When Croydon was cool, clean and sophisticated

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They may now be the epitome of curtain-twitching tedium, the places from which all teenagers are desperate to escape. But the suburbs were once regarded as the most fashionable, desirable and aspirational places to live.

An exhibition that opens today aims to explore the glory days of life in suburbia and reclaim a veneer of credibility for Croydon, whose Clocktower arts centre is hosting it.

From being the place from which the model Kate Moss escaped to blossom as a fashion beauty, the London borough is hoping to resurrect its previous reputation as a dream destination. Mary Webb, assistant exhibitions officer, said: "Croydon has had some stick in the past, and still does. It's not seen as a cool place to live, but we're showing that actually it's an interesting place and very desirable."

The exhibition, Sunshine in Suburbia, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, celebrates the design, fashion and architecture that flourished when the suburbs were at the peak of their popularity between the world wars. Though based on an old settlement dating back centuries, Croydon began to expand massively in the late 19th century, becoming commuter belt territory for Victorians able to travel the 10 miles into London by train in 15 or 20 minutes.

The expansion reached a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when families desperate for their own home away from the grime of London flocked to the fresh air and space outside the capital.

Flat-roofed Modernist homes vied with neo-Georgian designs and mock-Tudor mini-mansions in a borough which proudly sold itself as London's greenest and most attractive.

"It was seen as much healthier because it was not low-lying and it was away from the smog and grime and dirtof London," Ms Webb said. "Inner urban areas were pretty grotty. So aspirational young families moved out of slightly grotty flats into their own house with their own garden. People who had never had their own homes thought it would be nice to have a country cottage style. There was a real utopian feel."

Croydon even had its own airport, a gateway to Europe and beyond long before Gatwick and Heathrow came to dominate the airways. In May 1930, Amy Johnson, the aviation pioneer, took off from Croydon on her epic flight to Australia.

The exhibition includes the flight case of Captain Bill Lawford, the pilot who set up the air traffic control system at Croydon. "His case, complete with beautifully coloured stickers beating the names 'Casablanca,' 'Baghdad,' 'Naples,' 'Fez,' and many others, brings back a genuine sense of the excitement of travel," Ms Webb said.

Other exhibits, some lent by museums including the V&A, include Art Deco garden furniture, an early form of domestic sun lamp dating from 1927, when tanning first became popular, wallpaper and linoleum designs and Art Deco-style posters advertising the health benefits of Croydon's swimming pool.

For contrast, the town's branch of the Ikea homestore has provided a typical 21st-century living-room based on sales statistics, including a white corner sofa and stark white shelving.

Sunshine in Suburbia at the Museum of Croydon, Croydon Clocktower, runs from today until 24 February, admission £1.50/50p.

Famous residents

Kate Moss

Despite adorning the catwalks of the world, and the front cover of every magazine and tabloid newspaper, Kate Moss's family roots are in the fairly anonymous Croydon suburb of Addiscombe.

David Prowse

Croydon kids in the 1980s could claim with some veracity, "Darth Vader lives down my street". David Prowse, the man under the black costume, hailed from Addiscombe.

Emile Zola

The celebrated French novelist exiled himself in Upper Norwood in 1898 after receiving a prison sentence for intervening in the trial for treason of a Jewish French Army officer.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft

Winning an Oscar for A Passage to India was the confirmation of Dame Peggy's status as one of Britain's finest actors. She was born Edith Margaret Emily Ashcroft in Croydon in 1907.

Sir Bernard Ingham

Margaret Thatcher's press secretary was the original master of spin. He allegedly described one victim as "semi-detached", perhaps inspired by his roots in Purley.

Nigel Harman

The 33-year-old soap star swapped his home town of Purley for the fictional streets of Walford, where his character, Dennis Rickman met and fell in love with his adoptive sister.