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The Roaring twenties – fashion of the 1920’s

Fashion of the1920's - Cover photo

Welcome to discovering of fashion, a new series of posts on my blog in which I will go through decades looking at fashion and general movements and aesthetics of a given period of time. For a first shot I decided to focus on fashion of the 1920’s

The spirit of the 20’s was to start the decade anew and be well and truly modern, so was the fashion. Therefore younger generation, scared by the horrors of WW1 and Spanish flu wanted to embrace the joy of life.

Art deco and modernism movements peaked, women gained rights to vote, flappers set new fashion trends for women in USA and Europe and Jazz blossomed accompanied with love for Charleston dance.

Cultural references

Jazz was the most popular music style of the 20’s and marked the transition from values of the Victorin era, to the arrival of the youthful modernistic generation. Jazz dances, such as the Charleston, replaced the slow waltz. It gained much of its popularity due to connection with exoticism, melodic and soulful rhythm. This upbeating music paired with amusement after the end of WW1, that marked the previous decade.  

Fashion of the 1920's jazz ball
Picture of Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich in the late 1920’s

Prohibition that lasted to 1933 in the USA also had an impact on the general mood of the masses. It resulted in the opening of many speakeasies and raised number of gangsters. As a result youth immigrated from villages to bigger cities looking for more exciting life. It was also time of the first successful solo flight across the Atlantic, which later resulted in the popularity of aviation.

In Germany, then called Weimar republic, stars like Marlene Dietrich started to emerge, at the rise of fame of kabairetts. Berlin particularly played a role of one of the first cities to not only accept, but also welcome people of different sexuality, or disabilities. Iconic movie Metropolis will influence many artists in the future.

General aesthetics of the 1920’s

To talk about fashion of this decade we have to understand the main aesthetics that shaped the 1920’s. Modernism and art deco blossomed at this time permeating architecture, fashion and art. People were mesmerised by technology, which was closer to the masses thanks to the rise of mass production ( for example cars were more accessible).

Art deco (decorative arts) focused on straight lines, zigzags, geometrical shapes and stylized bouquets of flowers in modernistic forms, a big contrast to Art Nouveau from previous decades. It was influenced by many styles like Cubism, Orphism, Balley Russe and general obsession with exotic motifs. Rare and expensive materials were used ubiquitously in Art Deco designs, often paired with clashing colors, or metallics.

Art deco - fashion of the 1920's
Example of Art Deco aesthetic
Picture of the Chrysler Building in new york city
The Chrysler Building in Art deco style

Bauhaus was another movement in art, originated in Germany. It was conducted by a simple rule – form follows function. Dadaism on the other hand depicted how people from Europe perceived reality after WW1. For this reason it often depicted nonsense and irrationality, rejecting logic and aestheticism of modern capitalist society.

Fashion of the 1920's - Bauhaus
Bauhaus school
Francis Picabia’s “Tableau Rastadada” (1920). Fashion of the 1920's
Francis Picabia’s “Tableau Rastadada” (1920).

Influence of Orientalism was still strong in this decade, however discovery of the tomb of Tutanchamon in 1922  turned attention to Egyptian style, starting Egyptomania. People were obsessed with ancient Egypt, so was fashion and architecture.

It isn’t surprising that Egyptian style was so well welcomed, as it is quite similar in form to reigning art deco. Garments often featured Egyptian inspired motifs.

Materials and patterns used in fashion of the 1920’s

Thanks to improved production methods, cheaper alternatives of clothing appeared in shops resulting in more sophisticated garderobe of lower class. Natural fabrics such as cotton and wool still were used the most often.

High fashion garments were made of silk, velvet or satin often paired with sequins or hand embroidery connecting streamlined silhouettes to decorative aspects of art deco. 

Chiffon was also a popular fabric for dresses because of this exceptionally light appearance.

Rayon – artificial silk made of cellulose – was often used for stocking and undergarments providing them at a much cheaper price tag than those made of real silk.

Fabric choices for fashion of the 1920's
Fabric choices
Polka dot in the 1920's
Polka dot in the 1920’s

Prints were not that popular during this fashion period. Solid colors were preferred, but when prints apparead they were in geometrical form. Polka dots, stripes, large plaid or repetitive geometrical shapes were the most popular. Clashing colors helped these details to stand out.

Color palette of the 1920’s

Dominant colors of this era were defined by art deco and egyptomania. Thus you can see many metallic tones referring to modernism and architecture of the era. Emerald, egyptian blue or malachite were references to hues used by egyptians.

In evening wear jewel tones were often paired with gold. Although jazz as a music was very vibrant, the general color palette of the era was rather muted and pastelic, like dusted rose, or shades of brown.

Color swatches used in the 1920's fashion
Color swatches used in the 1920’s

From bolder colors yellow could have been seen, often paired with black for contrast. Yellow is a happy color which corresponds to freedom after WW1 meanwhile black adds drama. Other notable colors were inspired by peacocks, which people were obsessed with in the 20’s.

It resulted in incorporating sequins, beadings and rhinestones in the garments, giving it a shimmering style. Black was another fashionable color, that was no longer only regarded for mourning.

