by Angela Adams
Soprano and Costume Artist Fiona Harrison, wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of the much-loved television series Downton Abbey. With Downton in mind we unleashed our creativity in re-creating the 1920s and 1930s period look at Earsham Hall. The Duke of Cumberland Dining Room provided the ideal setting. Many thanks to Annabel Stretton-Derham for allowing us access to her home for the commission.
All about the flapper
The first costume of the day was based on the 1920s flapper – a new breed of woman who flouted society’s pre-war values, and set out to enjoy life to the full. It wasn’t called the roaring twenties for nothing! The flapper smoked, drank, danced and voted. She was giddy and took risks. She cut her hair, wore make-up and lighter clothing to allow movement when dancing. This rather boyish look was all, dropped waistlines and rayon stockings.
Part two – red hot Hollywood
For the second theme of our session, we focus on Hollywood of the 1930s in the wood panelled hallway complete with sweeping staircase.
More about the flirty 30s
With the advent of the 1930s, society became less shocked by facial grooming and the application of artfully applied make, along with pencil thin eyebrows became acceptable. Fashion returned to a more feminine form and exquisite evening wear accompanied by simple, chic day-wear followed… And we mustn’t forget the invention of Nylon! Short bobbed hair of the 20s soon became a thing of the past for the fashionable femme fatales, and sleek up-swept styles completed the flirty-thirties look.
French designer Madeleine Vionnet and her Cross-Cut-Bias-Method added a sensual and elegant quality to gowns. The cut made the fabric drape in sinuous folds over the curves of the female form – it became a style loved by numerous Hollywood icons of the era.
Part three – rhapsody in blue
Moving on, theme three finds us in Earsham Hall’s decadent Drawing Room, and I think it’s about time we shared a little more about Fiona.
‘That’ll do, is never good enough,’ smiles Fiona as she prepares for our next set. It’s not surprising that Ms Harrison has become one of the most photographed entertainers on the heritage and re-enactment circuit – be it the Bexhill Bathing Beauty, Evette the Spivette or 60s Psychedelia, Fiona’s attention to the tiniest of details is faultless. ‘Creating the right look for each show is very important,’ Fiona tells me. ‘Many of my clothes are vintage pieces and include a number of original civilian suits and uniforms from the 1940s.’ Fiona is greatly inspired by the Hollywood movies, ‘ ‘Some of my favourite stars include Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Hedy Lamarr, whose fashion styles I re-create for my audiences.’ What Fiona can’t find she has made or designs and makes herself, as she did the blue 1920s dress Fiona is modelling in the next series of pictures.
Part four – divine daywear
All good things must come to an end, and I must say I’ve truly enjoyed my time with Fiona and her fabulous wardrobe, but we’re not quite finished yet.
A little more about Fiona
I asked Fiona if she’d always been a singer with an above average interest in fashion? ‘Before I started to sing professionally, I studied fashion and later worked as a hat designer in Luton,’ she tells me. During her student days Fiona worked in London at the theatrical costumiers Bermans and Nathans: ‘ Many of the skills I learnt there have stayed with me through my professional singing career’.
Owners of antique and retro fashion shops must look forward to Fiona’s return: ‘I simply can’t resist buying clothes of yesteryear,’ she says. ‘My stage wardrobe currently includes at least 40 evening gowns well over 250 pairs of shoes, a huge selection of hats, gloves and fans plus a stunning array of costume jewellery’. Fiona also writes for Best of British Magazine. We’ll be shooting a very special feature for the magazine late summer 2015.
Top tips for vintage fashion on a budget
The dress Fiona is wearing in this episode fits perfectly into the period. But I’ll let you into a secret… it’s quite a recent acquisition from a high street retail chain. The key is to accessorize… the trimmed hat, positioning of the belt, jewellery, gloves and shoes and of course the knowledge of how to throw it all together, that transform the outfit and add an air of vintage.
The finale – Jezebel
The original Jezebel was a Hebrew princess who’s actions led to the term being used in associated with ladies of lesser morals. However, our Jezebel is a gorgeous vintage open-topped motor car that fitted exquisitely with the period Fiona and I were attempting to recreate. A fitting finale for some wonderful sessions of fashion, fun and frolics.
The rise and fall of hem-lines and wrap-over coats
As we can see here, Fiona’s hem-line has risen, as did hem-lines in the ’20s! It’s been quoted that the rise and fall of the hem rather resembled a stock exchange index, and by 1925 – the year of the Paris Exposition – hems edged above the knee. Much to the dismay of many men, by the end of the decade hems once again had fallen.
Wrap-over coats (Fiona’s is an original) had become a ladies must-have garment. Extravagantly, the coat lining was often fashioned to match the fabric of the dress worn beneath. Shoes were strappy, T-bar designs – popular with girls who liked to dance – they didn’t slip off like satin slippers.
Photography: Angela Adams. Model & Costume Design: Fiona Harrison. Location: Earsham Hall, NR35 2AN. Thank you to Geoffrey Brandon for the use of Jezebel.