Women’s fashion changed so significantly in the 1920s because of the social and political changes that occured in this exuberant decade.
Social Life and the Arts
After the horrors of the First World War, when thousands of young men died fighting in the trenches, there was a general relaxation of social rules. What followed was a decade of parties, typified by the new dance crazes, such as the Charleston, and a growing interest in jazz music. The arts flourished with Modernism and, after the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925, the Art Deco movement. Literature included novels such as The Great Gatsby by the American F. Scott Fitzgerald, works from the Bloomsbury group, including Virginia Woolf, plays by Noel Coward, or poetry by T. S. Eliot, including The Waste Land (1922). In Hollywood the film industry continued its steady growth, with influential starlets such as Louise Brooks, and in 1927 the introduction of the ‘Talkies’.
Political and Economic Upheaval
However, the decade also saw much political, economic and social upheaval. Women’s emancipation continued on from the Suffrage Movement of the previous decade. In 1919 women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote. However, it was not until 1928 that women were granted equal voting rights as men allowing them to vote at 21. There was growing industrialisation, and major investments were made on the stock exchanges. Meanwhile, poorer sections of British society were hit economically and discontent was expressed by the General Strike of 1926. Finally, the bubble of the Jazz Age of the 1920s finally burst on 24 October 1929 when the New York Stock Exchange crashed. The Wall Street Crash led into a period of financial hard times known as the Great Depression.
In the immediate post-war period the lost youth of Europe were replaced by androgynous looking women who emulated and aspired to the slim, straight figure of an immature boy. This aesthetic replaced the maternal, feminine, hour-glass figure of the Edwardian age and earlier Gibson Girl. Constricting corsets were gradually replaced by lighter foundation garments, such as brassieres, first invented in 1914, and girdles. Flesh coloured silk stockings came into fashion, manufactured with back seams, although cotton lisle stockings were popular for more everyday use and sports.
Many women cropped their hair into a short bob, trimmed at the back with shingling-clippers. The look was dubbed garçonne, meaning ‘boyish’ in French. Often the bob was styled using the ‘Marcel Wave’; a method of waving the hair along natural lines using a pair of tongs, first invented by Marcel Grateau in 1872. The new smart, short hairstyles suited a new style of hat introduced in 1923 known as a cloche. These hats had deep, close-fitting crowns and no brim.
The look for the ‘bright young things’ was thoroughly modern, with clean lines and a feel of ease and comfort in the clothing they wore. Eligible ladies were presented at court Drawing Rooms, subsequently appearing in fashionable London society and were photographed wearing the latest designs from London and Parisian designers for the pages of Vogue and other, increasingly more numerous, varieties of women’s magazines. However, it was still possible to see older or less affluent women dressed in Edwardian clothing.
Designers, Dressmakers and Department Stores
Gabrielle Chanel, known as ‘Coco’ to her friends, opened her couture house in 1919 and was one of the leading designers of the 1920s. She was famous for her easy-to-wear knitted garments, including sweaters and twin-set ensembles. Her clothing combined luxury with simplicity and was often teamed with stunning pieces of cosmetic jewellery. On 5 May 1921 she launched her first perfume, Chanel No.5. Other influential designers working during the 1920s included Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Edward Molyneux and Norman Hartnell, who opened his couture house in 1923.
As the number of designers who produced couture lines increased, so did the number of department stores who offered ready-to-wear trickle-down copies of the most up-to-date designs for the masses. With women’s emancipation, gradually more and more young women were going out to work, and thereby increasing the amount of money they had to spend on the latest fashions. Meanwhile, there still continued to be a large percentage of clothing made at home or by local dressmakers. In response to this market, a growing number of women’s magazines offered patterns and advice on making women’s and children’s clothing for the home dressmaker.
The beginning of the decade saw ankle length skirts and dresses, with a slightly dropped waistline. Lanvin, in particular, specialised in producing dresses with slightly flared or tiered skirts, with additional width over the hips. However, as the decade progressed, the line became more tubular with the skirt becoming increasingly cut in a straight line with the bodice. Skirts were at their shortest c.1925-1926, coming to just below the knee. Towards the end of the decade the look became more feminine, hemlines became longer, first unevenly with handkerchief skirts or cut longer at the back than the front. By 1929 ankle length skirts were back in fashion.
The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings in southern Egypt led to a period of Egyptmania, with Egyptian inspired motifs and hieroglyphics appearing on a variety of decorative art objects as well as clothing
Also in this decade the use of cosmetics became increasingly popular. Both Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein had begun experimenting with new facial creams and a new variety of more skin friendly products began to emerge on the market. The fashion was for doll-like faces with pale faces, plucked eye brows, rouged cheeks, and red lips with the paint applied to the central lip and Cupid’s bow to produce a “bee-stung” silhouette.
This blog post was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museum’s website.