After World War I, the United States entered a prosperous era and, as a result of its role in the war, came out onto the world stage. Social customs and morals were relaxed in the optimism brought on by the end of the war and the booming of the stock market. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers. The nationwide prohibition on alcohol was ignored by many. There was a revolution
in almost every sphere of human activity. Fashion was no exception: as women entered the workforce and earned the right to vote, fashion trends became more accessible, masculine, and practical. Flappers were a popular name given to women of this time because of what they wore. The constrictive corset, an essential undergarment to make the waist thinner, became a thing of the past.
The technological development of new fabrics and new closures in clothing affected fashions of the 1920s. Natural fabrics such ascotton and wool were the abundant fabrics of the decade. Silk was highly desired for its luxurious qualities, but the limited supply made it expensive. In the late 19th century, “artificial silk” was first made from a solution of cellulose in France. After being patented in the United States, the first American plant began production of this new fabric in 1910; this fiber became known as rayon. Rayon stockings became popular in the decade as a substitute for silk stockings. Rayon was also used in some undergarments. Many garments before the 1920s were fastened with buttons and lacing, however, during this decade, the development of metal hooks and eyes meant that there were easier means of fastening clothing shut. Hooks and eyes, they transitioned from hooks and eyes, buttons, zippers or snaps were all utilized to fasten clothing.
Vastly improved production methods enabled manufacturers to easily produce clothing affordable by working families. The average person’s fashion sense became more sophisticated. Meanwhile, working-class women looked for modern forms of dress as they transitioned from rural to urban careers. Taking their cue from wealthier women, working women to began wearing less expensive variations on the day suit, adopting a more modern look that seemed to suit their new, technologically focused careers as typists and telephone operators.
Though simple lines and minimal adornment reigned on the runways, the 1920s were not free of luxury. Expensive fabrics, including silk,velvet and satin were favored by high-end designers, while department stores carried less expensive variations on those designs made of newly available synthetic fabrics.
Velvet Flapper Dress
Clothing fashions changed with women’s changing roles in society, particularly with the idea of new fashion. Although society matrons of a certain age continued to wear conservative dresses, the sportswear worn by forward-looking and younger women became the greatest change in post-war fashion. The tubular dresses of the ‘teens had evolved into a similar silhouette that now sported shorter skirts with pleats, gathers, or slits to allow motion. The most memorable fashion trend of the “Roaring ’20s” was undoubtedly “the flapper” look. The flapper dress was functional and flattened the bust line rather than accentuating it.
The straight-line chemise topped by the close-fitting cloche hat became the uniform of the day. Women “bobbed”, or cut, their hair short to fit under the popular hats, a radical move in the beginning, but standard by the end of the decade. Low-waisted dresses with fullness at the hemline allowed women to literally kick up their heels in new dances like the Charleston. In 1925, “shift” type dresses with no waistline emerged. At the end of the decade, dresses were being worn with straight bodices and collars. Tucks at the bottom of the bodices were popular, as well as knife-pleated skirts with a hem approximately one inch below the knee.
Flapper dress w/ clotch hat
In the world of art, fashion was being influenced heavily by art movements such assurrealism. After World War I, popular art saw a slow transition from the lush, curvilinear abstractions of art nouveau decoration to the more mechanized, smooth, and geometric forms of art deco. Elsa Schiaparelli is one key Italian designer of this decade who was heavily influenced by the “beyond the real” art and incorporated it into her designs.
Proper attire for women was enforced for morning, afternoon, and evening activities. In the early part of the decade, wealthy women were still expected to change from a morning to an afternoon dress. These afternoon or “tea gowns” were less form-fitting than evening gowns, featured long, flowing sleeves, and were adorned with sashes, bows, or artificial flowers at the waist. Evening dresses were typically slightly longer than tea gowns, in satin or velvet, and embellished with beads, rhinestones, or fringe.
The boyish figure
Undergarments began to transform after World War I to conform to the ideals of a flatter chest and more boyish figure. The women’s rights movement had a strong effect on women’s fashions. Most importantly, the confining corset was discarded, replaced by a chemise or camisole and bloomers, later shortened to panties or knickers. During the mid-1920s, all-in-one lingerie became popular.
For the first time in centuries, women’s legs were seen with hemlines rising to the knee and dresses becoming more fitted. A more masculine look became popular, including flattened breasts and hips, short hairstyles such as the bob cut, Eton crop and the Marcel wave. The fashion was bohemian and forthcoming for its age.
One of the first women to wear trousers, cut her hair and reject the corset was Coco Chanel. Probably the most influential woman in fashion of the 20th century, Coco Chanel did much to further the emancipation and freedom of women’s fashion
￼Jean Patou, a new designer on the French scene, began making two-piece sweater and skirt outfits in luxurious wool jersey and had an instant hit for his morning dresses and sports suits. American women embraced the clothes of the designer as perfect for their increasingly active lifestyles.
jean patou dress
￼By the end of the 1920’s, Elsa Schiaparelli stepped onto the stage to represent a younger generation. She combined the idea of classic design from the Greeks and Romans with the modern imperative for freedom of movement. Schiaparelli wrote that the ancient Greeks “gave to their goddesses… the serenity of perfection and the fabulous appearance of freedom.” Her own interpretation produced evening gowns of elegant simplicity. Departing from the chemise, her clothes returned to an awareness of the body beneath the evening gown.
Next time the 1930 and some personal family pictures as well as pictures of reproduction garments from my personal collection.