1920s Fashion – Womens Clothing Styles in the 20s
Art, war, and politics: three things that influenced 1920s fashion.
From the beginning of the century, modern art shocked the world: cubism, fauvism, futurism, constructivism and the Weiner Werkstatte suggested a different kind of aesthetics that was radically simplified which not only affected pictures on walls but fashion, too. A lot of modern artists worked with fashion houses to design clothes and some, such as the Futurists, directly mentioned clothing in their manifestos. This had quite an influence of female dress, which moved towards a straighter, less complicated silhouette.
Women’s roles in society
The first world war was over in Britain in 1918 – of course its immediate effects were going to be felt well into the 1920s, as well as resonating through the entire lives of those who lived through it. During the war women had been catapulted from their roles as almost hidden “domestic angels” into public life and a much wider range of jobs than they had ever had before. This required a wide range of outfits of a comfortable and practical nature that they weren’t about to relinquish.
Politically, the end of the war had also seen the suffragists win the right of voting for certain women over the age of 30. It was followed in 1928 by votes for all women over the age of 21. This, combined with the above created what the media termed “The New Woman”. The New Woman voted, travelled alone into her job in the city, smoked, painted her face, cut her hair, wore short skirts, stayed up late dancing in them, and, if you listened to an increasingly hysterical press on the subject, neglected her man and her home life to do all of these things.
The Flapper and 1920s fashion
The above describes what we think of as the quintessential “1920s Flapper”. Interestingly, the word “Flapper” was originally used around that time to describe a girl of about 13-19 and only became the term for this kind of woman gradually following the 1920 film “The Flapper”, which follows the (mis)fortunes of a schoolgirl and her fall from grace.
Obviously, not every woman of the 1920s was a flapper and not everybody had bobbed hair, a cloche hat, knee-length skirt, lipstick, a long string of pearls, a beaded dress and a propensity for smoking, drinking and dancing the Black Bottom until 2am.
Other elements or in 1920s fashion
Some women did though: they did all of those things. Most adopted some elements or other in 1920s fashion, just as we pick and choose from fashions today. It’s also interesting to note that this wasn’t the only fashion available by any means: women had a wide variety of hat styles to chooses from, hairstyles for many stayed long and even the bob came in many different varieties, skirt lengths varied from knee to just above the ankle (you’d be quite old-fashioned to wear one longer, though), voluminous skirts were worn with fitted tops and, by the way, the Little Black Dress wasn’t invented in 1926 by Coco Chanel and immediately adopted as the only dress the chic could possibly wear: working women had been wearing black for decades already and fashionable clothes came in a rainbow of colours, black included.
1920s fashion Daywear
Paris was still the centre of fashion in the 1920s. If a dress didn’t come from Paris or wasn’t a copy of something that came from Paris, it simply wasn’t fashionable. But the good news: Paris was really into the simplified silhouette. So simplified that “sack” was a word regularly interchanged for “dress” – some frocks consisted literally of only two pieces, front and back with arm and neck holes. This could easily be made on the mass market or even by the home sewer. Sewing machines were becoming more affordable and most middle class households had them by now. A dress as simple as this could even be hand sewn fairly quickly and easily. It meant that 1920s fashion could be followed by the middle and working classes – quite a revolution.
But of course, women did not only wear dresses in 1920s fashion. They also favoured separates – skirts and a blouse, surmounted with a gently tailored jacket, long line or quite often a thick cardigan. The blouses ran the gamut from very simple to be-frilled, embroidered and with all kinds of fancy collars. They also, like dresses, came in many colours and prints.
Coco Chanel introduced her “pauvre chic” styles in the 1920s, based on work wear. They were soft tailored garments made from practical jersey – but finished in couture techniques and often lined in silk.
The Russian Influence
There were many rich Russian émigrés to Paris in the years preceding the 1920s, and their style greatly influenced the master couturiers. They favoured fur-trimmed clothing, and you’ll see that widely on 1920s garments, and not only outwear – there were fur edges on skirts and cardigan cuffs and collars as well as appearing on jackets, coats and hats. The popularity of a fur stole never waned and fox, mink, rabbit, Persian lamb and “foxine” (cheaper fur dyed and treated to look like fox) appear slung over shoulders or firmly grasped. Fake fur had yet to make an appearance in 1920s fashion.
Orientalism in 1920s fashion
Another influence the émigrés had been in bringing their traditional style of embroidery to Paris. Russian “peasant” embroidery appeared on extremely sophisticated outfits, and in some cases mingled with the traditions and motifs from many other countries. It was called “Oriental” but it encompassed designs from many countries. The Ballet Russe had widely introduced this fantasy style to Paris and the city was also fascinated by black jazz bands and the dancing of Josephine Baker. This admiration meant that black artists and culture also influenced the fashions of the time.
The designer Paul Poiret was a great proponent of the Oriental fantasy, and he dressed his clients in bright silks of vibrant colours. They were heavily embroidered and beaded. The shapes as well as the colours were new. Harem pants appeared, “lampshade” dresses, and straight “hobble” skirts.
