Women's Fashions of the 1920s - Flappers and the Jazz Age
Women's fashions of the 1920s were typified by
- Less tailoring leading to an abandonment of the corset
- A tubular silhouette erased the typical feminine shape
- Dropped waistlines created a long, slim figure
- Shorter hemlines made it easier to drive cars and move quickly
Women's fashions of the 1920s are a large part of the Jazz Age identity. New technology and the end of the horrors brought about by World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic gave rise to a youthful exuberance personified by the Flapper.
Contrary to popular misconception, the short skirts and bold make up of the flapper did not rule the fashion of the day but were an iconic and memorable look. Fashion periods are usually distinguished by the female silhouette which presented a boyish figure with flattened breasts and loose clothing for most of the decade.
The drop waist shift dresses of the 1920s relieved women of the last vestiges of Edwardian formality. Less tailoring, as well as the availability of the sewing machine meant that women could easily make fashionable clothing at home so that high fashion was no longer restricted to the elite.
Women felt empowered when they won the right to vote (1920 in the US, 1928 for 21 year old women in Britain). The widespread use of the automobile, radio, and increased educational opportunities encouraged young women to cut off their hair and kick up their heels.
The New Culture of the 1920s
During World War I, young women worked outside the home more than they had in the past. They drove cars and disregarded tradition. Gender specific clothing began to fall by the wayside after women worked in munitions factories during the Great War.
A kind of cynicism that came in the aftermath of the World War I and the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 created a youth culture that glorified fast living, dancing, and the exciting sounds of syncopated jazz described by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald as the Lost Generation.
The youth drank in carefree disregard of Prohibition (which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol but not its consumption) and lost respect for authority and traditional morals. Young women smoked cigarettes and danced the Charleston and Blackbottom, typified by fast, jerky movements. Short skirts allowed greater freedom to dance; and plunging necklines, and low backs put more of the female body on display than ever before.
Flappers incorporated an unusual use of clothing into the wild new style. Flappers rolled stockings below the knee, and wore unhooked rubber galoshes that flapped when they walked.
Fashion icons of the 1920's like Joan Crawford, Anita Page, and Clara Bow presented glamorous images of party girls, hoydens who flouted tradition and shocked their elders by cutting their hair into a bob as well as wearing bold, obvious make-up.
Fashions of the 1920s - Hemlines
Not all women wore the short skirts or the flippant styles of the flappers.
Skirt hemlines began to rise in 1913 when skirts stopped just above the ankles. By 1918, hemlines had risen to just below calf length and for the next several years showed variations of a few inches one way or another.
In the early 1920s, uneven hemlines gave the appearance of shortening when uneven, scalloped, and handkerchief hems became fashionable. 1925 saw the dramatic rise of skirt hems into the Flapper style that has come to typify women's clothing of the Roaring Twenties, but was a relatively short lasting phenomena.The short skirts of the Flapper was generally worn by younger women while older women wore longer skirts.
By 1929, asymmetrical skirt hems brought hemlines back down. But fashions brief flirtation with short hemlines gave us the image of the modern woman, a style that continued (more or less) throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.
Women's Underwear of the 1920s
Rejection of the stiff tailoring of earlier styles made corset sales plummet. A new, elasticised corset replaced the old, stiff, restricted whalebone corsets of the past.
Young women flattened their breasts with fabric bands to enhance a slim, boyish figure.
As hems rose, the legs were suddenly and shockingly on display. Silk and rayon stockings hooked onto long 'girdles' with snap on garters. Stocking came in shades of colors that gave the appearance of bare legs. Flappers rolled their stockings to just below the knee for ease of movement while dancing.
Fashion Designers of the 1920s
Gabrielle Coco Chanel entered the fashion world in the 1920s with her loose shift dresses, blouses, and evening coats in dark and natural shades. Long, belted blouses, and Russian peasant style embroidery simplified the look of women's clothing. In 1926, Coco Chanel claimed to have introduced introduced the Little Black Dress, a fashion staple that has endured for 85 years.
- Coco Chanel's jewelry workshop introduced the long chain necklaces and multiple stands of faux pearls associated with the flapper look.
- A new, masculine look offered loose, sailor style trousers for women to wear at home and at the beach. These 'beach pajamas' were an early form of a pants suit.
- Art Deco played a prominent role in the fashion trends of the 1920s with geometric shapes based on natural lines.
- The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 set off an instant craze for all things Egyptian. Clothing styles and embellishments reflected designs and patterns of ancient Egypt.
- The designer Jean Patau designed romantic fashions embellished with fine lace, embroidery, and a lavish use of beading. Along with Coco Chanel, Patous' garconne look created a tubular silhouette that de-emphasized the feminine figure by flattening the breasts, narrowing hips, and ignoring the waist.
