Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Roaring in style

A new exhibition explores 1920s fashion, decorative arts and jewelry through the eyes of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

By Phyllis Schiller

Like the pulsing beat of the jazz-age music that permeated the early years of the 20th century, the 1920s saw women undergoing a sea change of social freedom that broke through the barriers imposed by previous generations. In the way they wore their hair, makeup and clothing, these “emancipated” women made the most of their newfound independence. The designs, decorative arts, fashion and jewelry of the day expressed the prevailing sense of change, and adopting these elements became the hallmark of the era’s most sophisticated and stylish women.

One such icon was cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who evoked the spirit of the decade in the fashions she wore, her home decor, and the prized pieces she collected. This is the focus of “Roaring Twenties: The Life and Style of Marjorie Merriweather Post,” a new exhibition at Hillwood — her former estate-turned-museum in northwest Washington, DC.

‘Living life on her own terms’

The exhibit represents Post’s “taste for fashion, jewelry, objets d’art, and 18th-century French decorative arts through the lens of her lived experience,” explains Megan J. Martinelli, Hillwood’s assistant curator of apparel, jewelry and accessories. By the 1920s, Post — newly married to her second husband, financier E.F. Hutton — was “the largest shareholder of her father’s company, Postum Cereal Co., [following] his death in 1914,” Martinelli relates. A businesswoman, Post was “living her life on her own terms. She wore makeup, enjoyed dancing and traveled extensively…. Charity and women’s rights were important to her.”

This period was when some of her more recognizable characteristics took root, continues the assistant curator: “The parties she attended often had underlying charity benefits; the collection of rare furnishings she was already acquiring to fill the rooms of her triplex Upper East Side apartment [in New York] are still represented at Hillwood today; and her appreciation for fine and custom jewelry really evolved during the 1920s.”

Dresses, dances and domestic flair

Eight distinct sections showcase how Post expressed the trends of the era.

“Transitions: Marjorie Post into the 1920s” features “a tailored day suit from the 1910s appropriate for attending to business; Post’s wedding dress from British designer Lucille for her Hutton marriage; and an evening dress designed by French couture house Madeleine & Madeleine,” says Martinelli.

The second section, “Global Influences,” has the costume, headpiece and jewelry that early American modern dancer Ruth St. Denis wore for her 1927 performance at Post’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. This was “the same year Post completed construction on the residence,” notes Martinelli. St. Denis “danced her Nautch Dance, which drew from Indian culture.” The pieces are on loan from the Jacob’s Pillow dance center in Massachusetts.

In the “Art Deco Design” segment, 1920s designs find expression in shoes, a day dress, personal accessories by Cartier, and a series of enameled gold handbag handles. “Russian Avant Garde Influences” includes “two evening ensembles recently attributed to Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, known for her work designing sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, as well as her work as a painter,” says the assistant curator.

Seven gowns are on display in the “Parties with a Purpose” section, which Martinelli describes as “a celebration of Post and family’s evening attire worn to events she held and attended — many supporting causes dear to Post’s heart, like healthcare accessibility and child-rights advocacy.” Meanwhile, “Family in Cartier Frames” highlights “Post’s meticulous attention to detail when working with Cartier New York and others on specially commissioned frames complementing miniatures of Post’s family.”

Post’s husband has a section as well: “E.F. Hutton: Outfitted for the Times” illustrates men’s attire comparable to what he wore during the period. “Though the pair parted ways in 1935, they were such a distinctive, stylish couple of the 1920s,” says Martinelli.

The final segment of the exhibition is “Post’s Passions: Her Early Collecting,” which focuses on the “18th-century French decorative art pieces Post began acquiring during the 1920s to furnish her New York home. A small section of the apartment’s French drawing room is recreated using paintings and furniture still in Hillwood’s collection today.”

An emerald treasure

Among the jewelry and accessories on display, says Martinelli, are “vanity cases, handbags, frames, and other objets d’art bought from Cartier and elsewhere.” But pride of place goes to a brooch of carved Mughal emeralds, platinum, diamonds, and enamel, which Post acquired through Cartier London in 1925.

“The brooch is part of the ‘Global Influences’ section, where other luxury items highlight motifs, materials and techniques embraced by the West from other cultures,” Martinelli elaborates. “Post loved pieces with connections to history, and although this brooch was initially commissioned for another client, she acquired it soon after it was returned to the London shop and had it modified from a rounder shape at the top to [a] more exotic teardrop shape. The central carved emerald features an inscription referencing the brooch’s previous owner, a servant of Shah Abbas II of Persia, who probably received it as a gift or plunder from the Mughals.”

Post wore the brooch in multiple ways, including “as a pendant on her carved Mughal emerald necklace (now at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History), and as a shoulder brooch for her 1929 presentation to the British Court,” Martinelli continues. It also adorned the heiress at other events, such as “a Vogue photo shoot with Horst P. Horst in 1957 at Hillwood, as a devant corsage over a Charles James gown — much to the protestations of the volatile designer, who felt that it was too heavy for the gown.”

The brooch encapsulates Post’s approach to jewelry, says the assistant curator. “Its historical provenance, fine craftsmanship, and adaptability are all key characteristics of the pieces in Post’s fine-jewelry collection. The fact that she had it modified after acquiring it to more succinctly suit her taste is very indicative of a pattern that would follow, finding her to be very specific when working with jewelers on commissions.”

“Roaring Twenties: The Life and Style of Marjorie Merriweather Post” runs from June 12, 2021, through January 9, 2022.


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