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UNLV professor explains what’s great about ‘Gatsby’ fashion

When Deirdre Clemente watches “The Great Gatsby,” which premieres May 10, it won’t strictly be for entertainment purposes. It won’t necessarily be because she feels she knows F. Scott Fitzgerald, either.

She’ll watch it with great interest as a fan of the book, and a scholar who published many works on the author. But she’s mostly looking forward to discovering whether the “Gatsby” costume design department took her advice. Clemente, assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, served as a consultant on the film.

It was just one day two years ago in a building in New York City that she had her big Hollywood moment. The film’s creative department heard about her Fashion Institute of Technology master’s thesis on Fitzgerald and fashion and invited her to check out the wares up for consideration.

Drawing on her extensive knowledge of 1920s fashion, Clemente was asked which fabrics were more likely to be used during that period. Answer: nonsynthetics, since they hadn’t yet been produced. She was asked which shade of gray would make the most sense. Answer: gunmetal, since it was before metallics’ time.

“They wanted to make intellectual choices about how to represent the 1920s,” says Clemente, who was pleasantly surprised by the research costume designer Catherine Martin (director Baz Luhrmann’s wife) and her team had already conducted.

Clemente has since launched fitzgeraldandfashion.com. It’s the online version of her FIT unpublished thesis, which explores “clothing as cultural history.” She operates the site and its blog with her sister-in-law and Ireland-based fashion writer Aisling O’Connor.

The historian’s fascination with Fitzgerald started when she read “The Great Gatsby” in the ninth grade. It wasn’t enough to read his literature and short stories. Clemente wanted to delve into the author, too.

In graduate school, she studied Ivy Style, specifically from Fitzgerald’s alma mater Princeton. The white flannel pants popular on that campus also show up in Gatsby, a book that heavily relies on fashion to tell stories.

“People love fashion in Fitzgerald,” Clemente says. “There’s Gatsby throwing the shirts, his pink suit, the silver tie, Daisy’s white dress.”

The author, according to Clemente, had a way of addressing the various shades of class through clothing. Unfortunately, the modern reader might miss some of the cues the book gives. For instance, the pink suit. Today, it would be interpreted as a metrosexual move. But, as Clemente argues, pink wasn’t so gender-specific in the ’20s. Rather, Fitzgerald used the suit as a nod to the millionaire’s flamboyant “new money.”

One aspect of dress represented throughout the book that Americans abandoned long ago is the change of clothes that occurs with each new activity in the day. There were sports clothes, lounge clothes, evening clothes, etc.

The still shots and trailers she’s seen of the movie thus far have exposed both historical accuracies and inaccuracies in relation to the costume design. The former is most evident in the lush fabrics, such as a black evening dress worn by the character of Jordan Baker.

“It looks woven with some kind of ribbon or something. You can see those details and the texture — that’s a big Fitzgerald thing. How fabric sounds when it’s rustled. His description of clothing was so multisensory,” she says.

However, she thinks the cuts of the clothes look off. The men’s pant legs appear too tight for the period. Jordan’s gown underarms are “awkwardly low” and Daisy Buchanan’s dresses are all too fitted, looking almost tapered in at the waist, which defies the shapeless silhouettes of that time.

What’s lacking in fashion’s historical accuracy, Clemente says, director Luhrmann makes up for with cultural representations.

Gatsby the book was “very white,” as she puts it. Scenes from the movie, however, show black people serving black partygoers and dancers have fleshy black skin. More than one race, body type are featured.

As for the influence the newest film adaptation will have on fashion today, Clemente expects the usual one-season cycle these things tend to spur. Dropped waistlines and side-parted bobs should be all the rage until the next big movie sensation.

She just hopes moviegoers realize that this is Luhrmann’s interpretation of the book and prepare themselves for that. Clemente herself is thankful to have been a small part of the film, so she can appreciate it a little more.

“I won’t be off in my corner, chipping away at it,” she says. “Being involved in it let me be more of an impartial observer.”

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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