Colourful, exuberant, fun-loving....1920 ushered in a decade of great optimism. It was a time when the rules were broken, new territories explored...when women broke free from many of the sartorial and social restrictions that had plagued their mothers and grandmothers. They wore looser, shorter clothes, cropped their hair and acquired a more assertive attitude. The Great War was over, women had the vote, technology was making life easier and it was the height of the Jazz age.
While in the US prohibition opened the door to illicit speakeasys, the forbidden fruit element only added to the excitement. The flapper had an image of racy rebellion....they were willing to experiment and break new ground.
They didn't call them the roaring twenties for nothing.
Little did those happly flappers know that just around the corner a devasting Depression awaited. The biggest economic crisis of the 20th century was to dampen the spirits of the 20s generation in a big way... but in the meantime ihe girls and boys just wanted to have fun, fun, fun! At least that is the image that comes to us across the decades. No doubt living conditions were still tough for some.
Bobs had been worn to a lesser degree by the ultra-trendy since WWI but in the 1920s the style became popular with the general public through iconic film stars such as Loiuse Brooks. This departure from the long dresses/long hair style of previous generations was seen as rather shocking and a brazen statement of female independance. The bob style of the 20s developed an artistic edge, featuring interesting geometric shapes and sharp lines that added drama to the face. It's a style that became a modern classic and is still worn today in a variety of manifestions.
Originally known as the 'undulation Marcel' this wavy bob hairstyle became highly popularised in the 20s and was named after 19th century hairdresser Francois Marcel, inventor of the process. Although this style too had been employed pre-20s using hot irons heated on a stove, by 1924 the invention of electric waving irons had made the job easier and now the waves were combined with the newly fashionable short bob.
The Eton Crop
Not as popular as the bob, possibly because it was not overly flattering to those with less than perfect features, was the very short Eton Crop. which exposed the ears and could be worn with or without Betty Boop-like kiss curls. The style tended to be worn by the daring.
1920's Hair for Men
Predictably, the men's hair styles were far less adventurous than the womens. It was popular for men of the period to wear their hair short on the back and sides and longer on the top and the longer locks were often slicked back with hair oil for a more sophisticated look.
The French cloche, found in a variety of forms, is the hat most associated with the 1920's, although there was a variety of hat styles around. The distinctive bell shape gave the wearer an alluring look of intrigue and it was worn low on the head, just shading the eyes. It also tended to make the wearer look taller, since it often incorporated a rather bulbous high top.
Art Deco was highly fashionable at the time and some of the characteristic design elements were incorporated into hat design, with the use of bold lines, deco appliques and Aztec zig zag seaming in greens, pinks, creams and blacks.
Milliners of the 20's were also imaginatively inspired by exotic locations and vampish fantasies and these creative hat makers sought out stylistic inspiration from the Far East...Egypt, China, Japan and Russia. Headdresses include tiaras, turbans, silk headbands, toques, kokoshniks and scarves elaborately knotted at one side.
Hats were an essential item for men, wherever one stood on the socio-economic scale. A man (or woman for that matter) without a hat in public was viewed as very infra dig. Styles included trilbies, bowlers, fedoras, boaters and caps , depending on the occasion..
Up until the liberating 20's, swimwear was generally made from heavy woollen cloth that was lumpy, impractical and not terribly appealing, although I guess it was relatively sun smart.
As the decade wore on the swimwear shrank and more body parts were publically revealed than ever before. Some were shocked and appalled by the degeneracy...but those who dared, revelled in the newfound freedom to swim and cavort with greater ease.
The tank style all-in-one bathing suit was known as the maillot and is the basis for modern one-piece swimwear.
Make-up use increased markedly in the 20's, helped along by the dramatic looks of silent film stars. There was little attempt to hide the artifice, and indeed, it was socially desirable to flash your compact in public...ostentatiously powdering your nose and applying lipstick while you were seated at the table in a nightclub or restaurant supposedly conjured an aura of glamour and sophistication.
At the beginning of the decade pale powder was popularly used but this was later replaced with a more natural hue. Rouge was prevalent too, in deep pink colours and around the middle of the decade orange came into vogue.
Drama was the order of the day and lipstick shades were 'poisonous' deep reds, plums, brownish reds and orange. Lip width was de-emphasised and a pert Cupids-bow was desirable.
Eyes were dark and smoldering with eyeliner edging the whole eye and smudged into a softer look. Grey, green and turqoise were popular eye-shadow colours and lashes were often blackened with mascara that came in a wax cake, melted and applied in a gluggy mass with a stick.
Nail polish was also popular but the half-moon cuticle and tip were..oddly, left bare.
Breasts Were Out!
20s women's clothes were distinct for their abandonment of female curves . Corsets were tossed on the scrapheap. Gone was the classic emphasis on breasts and hips, in favour of an elegant but more boyish style. In France the style of the flappers was referred to as "garconne", meaning "little boy".
