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The Evolution of American Women during the 1920s

Women Durring the 1920s

Before the 20s
Durring the 20s

Socio economic changes that occurred during the First World War 1914-18 and became accepted, changed the role of women in a way that no amount of campaigning by a few liberated ladies could have.

The costume history image in our minds of a woman of the 'Roaring Twenties' is actually likely to be the image of a flapper. Flappers did not truly emerge until 1926.  Flapper fashion embraced all things and styles modern. A fashionable flapper had short sleek hair, a shorter than average shapeless shift dress, a chest as flat as a board, wore make up and applied it in public, smoked with a long cigarette holder, exposed her limbs and epitomized the spirit of a reckless rebel who danced the nights away in the Jazz Age.

High fashion until the twenties had been for the richer women of society. But because construction of the flapper's dress was less complicated than earlier fashions, women were much more successful at home dressmaking a flapper dress which was a straight shift. It was easier to produce up to date plain flapper fashions quickly using flapper fashion Butterick dress patterns. 

The flapper fashion style flourished amid the middle classes negating differences between themselves and the truly rich, but continuing to highlight some differences with the really poor. The really rich still continued to wear beautifully embellished silk garments for evening, but the masses reveled in their new found sophistication of very fashionable flapper clothes. 

After the war when women's dress became more mannish, each year seemed to get more severe in line which almost emphasized the feminine woman beneath. Female clothes became looser and more shapeless in fit. The bust was suppressed, the waist disappeared, the shoulders became broader and hair shorter and shorter. Narrow boyish hips were preferred. The silhouette emphasized a flattened chest and womanly curves were eliminated as the line became more simplified.

The slender flat chested tanned body and face of a 15 year old became the desired silhouette of the bright young things of the 1920s. Health and beauty clubs helped women refine their silhouettes whilst getting fitter and healthier.

It was a difficult time for the former matrons of Edwardian society, the previous leaders of fashion whose style of dressing became as passť as their rounded figures and older faces. More youthful women who could party all night and carry the boyish fashions well were all the rage. 

Although the 1950s are thought of as the first time of the teenager and the 1960s as the era when the young first led fashion there is no doubt that the possession of a youthful body was a prerequisite of twenties fashion.

The arms were bared not only for evening, but also for day and the legs were covered in beige stockings visible to the knee which gave an overall more naked look than ever before. Feet, ankles and calves formerly hidden and encased in black stocking were suddenly on show. Young women always wore black wool stockings until the end of World War I.

By the 1920s stockings with patterns were hot fashion items. Embroidery snaked around the ankles and up to the knees. Flesh and soft pastel colors were popular and they were made in either silk or artificial silk known as art silk later called rayon. The rayon stockings were very shiny so girls powdered their legs to dull them before venturing out.

The great fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel 1883-1971 self styled herself to be known as Coco Chanel. By 1920 the silhouette of her clothing designs had come to be the epitome of 20's style. The work of other famous designers beside hers seemed old fashioned and outmoded belonging as they did to the pre World War One era.

She promoted the styles we associate with flappers. She worked in neutral tones of beige, sand, cream, navy and black in soft fluid jersey fabrics cut with simple shapes that did not require corsetry or waist definition. They were clothes made for comfort and ease in wear making them revolutionary and quite modern. She was

the Jean Muir or Donna Karan of her day and the originator of the LBD - that little black dress. 

The 1920s saw a universal fashion for short hair a more radical move beyond the curtain styles of the war era. Hair was first bobbed, then shingled, then Eton cropped in 1926-7. An Eton crop was considered daring and shocked some older citizens, since hair had always been thought a woman's crowning glory. Only maiden aunts and elderly dowagers avoided the severe shorter styles, but by the 1930s softer waved hairstyles were a refreshing change.

Women wore cloche hats throughout the twenties. A cloche hat told everyone that you had short hair. It was only possible to get a close fitting cloche on the skull if the hair was cropped short and flat. The cloche hat affected body posture as it was pulled well



over the eyes which meant young women held their heads at a specific angle in order to see where they were going. Foreheads were unfashionable in the 1920s.

During the era there was an increased use of make up and it was fashionable to perform the rites of make up in public. Instead of disappearing to the powder room women got out their engraved compact and applied lipstick and powder in sight of a whole restaurant or nightclub or tearoom. Ox blood lipstick was used lavishly, but rouge was still used sparingly. Today compacts from the 1920s are sought after by collectors.

T bar shoes with buckles and bows and straps featured in the 1920s. 

The Mary Jane ankle strap button shoe was the style of the twenties.

Footwear was visible beneath short dresses and was selected with more care as a fashion accessory.

Once shoes began to be mass manufactured in the 1920s footwear became an essential fashion accessory. Now it was truly visible beneath shorter dresses it needed to be selected with more care. Heels were over 2 inches high and waisted until the 1930s when they were lower straighter Cuban shapes. Strapped shoes were called Mary Janes. T bar shoes or others with buckles and bows made interesting fashion statements. Sequin or diamante trims were quite usual.

In the 1930s shoes began to look heavier, but the toes were less pointed and more rounded, often of peep style. In 1936 Ferragamo the Italian shoe designer made wedge heel designs and by the 1940s, chunkier wedged platform shoes with thicker soles made the wearers feel they could walk for miles if needed.  

Information taken from:

Ashton Brackett - HIS122.005 - Spring 2005