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On the runway, the rare and very retro

June 19, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

You won't see any stick-thin Amazonian goddesses sashaying down the runway in needle heels. No chisel-featured Adonises wearing the latest designs. What you will find at "Working and Playing: An Art Deco Fashion Show" is a bunch of Deco-philes wearing woolen bathing suits, velvet beach pajamas, cotton-knit tennis dresses and other unusual attire, all of it from the roaring '20s through World War II.

The 50 or so vintage pieces have never been exhibited before and are "all new old clothes," said Mitzi March Mogul, president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, the educational group sponsoring Saturday's event at the El Rey Theater. In a show that's as much a history lesson as it is a display of style, Mogul will also emcee, providing whatever information is available on the items, which were provided by society members who either inherited them or sought them out at thrift stores and online.

Suzanne Cooper is co-coordinator of the event. For the last several months, her living room has served as a closet, with her bedroom doing double duty as a dressing area. On a recent Saturday, her 1909 Craftsman home was fluttering with models, who picked through the rack of dresses blocking a wood-framed doorway while two mannequins -- one in a maid's uniform, the other in a pair of silky red beach PJs -- idled near a fireplace.

"This is the grown-up version of playing Barbie," said Cooper, an Art Deco Society member for 14 years. Cooper, who plans to model a '20s beaded dress at Saturday's event, said she was attracted to the era's clothing because she looks good in it.

At 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 135 pounds, Cooper does, indeed, look good in the clothes, though she would have been considered too tall and angular to be model quality in the '20s. Back then, the beauty standard was petite and round with no waist and no bust.

Few women today would aspire to such a figure, and few of the models in Saturday's show meet that dated standard. Still, they fit the clothes, so they were selected for the event.

Kelly Elayne, 29, is much closer to today's fashion protocol. She is tall, thin, busty: the perfect candidate to model the beaded gown worn by legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She will also model a slinky cream-colored nightgown fashioned from a parachute during World War II.

"If women wanted feminine underwear, they had to make it themselves," said Cooper, 51. "Fabric was rationed during the war. Some of the women were able to get parachutes [because] once a parachute had any kind of flaw in it, it couldn't be used."

Other rare items: a Red Cross nurse's uniform and a Rosie the Riveter outfit. Bizarre items: a handmade red-checkered romper with elastic leg openings that Cooper speculates was worn while playing sports. Janet Klein, a local "ukulele chanteuse" who plays "naughty and obscure" ditties from the 1910s, '20s and '30s, will model the item.

"There aren't many women who can get away with this," said Cooper, "but Janet can." Klein will also perform at the event.

All of the items in this year's event fit the theme of work and play. Previous years' shows have featured bridal wear, Deco exotique (clothes that reflected Asian and Russian influences) and fabulous fakes (modern remakes of vintage classics).

The Art Deco Society's vintage fashion shows began about five years ago and are part of the group's mission to educate people about the Art Deco era, which began in the '20s and lasted throughout the Great Depression. Other society events include walking tours, lectures and cocktail parties, all of which are open to the public.

"The clothing and ephemera of various eras is at least as interesting and worthy of being saved and studied as the architecture is," said Cooper. "We have a lot of fun doing these shows, and our audience seems to enjoy watching them."


Deco delights

Among the more unusual items to be modeled at Saturday's Art Deco Fashion Show:

Parachute nightie: With fabric rationing during World War II, the only way women could get new lingerie was to sew it themselves. Sometimes military fliers found parachutes with flaws and sent them home to their wives, who fashioned them into nightgowns and even wedding wear. Some of their designs went so far as to use the ripcord.

Gypsy Rose Lee gown: The legendary stripper must have been relieved to take this one off. The gown was studded with 20 pounds of rhinestones.

Batik dress: Tie-dye and batik may have been popularized in the '70s, but women were experimenting with them half a century earlier.


Art Deco

What: "Working and Playing: An Art Deco Fashion Show"

When: Saturday, 2-4 p.m.

Where: El Rey Theater, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Cost: $15, members; $20, nonmembers

Info: (310) 659-3326 or

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