Hemlines rose as the decade wore on and by the late 20s the skirts hung just below the knee. For one thing women needed freedom to move for all those whacky dance crazes, The simpler style also meant the dresses were easier to make and lent themselves to decoration, with beading, tassles and embroidery.
Like the dresses, coats got progressively shorter but the wraparound style remained popular throughout the era and often incorporated a large roll fur collar and sometimes fur cuffs.
Fashion does not exist until it goes out onto the streets.
French designer Coco Chanel was hugely influential on 20s style and she broke new ground in fashion; departing from heavy fabrics and cumbersome, complex designs to in introduce comfort, lightness and ease of wear in female fashion.
The flapper ideal was a slim, straight figure and bigger busted women took to bandaging their chests or purchasing a symington side lacer, a kind of bodice with laces at the sides to squeeze those breasts into oblivion. With the new penchant for slimness and bare arms and legs it was difficult to face life as a flabby flapper so a trend for exercise and "health clubs" sprang up.
The shoes were wonderfully elegant and quirky at he same time. ..and post WWI mass production meant the new styles were more affordable. They were often strappy and featured buckles, bows, buttons, sequins or diamentes and usually had two inch heels. The Mary Jane ankle strap and T-bar were popular designs. Now that shoes were no longer partially obscured by long dresses they became even more important as a fashion statement.
While black wool stockings were universally the go until the end of WWI, in the 20s beige became the new black and fleshier coloured stockings showed off bare calves. After 1923, rather than wool, stockings were made out of the much lighter rayon and rolled over a garter.
Beads were popular, worn in strings, as were multitudes of jangly bangles and elaborate earrings. The Art Deco influence was ubiquitous and marvellous deco style jewellry was fashioned out of celluloid, glass, jet, jade, bakelite, platinum, silver and gold. The discovery of King Tut's Tomb in 1922 was a big event and started a craze for Egyption style jewellry....it seemed everyone wanted to be Queen of the Nile.
The fashionable flapper with her short, boyish clothes, heavily made-up face and pert attitude had a scandalous image...she smoked, she drank, she danced...she partied hard. She also not only rode in cars, but insisted on driving them as well. Ford's model T had made cars accessible to the mainstream and by 1924, affordibility had made it the most popular car in the world.
~By the mid 1920s the typical American town was in full sexual bloom. The change came with erotic fashions, literature and movies and an unsuspected sexual aid, the automobile.~
The 1920s was not all beer and skittles. Described by historians as a period of 'cultural conflict' it was also a time when the Ku KLux Klan was prominent, rural poverty was a serious problem, the Scopes monkey trial was occuring, crime syndicates were rife [driven by prohibiition) and new restrictions on immigration laws emerged.
However with the simultaneous rise of technology and consumerism it was the beginning of the modern era we love/hate today.
While Paris was the epicentre for women's fashion, London tended to set the trends for men's clothes and as the decade wore on the traditional 'saque' suits which had been around since the 1800's gradually gave way to tweeds, grey flannels, fairisle vests, knickerbockers (popularised by golfers), high-waisted Oxford bags, raccoon and camel hair coats and, If you were a Jazz dandy, there was a brief period when tightly fitting suits with stovepipe pants were fashionable. Two-tone shoes were also the rage.
Interestingly, Oxford bags originated, not surprisingly, at Oxford University, as a solution to the ban on knickerbockers...students used to cover their illicit knickers with baggy trousers...but they caught on as a fashion statement in their own right.
Other significant innovations of the period included the front crease in men's trousers, cuffs added to trousers and belts to hold the whole thing up, instead of suspenders. Colours too were lighter and brighter. Suits became simplified and in contrast to previous decades, it no longer became necessary for men to change outfits several times a day in accordance with social expectation...the more accesible 20's fashion was also a great leveller between the classes.
For evening wear a top hat and tails worn with black patent leather shoes was standard but the previously popular long tail was now considered stodgy and lost ground to the short tail evening suits.
Music and Dance
~Flappers trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, one-step like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam.~
Altlantic Monthly, 1920
The Roaring Twenties were also known as the Jazz Age.....and it's music dominated the scene. After WWI, thousands of African Americans moved North in search of brighter opportunities, bringing their vitality and culture with them. Blues, Dixieland and especially Jazz took America and other parts of the world by storm.
The most popular dance of the 20s, The Charleston had originated in Southern Carolina...other dance crazes included The Black Bottom, The Turkey Trot, The Cakewalk and The Bunny Hug. Dances became hugely popular and the questionable dance marathon was born.
Great performers of the era included such names as King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong.
For a dose of positive energy I highly recommend the following video. Love it.
The next decade on...
- Fashion History - Ladies' Fashion Designs of the 1930's With Pictures
Here are the historic fashion design trends of 1932. The pictures of these vintage dress styles may not have been haute couture but were offered up for the readers of the Ladies Home Journal in May of 1932....