1920s fashion evening wear
The Western World was seized with Egyptomania when King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922. The Egyptian King appeared to be dressed in pure gold sequins and had nets of faience beads spread over him. Immediately sequins and beading became all the rage, as well as Ancient Egyptian style emblems and pictograms (which often didn’t make sense). Even 1920s fashion illustrations were influenced, with models appearing in profile drawn in a flat style with a distinct black outline.
The Chemise dress in 1920s fashion
A very popular style was the loose, sleeveless knee-length chemise dress made from silk or satin, heavily beaded with perhaps beaded fringes too. This was great for dancing in as it gave ease of movement while the beads or sequins twinkled in the light.
Other styles included, at the haute couture end, the “Infanta” dress. This was so-called because of its resemblance to dresses worn by Spanish Infantas in historical portraits. It was far more romantic than the chemise dress, consisting of a fitted bodice with a dropped waist, and flat, wide panniers to the hips. In length it usually was just below the knee. Versions of this included a similar bodice with a dropped waist but a flared full skirt instead of panniers, or fluted panels inserted into the skirt.
If a dress wasn’t straight up and down, as in the chemise dress but had some shaping, the dropped waist was very popular.
1920s perfume and makeup
1920s fashion in makeup was highly influenced by films. This was the era of silent movies which were extremely popular. In these early times, film lighting was bright and film stock didn’t pick up much detail so film stars (both 1920s men and women) had to really exaggerate their facial features for them to show up. This was especially important because without sound, a lot of acting was performed with the face to convey emotion. So heavy khol round the eyes, a very pale complexion, full eyelashes using mascara and sometimes false eyelashes, and very defined lipstick were all used now.
The characteristic hat for the 1920s is the cloche and this came in all colours, fabrics and widths of brim. However, the ethic fantasy trend also provided 1920s women with exotic styles and the sportswear trend gave them hats that were a lot like motoring helmets.
Ankle boots were still worn for practicality, as were sensible lace ups but the most fashionable shoes were kitten heeled t-bars or strap shoes (very useful for dancing) or low heeled court shoes. Fancy designs could come with several straps, and bows, buckles or artificial flowers were attached at the toe for decoration. The toe shape was predominantly pointed.
Because of the highly decorated clothing styles in 1920s fashion, jewellery was minimal in this decade. Many models are shown with only one items: perhaps a long string of pearls, wristwatch or pair of very simple pearl studs. Bangles, worn at the wrist or high on the upper arm were popular.
For evening, hair decorations and headbands sometimes with dramatic ostrich feather swaying above the head. Dangly earrings were also popular for evening and brooches were worn in sometimes unexpected places like the hip or to accentuate the low back of a dress. Fans, often also with dramatic feathers, were an important evening accessory.
Diamond or diamante clips were manufactured to add to shoes, belts or at the neckline of dresses.
Costume jewellery was en vogue so these piece need not be real jewels, and this also meant they could be big and bold. Materials for jewellery at this time included plastics, wood and fabrics as well as traditional gems.
Women used parasols for summer and umbrellas for bad weather, and also accessorised with gloves and hats, scarves, fur stoles and muffs, and motoring veils. Small handbags were carried.
The fashionable style was unquestionably the bob, but many women hung onto their long hair, wearing it as a low bun right at the back with the sides of the hair styled over the ears in imitation of the bob, or half short at the front, with a sharp chin length bob effect, but with a bun at the back.
Bobs came in many styles and quite a few lengths. They could be cut slightly longer than jaw length, or as high as the cheekbones with a clipped back. They could be parted at the centre or the side or have no parting, they could have a fringe or none, or if they did the fringe could be many different heights over the forehead, wispy or strong, cut straight across, curved or even as a heart shape. They could also be curled or waved in many different ways.
1920s Fashion underwear
It’s not true that women threw away their corsets during the 1920s. They didn’t need to make themselves some tiny waists and jutting bosoms, but anyone in possession of any kind of bosom or bottom needed to do the opposite and flatten them right out. So, elasticated corsets were created to do just that, and mould the body to the desired tube shape. Theses foundation garments also existed separately, so in 1920s fashion, a flattening bra and/or hip and bottom reducing girdle could be worn. Sometimes these were worn directly against bare skin, or sometimes on top of the traditional chemise, a loose fitting shift in cotton or silk used as a base to prevent chafing.
Some women did go without body shaping entirely, or might wear just a very loose silk “bra” (they were not called that at the time) or longer line vest with loose fitting French knickers which seem rather big to us but were extremely brief for the period. A combination teddy could also be worn. In winter, knitted wool jersey versions of these were much warmer. A slip or petticoat, and stockings in silk or rayon, with a garter if it wasn’t already attached to the other undergarments, completed the underwear.
1920s sportswear, swim and beachwear
Women had always been included in sports like horse-riding, tennis, skiing, and golfing, but up till now they did it wearing every day dress, with little modification. In the 1920s every day dress had become a little more practical, and in addition things like jodphers for skiing or flared skirts for playing tennis in were suggested. Swimwear in 1920s fashion became far more body conscious and practical, with knitted wool swimsuits looking a lot like today’s one pieces.