- In 1922, Jean Patou became the first designer to embroider his initials onto the fabric of his sportswear designs, a concept that is still popular today.
Greta Garbo in Cloche Hat circa 1920
1920's Hair and Hats
Modern concepts of hygiene encouraged women toward more frequent hair washing. Emancipation from traditional gender styles encouraged women to cut their long hair and free them from the complicated hair styles of Edwardian times.
The bob appeared in the US shortly before World War I but really took hold in the 1920s, infuriating the older generation and igniting controversy about gender and appearance with the new androgynous look.
Women with bobs needed more frequent hair cuts, and wanted permanent waves, ushering in an explosion of beauty parlors that offered dye jobs, and perms, as well as the fashionable new hair cut.
Cloche hats were all the rage; narrow, close fitting, bell shaped hats that often featured feathers, bows, beads, or artificial flowers.
Flappers held hair out of their eyes while dancing with headbands decorated with embroidery, beads, or a feather.
1920s Fashion - Fabrics
- Natural fabrics like wool and cotton were still worn, but technology and mass production manufactured synthetics like rayon, introduced in 1910 as a faux silk.
- Knits became popular for day, sportswear, and evening wear, offering comfort, and stretchability for the increased interest in spots, fitness, and dance.
- Patterns based on the look of Ancient Egypt, and Art Deco gave an exotic, geometric look to clothing styles.
- Fair Isle weave patterns, tweeds, and strips were popular for day wear.
- New technology introduced easier garment closures with zippers and metal snaps.
Coats and Shoes of the 1920s
Coats were generally calf length with the wrapper style predominating. The wrap coat was fastened with a large button or tab and buckle and featured a shawl style collar often trimmed in fur. In addition to the familiar furs, coats and collars were sometimes trimmed in monkey fur.
Shoes were generally high heels just over two inches. The mass production of shoes in the early part of the 20th century offered the availability of affordable shoes and encouraged young women to by more shoes. Mary Janes and T strap styles with a medium slightly curved high heel were the dominant shoe of the day.
Women also wore tied Oxford type shoes with a short, stack heel for day wear.
1925 Skiers in Trousers
As women became more active, garments evolved to offer comfortable movement. Trousers were worn for equestrian sports as well as for skiing. Bathing costumes which had been worn for occasional dips adapted for more active engagement in the sea. Women wore very short skirts or bathing dresses that showed more skin than in the past. Some bathing suits omitted the skirts and featured shorts hemmed several inches above the knee. Stocking began to disappear from the bathing costume but some women wore the rolled stockings popular at the time. Bathing shoes were worn in and out of the water.
Bathing beauty contests sprang up in coastal cities where young women competed for trophies. Competitive swimmers wore simple suits without decorations or skirting.
Bathing Costumes circa 1922
1920's Girls With Bobs and Radio
1920 Evening Dress - Lavin
1925 Girl in Striped Dress
Fashions of the 1920's
1920's Fashion - A Wonderful Compilation of Photos, Music, and Videos
The Jazz Age - The 20's - Our American Century; Time Life
1920's America's Decades; edited by John F. Wukovits; Greenhaven Press
American Decades 1920 - 1929; edited by Judith S. Baughman; Manly, Inc.
Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library
Questions & Answers
How did the fashion of the 1920s capture the spirit of that period of history?
Women's clothing styles made a vast change in the 1920s. Never before had hems been so high. The rejection of so many layers of clothing, of stiff corsets, and complete body covering shocked the old guard. But the world had also changed. By the 20s, electricity was widely available. Telephones, automobiles, airplanes, moving pictures, radios were commonplace. Gas stoves replaced old wood-burning stoves, and electric refrigerators were on the way.
Women won the right to vote in the USA in 1920 empowering a large group of people who previously had no voice. Women had entered the workplace during WWI, giving them a feeling of independence as well as some disposable income.
The young women of the 1920s had grown up during a terrible war, a war that was questioned, a huge loss of human life that many suspected was in vein. 1918 ravaged the world with a flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide. Young adults were at the greatest risk of death.
It was a new world for young women. New freedoms that came after such devastating loss encouraged young women to turn away from the old male-dominated culture, away from strict formal attire. The prohibition of alcohol sales in 1920 seemed foolish to many who mistrusted the establishment and flaunted the law.
With this new freedom, after such devastation, what is left but for girls to dance. The new syncopated music would have been difficult to dance to in the old, tight, long dresses. Driving, running to catch trams would have been hard in the long narrow skirts of the past. Old costume hampered movement at work and play. Women increasingly took to sports and outdoor activity.
The world had changed, and women's fashion changed with it.
© 2011 Dolores Monet