exhibit "Fashion Independent", Phoenix Art Museum, 2011, it is clear to see she lived in well-appointed style!