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The 1920s in America were times of great change. Coming out of the horror of the First World War, society exploded in a million different directions. The Twenties saw women voting, the Harlem Rennaisance, prohibition, and an incredible burst of affluence for the middle class. Automobiles and electric appliances made people's lives easier and gave them more leisure time.
The incredible, rapid social changes that struck the country are clearly illustrated by women's fashions of the decade.

For books on the fashions of the 1920s visit my fashion books page.

Early Twenties

The salient features of women's clothing in the 20's are short skirts and dropped waistlines. The silhouettes of the earlier part of the decade are long and cylindrical, with the skirt falling 7" to 10" below the knee.
Despite the relatively simple silhouette, the wide variety of detail was astonishing. Even inexpensive, ready-made clothing from catalog and chain stores such as Sears portrayed an imaginative range of cuts and trims.

The long straight style had a great many variations, one extremely popular fashion was the Basque dress or Robe de Style. This dress style is best known from the beautiful creations of Jeanne Lanvin. It is a sort of compromise between the straight twenties silhouette and the old fashioned belled-skirt.
It featured a tubular bodice that draped straight down to a dropped waist, then a full skirt (not bias cut, but with gathers at the waist) ending at mid-calf or ankle. These were very popular for afternoon and evening wear.

Day wear 1920
Day Wear 1920
Evening wear 1920
Evening wear 1920
Basque Dress, or Robe de Style circa 1924
Basque Dress, or Robe de Style circa 1924

The 'one hour dress'.

The newer simpler sillouette afforded women a great deal of freedom, not just physically with the discarding of corsets and constricting waistlines and skirts, but temporally as well. As the decade progressed it was a great deal faster and easier for women to get dressed or home-sew their own clothing. The 'one hour dress' was designed in 1926 by the Women's Fashion Institute to be made in one hour. 1 hour dress

Mid Twenties

The silhouette of the early twenties was still rooted in the shirtwaist and skirt mode of the teens. It was in high fashion that the long straight silhouette started to get a toe-hold. As the decade continued, the long straight shape moved to day time wear. Then evening wear became straighter and shorter, after which daytime wear copied it.

It was in evening wear that the innovations of twenties style first appeared. By 1926, women who grew up in a world that barely acknowledged knees were very nearly wearing their dresses above them. This is when the modern fashion concept of the flapper first appeared. The name 'flapper' - meaning a young modern woman who went out on dates without a chaperone, wore fashionable clothes, wore make-up, and possibly had a job - had already made appearances as early as 1919. The 'bob' haircut had been introduced in New York by the society dancer Irene Castle in 1914, she had acquired it on a European tour where she'd seen fashionable Parisians wearing it.

05
1926 Evening Wear
Gowns designed by ( l to r)
Philippe et Gaston, Philippe et Gaston,
Martial et Armand
06
1926 Evening Wear
Doeuillet's Mirliton in
black crepe de Chine, &

Premet's Poir le Soir of
peach mousseline de Soie
07
Evening Wear 1926
Gowns designed by
Chez Germaine

Louise Brooks

Bobbed Hair

Another very obvious fashion feature of this time period was "bobbed" hair. It was first introduced in America during and just after World War I and popularized by society dancer Irene Castle. In 1914 she stunned impressed fashionable New York by appearing in a show with bobbed hair. During a European tour she had seen fashionable Parisian women wearing their hair cut very short and lost no time in having her own hair cut.

The impact of bobbed hair and all it was felt to represent was enormous. The popular media of the time is filled with jokes, stories, cartoons, songs, theatrical skits, newspaper articles, and short movies, about bobbed hair. Family battles were waged and women agonized, to bob or not to bob was very much the question on America's mind.

For many in the late 20th and early 21st century, the late 1920s actress Louise Brooks is felt to epitomize the look the look of the flapper (althoughflappers and bobbed hair had been in the popular consciousness for almost a decade before she became widely known).

Complementing bobbed hair was the cloche hat. The outfit on the left that is being worn by Louise Brooks is a marvelous example of late 1920s casual wear (assuming you are wealthy, beautiful, and have good taste).

The fabrics used were silk, cotton, linen, and wool in varying combinations. The twenties were also the dawn of the first man-made materials, rayon most notably. Knit fabrics were also used for outer wear- previous to WWI they were almost exclusively used for underwear. The soft drape of jersey was well suited to the fashions of the twenties. The colours ranged tremendously, from bright greens, reds and blues, to subdued pastels. On the whole, the colours and prints used were assertive.

Bobbed hair as worn by
Bobbed hair as worn by
Louise Brooks circa 1926. Brooks did no create, or even popularize, the bob. It was well established in the public conciousness before she came along.
Louise Brooks in a smart
Louise Brooks in a smart
casual wear outfit circa 1926/27
Louise Brooks wearing
Louise Brooks wearing
evening dress, 1927
Louise Brooks beachwear c.1926 -
Louise Brooks beachwear c.1926 -
the shoes are not beachwear!
Louise Brooks in daywear, 1926
Louise Brooks in daywear, 1926

Late Twenties

As the decade reached its end, fashion started to revert to a longer silhouette, and waist lines began to make a tentative reappearance. The fabrics and cut clung more closely to the body, foreshadowing the bias cuts of the 30s. As a sort of compromise between the old shorter skirt and the newer longer skirt, there was a brief period (c.1928) when evening clothes had both. Again it was evening wear that led the way, while daywear still clung to the flapper fashion ideal.

The fashions we regard as 'the Flapper look' only lasted about 3 years, from 1925 to 1928. By 1928 high fashion had drifted onward, but the look of the Flapper lives on in popular consciousness.

Coats - 1927 - 28
Coats - 1927 - 28
1927 Daywear
1927 Daywear
Evening wear, August 1927
Evening wear, August 1927
Two dresses by Lanvin 1928
Two dresses by Lanvin 1928

 

For books on the fashions of the 1920s visit my fashion books page.

I would like to thank The Louise Brooks Society for their wonderful support.

 

 

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