Fashion and shopping, Melbourne style

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Thursday
Aug182016

Surface Decoration

CELEBRATING THE ROARING TWENTIES IN A SPECIAL SERIES

Many years ago, I remember seeing a vintage 1920s embroidered silk piano shawl belonging to a fashion editor I once worked with. It was a celestial shade of Wedgwood blue, with cream coloured embroidery, and I fell in love with it. It had belonged to her mother, and quite naturally, she wasn’t parting with it.

I determined to find my own, except there was one problem in fulfilling this mission: these enormous shawls are rarely to be seen in Australia. About five years ago I looked at some in an antique textile shop in Barcelona; I remember a gorgeous black and white one priced at several hundred euros – beyond my price range. Later, I expanded my search to Etsy.

… in the 1920s piano shawls were adopted for decoration of the top surface of the fashionable flapper.

Piano shawls or scarves literally are embroidered pieces of fabric that were used to decorate and protect the top surface of a grand piano. They were quite popular during the Victorian era when pianos in the parlour were fashionable, and in the 1920s piano shawls were adopted for decoration of the top surface of the fashionable flapper. They were worn in the evening simply as shawls, or were tailored to create jackets or kimono-style coats. The hand-tied fringing they are commonly edged with form a distinctive and seductive decoration, swaying with every movement of the wearer.

A few years ago I watched an original 1920s film – I can’t remember the title, but it was about two sisters with a strong sibling rivalry when it came to men – in which a young flapper dons a piano shawl for an evening wrap in disgruntlement after her elder sister steals her brand spanking new lamé coat. The younger sister threw the shawl around her like a cloak, so that the fringing trailed behind her, brushing the floor. The coat was beautiful, but I didn’t consider the shawl a poor substitute as did its wearer!

I eventually found a shawl that I liked on Etsy – not in the coveted Wedgwood blue, but in lustrous navy and white (it won narrowly over a similar shawl of black and white that was a little smaller); I particularly love the birds fluttering amongst the embroidered floral vines. While they come in many different colour combinations, I preferred the minimal simplicity of just two. Here I am wearing mine folded diagonally in half, as the fringing trails dangerously on the floor like a train if it is not folded. I have worn it out as an evening wrap too, to the theatre, and the crépe de chine is not only very warm, but I feel incredibly glamorous embraced within its folds.

I was lucky to find a beautiful piano shawl in such perfect condition at the extreme lower end of the price scale. There are many readily available on Etsy and other online stores, with prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you do wish to buy one, do be patient and shop around as there are bargains to be found, and also be careful to check the condition as much as you are able, as these are antique textiles and you can expect to find shattering, tears, holes and stains in fabrics that have been heavily used or stored incorrectly. A reputable seller will be upfront about such issues.

Photos: March 2014

Model wearing a shawl of crëpe de chine hand-painted by Russian artists, 1924; ph. Edward Steichen. ‘Edward Steichen In High Fashion the Condé Nast Years 1923–1937’ by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow, FEP Editions LLC, 2008

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