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Womens fashion 1921

June 18, 2016

These beautiful pochoir prints are from a French book printed in 1920 on the body beautiful, Culture Physique de la Femme Elegant, by Dr. Mortat. The illustrations are by Germaine-Paule Joumard.Both pochoir prints and Femme Elegants were a key part of womens fashion 1921. Pochoir prints were a very expensive print making process, where images were hand painted with gouache using stencils onto thick, high quality paper in layers according to colour like a more laborious screen printing process.


The effect is a richly pigmented print with characteristic simplified lines. In high quality works like this the result is very elegant, and in keeping with the trend for simplified Art Deco styles with heavy lines at the time, although these pictures are not in themselves Art Deco.


Because the process is labour intensive books or fashion catalogues illustrated in this manner are always limited edition, usually of no more than a couple of hundred issues. So coming across a portfolio of them today almost a hundred years later is a happy event! The nice thing is that because they have been bound in books and not displayed on a wall where light could do damage on opening the portfolio the colours are usually as bright and lovely as they would have been back in 1920.

Womens fashion 1921 – the Femme Elegant

And the Femme Elegant! Of course the Femme Elegant has always been the epitome of Parisian chic: that French woman of inherent poise and style. The Garçonne of the 1920s was no different at all. The term Garçonne is the French for boy, which is Garçon, with an ironic feminine twist, Garçonne. This androgynous edge to fashion, famously epitomised by Coco Chanel, calls for a flat chest, flat stomach, slim hips, thighs and bum, but no need for the tiny waist previously aspired to. So in terms of underwear, the highly compressing corset wasn’t needed any more.

Womens fashion 1921 – girdles

Some flappers chose to fling their stays away entirely, but corset makers knew that the demand for control underwear hadn’t disappeared overnight, and shifted their attentions to the a little lower to the bum, legs and tum area, with the wispy sounding “Sash”, otherwise known as the “Girdle”, which generally wasn’t wispy at all but made of solid rubber or knitted elastic with boning to smooth out contours. Unventilated rubber was also worn in the hope that its sweaty effects would also cause weight loss in the desired locations.


These girdles were flexible and usually had suspender belts attached. They would be worn over cami knickers, which are also known as French knickers or French shorts because again, they were popularised by the Parisian woman of fashion who didn’t want to wear long bloomers which might be seen under her new short skirts.

Womens fashion 1921 – underwear

Bras started to appear in womens fashion 1921 but they were pretty embroidered scraps of silk, sometimes boned to used as a bust flattener but other than that not offering shape or support, just a cover for the boobs more than anything else.


The fashionable woman who chose to forego a girdle wore as underwear pretty silk body skimming shapes, like teddys, camisole and cami knickers, or bra and cami knickers, which we still wear today when we want to feel luxuriously old fashioned and feminine. For viewers of 1921 womens fashion they appeared scandalously small and skimpy.


Of course, some flappers were happily blessed with the appropriate slender body shape, but those who weren’t or wanted to improve it turned to exercise.


Women of leisure had played sport in order to have fun and maintain fitness and health for decades but the idea of athletic pursuits for the purpose of vanity was something new. At the time of publication, there were no gyms for women in either the UK or even the progressive USA. Spas where slimming hydrotherapy and massage were offered were the nearest thing.

Womens fashion 1921 – the Tango

This manual demonstrates an set of gentle yoga-based bends and stretches along with the use of some light weights. The effect if followed assiduously would be to look lightly toned. The fashionable ideal was to look and feel athletic and active, not muscle bound. The exercises were probably the ideal warm up for the nights of energetic dancing that young girls still liked to shock their mothers with: the Turkey Trot, the Boston and, evils of evils, the very sexy Tango.


“Tango Teas” had been very popular before the war and still continued, entertainments where those who maybe weren’t quite limber enough to perform the risqué new dances themselves could gather and admire performances by those who were, with professional dancers either tangoing on stage or nimbly stepping between tables which were all set up with tea and cucumber sandwiches where the cream of society sat and gossiped. In many theatres where Tango Teas were held a fashion show of the latest womens fashion 1921 was held afterwards. Tango became such a buzzword that it was used to sell all sorts of accessories, like Tango shoes and Tango hats for those who would never be dancing themselves.

womens fashion 1921 – the Maillot

For these exercises our Femme Elegant is wearing the latest Maillot style swimming costume, a new shape originating in France of course. Dresses had become shorter and so underwear had to follow suit, and these costumes follow the fashionable line. They leave the arms bare and are often cut very high up on the legs and low on the back. The shape is cut to cling to the body, made in fine machine knitted cotton or wool jersey. This lighter weight fabric wouldn’t have stretched and sagged so much when wet, although without lycra the wearer would still not have left the sea as sleek as when she pranced in. In real life at this date most women wore their suits a little longer, either as an all in one with mid thigh shorts to knee length or as a tunic, from bum skimming to just above the knee with long shorts underneath.

Stockings for swimming in

Also worn with swimming costumes were matching stockings which met the top of the costume. As the decade progressed the gap between the top of the costume and the top of the stockings widened, the costume rising and the stockings becoming more like knee high socks until the stockings were dispensed with altogether.

Womens fashion 1921 – swimming boots

The flapper in the illustrations chooses to wear dainty evening slippers for her exercises, which is obviously unrealistic, but for real swimwear special rope soled canvas boots or satin slippers were worn. The boots looked like today’s wresting boots: soft and flexible, laced to mid calf. The slippers were firmly secured to the ankle with ballet slipper-like laces. But how did a person swim all togged up in long shorts, stockings and boots? The answer is, they didn’t. Swimming was considered quite an athletic activity and more beach goers, men and women, contented themselves with just paddling hopping over the waves. Long ropes were attached to buoys out to sea for people paddling to hang onto in case the waves swept them off their feet. The shoes were necessary to protect feet from sharp shells and the broken glass from bottles that littered the beach (plastic bottles not yet having been invented for day trippers to litter it with instead).

swimming caps

Some men did swim and these flappers were the first generation to join them. The flapper in our illustration looks like she’s wearing a swimming cap to go with her Maillot, and in fact she might be: decorated rubberised silk caps were worn at the seaside to protect from splashes. It is about this time that more practical and aerodynamic rubber or latex swimming caps with a chip strap came in for the determined swimmer too. Of course out flapper might also be wearing an evening cloche as her friends also wear the fashionable small knitted cap as well as ribbon headbands.

Vivid colours

The swimsuits illustrated are in vivid colours and have very sweet decorations which is not just a fancy of the illustrator: the favoured Twenties colours were actually very bright, with evening dress colours of chartreuse and burnt orange or hot pink and lime green not uncommon.

Womens fashion 1921 and the suntan

Although sunbathing and getting a tan (or the unattractive “sunburn” as it is invariably referred to in stories of the time) was getting more popular, it was only the most daring of women who sunbathed  on a crowded beach in just her swimming costume. Most had something ready to slip on over the costume as soon as she was out of the waves, or change into altogether. Swim suits might come with matching short dresses, and by the end of the 1920s beach pyjamas were the latest craze – loose and floppy to be worn with vests or just the swimsuit top shop showing. In fact from the 1920s onwards trips to the seaside were a good reason for a summer fashion parade of all the daring styles which you wouldn’t feel quite right wearing on the streets at home – fun, disposable fashions were the order of the day.


Culture Physique de la Femme Elegant Cover large

Culture Physique de la Femme Elegant x 11