Hallmarks of Women's Fashions of the 1920s
Fashion in this era was typified by the following:
- Less tailoring, leading to an abandonment of the corset
- A tubular silhouette that erased the typical feminine shape
- Dropped waistlines that created a long, slim figure
- Shorter hemlines that made it easier to drive cars and move quickly
Enter the Jazz Age
Women's fashions of the 1920s are a large part of the Jazz Age identity. The 1920s arrived on the heels of World War I, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, runaway inflation followed by an 18 month depression. When the American economy bounced back in a big way in 1921 it lead to a youthful exuberance that was personified by the flapper.
Contrary to popular misconception, the short skirts and bold makeup 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 in the 20s presented a boyish figure with flattened breasts and loose clothing for most of the decade.
More Empowerment for Women
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 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 (1914 - 1918).
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 in his classic novel The Great Gatsby. The term "The Lost Generation" is credited to Gertrude Stein by Ernest Hemingway to depict a loss of faith in the establishment and traditional values.
"The Lost Generation"
The youth drank in carefree disregard of Prohibition (1920 - 1933) which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol but not its consumption. Young people 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.
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.
Up and Down
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.
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.
Garters and Stockings
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.
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 haircuts. Permanent waves became popular ushering in an explosion of beauty parlors that offered dye jobs and perms, as well as the fashionable new haircut.
Hats and Headbands
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. Headbands were often worn horizontally across the forehead.
- Natural fabrics like wool, cotton, and linen were still worn, but technology and mass production offered new, man made fabrics. Rayon, introduced in 1910 as a faux silk, offered more affordable clothing choices to middle class and lower middle class women.
- 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
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.
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
- 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
- Jazz Age Fashion: Dressed to Kill by Virginia and Daisy Bates
- Fashions of a Decade: The 1920s by Jacqueline Herald (short, a simple introduction)
- Vintage Fashions for Women 1920s - 1940s by Kristina Harris (for the collector)
Questions & Answers
Question: How did the fashion of the 1920s capture the spirit of that period of history?
Answer: 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.
Question: Did flappers wear one shoulder dresses for evenings?
Answer: In general, flappers wore dresses to be comfortable for dancing so a one-shoulder dress would not work very well. If you are looking for a dress for a 1920s costume (I am just assuming this) Google image by hunting for authentic pictures of the period. Do not rely on modern approximations or costumes. Once you get an idea of the types of dresses the flappers wore for evening wear, you can attempt to find a modern piece or make on yourself. There are online sites that sell vintage style dresses, some are very beautiful and can be quite pricey.
Question: Have women's fashion styles in the twenties survived or ever been revived?
Answer: The rejection of cumbersome layers and heavy corsets have remained with us. After the 20s, the constrictive styles of hundred of years of discomfort never really returned. Women of the 1920s changed everything.
The drop waistline was popular again in the 1960s. Sweater sets pop in and out of style. Knee length hemlines dropped in the 1930s but rose to the knee in the 1940s and again in the 1960s. Long beaded necklaces were popular again in the 1960s as well. The knee length pleated skirts of the 1920s have seen various comebacks and never really went out of style.
Bob hair cuts are popular to this day. Take a look at pictures from the Jazz Age and see what you think. Take a look at the young lady (in the article here) wearing a striped dress. She would look in place today.
© 2011 Dolores Monet
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 14, 2020:
Hi Mary - haha, I had a great aunt who had been a bit of a flapper and she, too, still rolled her stockings. I am sorry that the wedding dress is ruined but most of the clothing from nearly 100 years ago is gone. I have my mother's wedding dress from 1939 and wore it myself when I was married.
mary m on July 13, 2020:
My mother was married in 1926' She wore a very trendy flapper wedding dress. sadly the dress went to shreds but i do have orange blossoms from her veil. My sister had the lace from the tunic which survived nicely removed and had made into a mantilla for her wedding in 1962.My mother rolled her stockings till the day she died. believe me as a teenager i was so embarassed when she would stop in the middle of the side walk and reroll her stockings.
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on August 15, 2014:
Catherine - really! How cool is that! Your aunts are out there for all to see, an iconic glimpse of the past. I love that photograph. It's my favorite of the lot. Thank you for sharing the information.
Catherine on August 13, 2014:
Your image captioned "1920s girls with bobs and radio;" Those are the Brox Sisters (Bobbe, Lorraine, and Patricia.) They were Broadway/Jazz singers in the 1920s. Bobbe was married to Composer Jimmy VanHeusen. They are my great-great aunts! :)
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on February 27, 2013:
amanda - oh me too. My old great aunt was a flapper and my uncle used to tell me how cute she was! Thanks!
The Kemist - thank you. It sure was!
vibesites - thank you! Oh yes, the finding of King Tut's tomb was big news and greatly influenced styles of the day. I agree, I think the 20's and 30's were just fabulous for women's clothing. Many of these styles, you could wear today and fit right in.
vibesites from United States on February 26, 2013:
I enjoyed reading this hub. I wondered why these women then went Egyptian style, until I read this hub -- and I remember there was also the first "Cleopatra" film back in the 20s. I think these styles might come back in style in mainstream fashion, or some already have come. The 20s and the 30s are the best eras for women's fashion, in my opinion. Voted up, interesting/awesome/beautiful. :)
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on March 01, 2012:
drspaniel - there's something about women working and short skirts. Mary Quant designed mini skirts to make it easier for working girls to run for the bus. Also, with the flappers, the shorter skirts made it easier to dance to the new wild music. Thanks for you input!
drspaniel from Somewhere, where the sun shines once a year... on February 28, 2012:
Great videos/photos of an immense change in women's fashion and rights for that matter! Something to note quickly, is that not all women changed in the "Jazz age" in fact, most women were stuck in the normal way of life at the time. As for the "flappers", most of them worked during the day as phone operators and did the worst jobs around.
Sorry for getting a little carried away there, but still this is a really nice Hub, which fully deserves the 100 Hubscore! Congratulations!
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on August 29, 2011:
susette - Thank you for commenting and sharing the story about your grandmother. She sounds like one interesting woman. It must have been wonderful to listen to her stories and hear about her life.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on August 28, 2011:
Great Hub! I love all the photos. My grandmother was a flapper in the l920's and I have some photos of her that look like yours. She was a hoot! Her town in PA had a Women's Smoking Club which she was invited to join in the 20's even though she didn't smoke. The club went into l990's and met once a week to "discuss relevant topics." They were the first in her town to wear women's pant suits in the l970's. What I loved about my grandmother was that she was always on the cutting edge of fashion and whatever else was going on at the time. She was a cool grandmother and I miss her very much. She passed away in l997, but was still "flapping strong" all the way to the end of her life.