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Early cars, fashion on display at the Petersen

Thu, 16 Sep 2010 00:00:00 -0700

Automotivated, a new exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, traces the evolution of clothes worn in cars--from the bulky circus-tent stuff people had to wear to keep from freezing to death in the jangly, open-topped conveyances of 100 years ago, up to the height of the European Concours in the 1920s and '30s, when what you and your date wore was just as important to winning best of show as the styling of your Delahaye/Delage/Talbot Lago.

“In the earliest days of the automobile, you were sitting on the car, you weren't sitting in it,” said Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen.

So the first section of the exhibit shows people (mannequins dressed as people) in heavy, practical overcoats, scarves and goggles. They are grouped around the Petersen's yellow Mercer (a car that still runs, by the way, and was driven only a few years ago in the Tour, before being displayed at Pebble Beach).

“Later, cars became expressions of elegance,” Kendall said. “When people no longer had to dress for the journey and they could dress for the destination, they . . . could pull up to a fine restaurant or to a valet and make a dramatic entrance. There was no better way to do it than being in a custom-bodied Delage or Delahaye or a LaSalle painted a flamboyant color combination.”

Luckily, the Petersen has all of the above, including retired museum director Dick Messer's Rolls-Royce.

The notion of fashion being as important as automotive styling achieved its ultimate manifestation in the Concours d'Elegance of the '30s.

“Today we look at a concours and see cars paraded before the judges and we grade them according to the accuracy of their restorations,” said Kendall, who has been with many Petersen cars shown on the lawn at Pebble. “But back in the '20s and '30s, it was completely different. Concours d'Elegance was literally that--it was a display of elegance. Judges were there to evaluate how well the car and the outfit went together. And how well the lady or gentleman or the chauffeur presented the car to the judges. It was all part of an ensemble, all part of making that spellbinding effect.”

The whole transition from trench coat to Trophee (the name and spelling of the item given to best of show winner at Pebble) is on display. And once you get her all the way into the Petersen for the fashion, you get to see all the other cool cars. But remember, this whole thing was for her.

Automotivated runs through Jan. 23. For more information, visit

Watch video of the Automotivated exhibit:

By Mark Vaughn