What a great subtitle for fans of the Jazz Age, if not also alliteration: “Clothes, Clubs and Contraband” aptly references distinctive features of this iconic period in American cultural history—which The East Hampton Historical Society (EHHS) is celebrating at the Clinton Academy Museum in an attractive exhibit, “Jazz Age East Hampton (1919-1933).”
A slang word said to be of uncertain origin, “jazz” is likely related to “jism” or its variant “jizz,” a term generally defined as spirit, excitement or propulsive energy. To judge from the historic photographs, decorative arts, artifacts and period fashions on display at the academy, however, it would seem that the sexual suggestions of the word yielded to the societal on Long Island, with the era’s pleasures reflecting the sartorial and social world of local gentry rather than the demimonde of African Americans and others in New Orleans who put jazz on the map as music.
“Jazz Age East Hampton” is a treat for the eyes. It includes swimsuits, children’s outfits, dresses, jewelry, parasols, a banjo, athletic medal awards, wooden golf clubs and a croquet set. A special section of the room is devoted to the Ladies Village Improvement Society (LVIS) and the Maidstone Club. And, oh yes, that third “C” of the subtitle: “contraband.” Would you believe there’s even a half-full, decades-old bottle of liquor, most likely whiskey, says EHHS Executive Director Richard Barons and his wife Roseanne, who curated this show. The Jazz Age, after all, paralleled the era of Prohibition. The booze, boat contraband recovered nine miles south of Jones Inlet in 80 feet of water, dates to October 1922, and gives off a slight scent if you sniff the new cork and have a potent imagination.
The inspiration for the exhibit came to him, Barons says, when he went online to the Library of Congress (LC) to check something and lo! saw a bunch of images on the LC website, many of lush, local gardens in the area. And, of course, he relies, as always, on the kindness of area families and friends who keep donating items to EHHS. Peggy Sherrill, for example, came in bearing a beaded red dress (she had been equally generous with photos for the EHHS exhibit “The Long Island Express: Rare Photographs of East Hampton Town After the 1938 Hurricane”).
To judge from the sleeveless tunic-style dresses on show, red would seem to have been the default color of the period, with black a runner up, and red, white and black a frequent color combination, especially in Oriental-inspired dresses and kimonos, embroidery still intact. As for swim wear, for men and women, though made of wool, the suits look modern and comfortable. Among dressing table artifacts, there’s a “hair receiver,” which Barons explains was where women stored brushed-out hair to be used as ornaments, a tradition that dates to he 19th century, possibly earlier. The jewelry is elegant and simple, reminding Barons of a famous saying of Coco Chanel: “Before leaving the house, a lady should stop, look in the mirror, and remove one piece of jewelry.” And men, how about those gentleman’s collars?
Several photographic images have not been seen before, Barons notes. Some will startle—the Montauk fishing pier, for example, a zeppelin going by, a reminder that there had been a dirigible station in Montauk; a hand-colored photo of the recently opened Montauk Manor, with horses and hitching post out front; a picture of three golfers posing for the camera, clubs in hand, ties and long socks de rigueur. The remarkable garden photos show the Italianate influence prominent at the time, pergolas and all. A particularly gorgeous back yard turns out to be a photo of a painting by Childe Hassam of his cottage on Egypt Lane.
“Jazz Age East Hampton (1919–1933) Clothes, Clubs, and Contraband” at Clinton Academy Museum, 151 Main Street, East Hampton. Through October 13. Special tour by EHHS Executive Director Richard Barons, August 17. Free. Donations always appreciated. Call 631-324-6850 for further info or visit the EHHS website.