WOMEN’S FASHION 1920
Various social trends were at work during the 1920s. Historians have characterized the decade as a time of frivolity, abundance and happy-go-lucky attitudes. In 1920, women got the right to vote, and a year earlier, alcohol had become illegal. World War I had just ended. The 1920’s would mark the first youth revolution, long before the 1960’s.
Young people were very indignant after World War I, and felt the older generation had just murdered millions of young boys. So they stopped obeying conventional rules and invented their own liberated culture: driving their own cars, and drinking, and petting with people they weren’t married to. And, for the first time in history, older women started copying younger women. In the late 19th Century, younger women wanted to look like grownups. Now, for the first time, everyone wanted the thinness and relative bosomlessness of early adolescence. People felt free-spirited and wanted to have fun. As a result, fashions became less formal. The biggest phenomenom of the 1920’s was the worship of youth.
The feminine liberation movement had a strong effect on women’s fashions. Most importantly, the corset was discarded! For the first time in centuries, women’s legs were seen. Women wanted to be “smarty” and/or freewheeling. Talking about Freud and sex were signs of hipness. Young men, “the flaming youth,” wore raccoon coats and drove around in old used Model Ts. Black-influenced jazz music and dance styles (ie. the Charleston and the Black Bottom) captivated white youth to the dismay of their parents. Dating, as we know it today, was invented in the 1920s. Previously, boys had to be courting a girl, they had to be committed, and girls had to be engaged to them in order to go out with them. The unchaperoned date was something new. Dating permitted people to see each other, and discover each other without having to proclaime an intent to marry. When flappers and flaming youth got together, the results was explosive. Petting was a popular and well received pastime for the youth. It allowed a girl to have erotic interaction without endangering herself with an unwanted or out of wedlock child. Petting could mean kisses or fondling, but it stopped just short of intercourse, and while parents equated petting with fornication, teenagers did not, and their peer group would still accept them and respect them. Intimacy and eroticism was explored. “Petting Parties,” where eager, youthful hands explored the nether regions of the opposite sex, was standard college entertainment. “Billing and cooing” (that is, to “bill and coo”) was to whisper sweet nothings while “making whoopee.”
The flapper was the heroine of the Jazz Age. She was the culmination of all the trends of the 20’s. With short hair and a short skirt, rolled hose and powdered knees – the flapper must have seemed like a rebel to her mother (the gentle Gibson girl of an earlier generation). No longer confined to home and tradition, the typical flapper was a young women who was often thought of as a little fast and maybe even a little brazen. She defied conventions of acceptable feminine behavior. The flapper was “modern.” Traditionally, women’s hair had always been worn long. The flapper wore it short, or bobbed. She used make-up (which she might well apply in public). She wore baggy dresses which often exposed her arms as well as her legs from the knees down. Strings of pearls trail from her shoulder or are knotted at the neck and thrown over the right shoulder or under the arm. Silver bracelets are worn on her upper arm. Flappers did more than symbolize a revolution in fashion and mores they embodied the modern spirit of the Jazz Age.
1920s fashion, though, was about so much more than fringed flapper dresses and feathered headbands, the cliche that many people associate with the era. As with every decade, the ’20s had its fads as well as its classics, a few of which live on today. It was a romantic era for fashion, which is why people look back at this era with great fondness and still emulate its style. The era set the standard for the modern concept of beauty. The modern supermodel’s figure, is — itself modeled after the 1920’s ideal of a woman’s figure (that of a thin pre-pubesent girl on the verge of puberty). The central phenomenom of the era was the worship of youth. For the first time in history, older women started copying younger women.
The pre-pubesent girl look became popular, including flattened breasts and hips, and bobbed hair. Fashions turn to the “little girl look” in “little girl frocks”: curled or shingled hair, saucer eyes, the turned-up nose, bee-stung mouth, and de-emphasized eyebrows, which emphasize facial beauty. Shirt dresses have huge Peter Pan collars or floppy bow ties and are worn with ankle-strap shoes with Cuban heels and an occasional buckle. Under wear is fashionable in both light colors and black, and is decorated with flowers and butterflies. With the cult of youth and the new spirit of equality come the camisole knickers; also fashionable is no underwear at all. Along with the rage for drastic slimming, women still strive to flatten their breasts and de-emphasize their hips. The cult of the tan begins; lotions to prevent burning and promote tanning appear on the market. Skin stains are also manufactured, as well as moisturizers, tonics, cream rouges, eye shadows, and more varied lipstick shades.
In the 1920s, a lot of clothing was still made at home or by tailors and dressmakers. The brand-name, ready-to-wear industry didn’t really exist until the 1930s, however some ready-made clothing was available from department stores and mail-order catalogs. Several magazines devoted to sewing were sources for patterns, transfers and appliques by mail. However, improved production methods enabled manufacturers to easily produce clothing affordable to working families. Because of this, the average person’s fashion sense became more sophisticated.
In 1923, the boyish bobbed hair transforms into the shingle cut, flat and close to the head, with a center or side part. A single curl at each ear is pulled forward onto the face. New felt cloche hats appear with little or no decoration in colors that match the day’s dress. Hats are pulled down to the eyes, and their brims are turned up in the front or back. In clothing, the straight line still emphasized the pre-pubesent look, but fabrics are now embroidered, striped, printed, and painted, influenced by Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and Egyptian art. Oriental fringed scarves, slave bangles, and long earrings were set off. Artificial silk stockings, later called rayon, are stronger and less expensive that real silk ones, although they are shiny. The new seamless stocking, despite its wrinkling, also makes the leg look naked. At bedtime, girls wear pajama bottoms, halter tops, and boudoir cape to protect their new hairdos.
By 1926, women were wearing skirts, shortest of the decade, stopping just below the knee with flouncing pleats; they are worn with horizontal-striped sweaters and long necklaces. Short and colorful evening dresses have elaborate embroidery, fringes, futuristic designs, beads, and appliques. The cocktail dress is born. The new sex appeal extends from the bee-stung mouth and tousled hair to a new focus on legs, with silk stocking rolled around garters at rouged knees. The “debutante slouch” emerges: hips thrown forward, as the woman grips a cigarette holder between her teeth. Mothers and daughters are flappers, many nearly nude beneath the new, lighter clothing.
There were two important ethnic influences on the fabric and prints of the 1920s. One was a Chinese influence, with kimono-styling, embroidered silks, and the color red. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb brought a rash of Egyptian fashion and and accessories, including snake bracelets that encircled the upper arm. Small floral and geometric prints were prevalent throughout the decade, especially toward the latter half.
Contrary to popular belief, women didn’t always wear fringed flapper dresses with feathered bandeaux and a long strand of beads. There were many other styles of evening dresses.
Evening clothes were made of luxurious fabrics — mostly silks — in velvets, taffetas and chiffon. In the mid-1920s, sleeveless silk chiffon dresses were were often embellished with elaborate beadwork. Dresses were designed to move while dancing. Some had long trailing sashes, trains or asymmetric hemlines. Typically, women did not wear hats for evening, but instead wore fancy combs, scarves and bandeaux.