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No Feathers? Why Not?

Posted under Collections by Jessica Pushor

Costume collection manager Jessica Pushor provides tips on how to create the perfect look for 1933.

As the Chicago History Museum gears up for another amazing The Last Speakeasy on the Eve of Repeal event, please remember that toy guns of any kind are not permitted in the Museum nor are feathers. No feather fans, no feather boas, no feathers in hat bands, no feather hair decorations. If a bird made it, you will not be allowed in wearing it! But, why?

Chicagoans celebrate the repeal of Prohibition at Hotel Brevoort’s world-famous Crystal Bar, 1933. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4954

Feathers are largely made from a type of protein called keratin, which is an extremely attractive food source for insects, such as beetles and moths. Feathers can also harbor insect eggs. Insects are ravenous eaters, capable of quickly chewing holes in fur, leather, wool, and silk. If an infestation were to occur, it could result in irreversible damage to the Museum’s collection.

Since so many costumes include the offending feather items, here are a few ideas that go beyond the typical 1920s short fringed dress or gangster getup.

Let’s set the stage for December 4, 1933. Not only is the US in the midst of the Great Depression, with nearly one out of three people unemployed, but it is also the middle of a great drought known as the Dust Bowl. Early in the year, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and FDR was sworn in as president. It is a tumultuous time, and fashions of the day reflect this more austere sentiment.

Fashions of the Hour, the local fashion publication put out by Marshall Field & Company, holds a wealth of information about the offerings of Chicago’s popular retailer. Looking at the issues from 1933, one begins to see that evening dresses are long, most reaching the floor. The waist is back at its natural spot and is often defined with a belt or tie. Dresses are usually draped on the bias, creating a smooth and sleek effect. Ruffled trim at the hem and sleeves is also common.

The spring 1933 issue of Fashions of the Hour highlighted American-designed ensembles (left) and the latest Parisian trends (right), including sleek draped dresses and accordion pleating. ICHi-76919

The year’s Christmas issue featured an array of gloves, shoes, hosiery, and handbags. ICHi-76918

Since men’s fashion tends to change at a slower pace, there is a less dramatic shift from the 1920s to the 1930s. In 1933, stylish men wore dark suits, both single- and double-breasted, with crisp white button-up shirts, pocket squares, ties, suspenders, and a hat; fedoras, bowlers, and trilbies were all acceptable hats at this time.

This 1930 article addressed fashionable looks for husbands. ICHi-76917

So, how did Chicagoans dress to drink on December 5, 1933? The Museum’s collection contains photographs of people lining up for their first legal drink in thirteen years . . . and there’s not a feather in sight.

A crowd jams the bar in the Palmer House Hotel during the repeal of Prohibition, 17 East Monroe Street, Chicago, c. 1933. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4938

Fur coats and stoles, bowlers and fedoras were all in style in the 1930s. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4961

Still uncertain about your attire? You can always look to popular movies and their stars for inspiration. Watch Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Mae West in I’m No Angel, or Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement. The Golden Age of Hollywood has countless stars—Fay Wray and Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, among others—who can inspire your 1933 wardrobe.

Whatever you wear, it’s time to say hello to hooch again. See you at The Last Speakeasy.

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