Women fashion of the 1920’s

As always fashion is a response to what is happening at a given time. Therefore influenced by the changing role of women in the society, their attire also evolved from restrictive Edwordian and Victorian periods to more loose and comfortable.

It was the first time since the Greek Roman era when women could freely show their arms and calves. Naturally at the beginning people were reluctant to such a change but since 1925 almost everyone was on a train of modern women.

Fashion of the 1920’s was defined by two complementary styles – “la garçonne” and Robes de style. Latter was prevailed by full, stiff dresses, inspired by fashion of the 1910’s and previous decades. This style was popularised by parisian couturier Jeanne Lanvin and was a softer, more decorative and romantic alternative to dominative “la garçonne” movement.

“la garçonne” – from a french word garçonne meaning boy – was more boyish style, which isn’t surprising when we connacate it with the development of women’s rights and freedom.

la garçonne - fashion of the 1920's
la garçonne style
Robes de style - fashion of the 1920's
Robes de style

Women started to wear dresses with higher hemlines, up to the knees at the end of decade, and dropped waistlines. Higher necklines had been incorporated to deemphasize the bust. Overall silhouette and construction of dresses and garments was streamlined, such as art deco in architecture, and simplified. For evening women wore longer dresses known as cocktail dresses, in the mid of the decade shift dress became a staple garment.

Another significant accent of this era was the popularisation of knitwear, both for men and women. Women began to wear cardigans and long sweaters for sports activities, whereas previously it was perceived as undergarment. In addition to that sport attire became appropriate for women as tennis became a highly regarded activity.

Women's fashion of the 1920's illustration
Women’s fashion of the 1920’s illustration
Women's fashion of the 1920's illustration
Women’s fashion of the 1920’s illustration

Main accessories

As the general fashion style of the Roaring Twenties was simplified, it was the time for accessories to lift up your outfit. Since the middle of the decade the fashion staple of women’s wardrobe was a cloche hat, as they were a perfect match for bobbed hair.

When it comes to men, the choice of hats usually was dependent on their class. Top hats were advised for higher class, however they were replaced by more comfortable bowler hats, famously worn by Charlie Chaplin, or fedora hats. During the summer time a much lighter straw boater was appropriate for both higher and medium class.

example of women accessories in the 1920's fashion
example of women accessories
example of women accessories in the 1920's fashion
example of women accessories

Jewelry of the 1920’s was strongly influenced by the art deco idea, hence coral, jade and other precious materials appeared. Long strings of pearls, or beads elongated a streamlined silhouette, often paired with long scarves. For men pocket watches, rings, cufflinks or flowers on lapel, known as boutonnieres, were completely appropriate.

Although it isn’t any type of garment, or jewelry cigarettes and a glass of champagne became an accessory of modern women for evening parties. Though smoking in the public was prohibited, outrageous flappers did it anyway and you could even take classes to learn how to smoke a cigarette.

Beauty ideal of the decade

Beauty ideal for women changed rapidly. Curves became unfashionable, while short, flat chested, rather squat without visible waist silhouette emphasising hips was idealised. Clara Bow, a silent movie star, was a living example of that. As a result corsets became a thing of the past. Instead of that women wore so called bandeau to flatten their breasts and stays to make the body geometric.

Most popular hairstyle was short, bobbed hair to represent the freedom of expression. Hair was often curled and styled to look short, as women at the beginning of decade were scared to cut their hair.

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Use of makeup wasn’t anymore categorised with prostitutes, but it made beauty aesthetic achievable for everyone. Women applied pale powder and rouge circles to the cheeks. The general idea was to create an effect of the face sloping down, to highlight a streamlined silhouette.

To achieve it eyebrows were short, thin and pointing downwards, sometimes they were shaved and just drawn by a pencil. Smokey eyes could be seen for evening dates and the most fashionable women used lipstick to create an illusion of very small lips that looked like they were stung by bees.

Male fashion of the 1920’s

As for men, apart from accessories, style became also more relaxed as the decade progressed. At the beginning suits were slim and sharply tailored with small lapels. It changed to wider, boxy shapes and widely used detachable collars.

The same applied to trousers that went really wide at the end of the decade. One of the two most ubiquitous types of pants were knickerbockers, but 4 inches longer than usual, thus they were called plus fours. Plus fours were introduced to America by Edward, Prince of Wales.

Male fashion of the 1920's
Male fashion of the 1920’s
oxford pants Male fashion of the 1920's
Oxford pants

Another popular garment were oxford pants, originally worn by Oxford students. Most often made of flannel or wool drawn attention by its really wide and baggy cut. 

Coats in general were in fashion, often featuring v-neck or shall neckline. The IT coat was a raccoon one, made of real fur. Long sleeved shirts were worn during all seasons, most often made of cotton or linen featuring polka dots or straight lines. It was finally appropriate for men to choose shirt in color other than white. Golf pants and sweaters had their time as well.

Style and fashion icons of Roaring Twenties

Fashion and style icons of the decade were silver screen stars, dancers and singers, but as well gangsters like Al Capone. One of the most known female actors was Louise Brooks, she was even called IT girl – a perfect beauty example of the decade. She helped to popularise bob haircut and today is regarded as a Jazz age icon. Her career blossomed after moving to Berlin and starring in movies Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.

/louise Brooks portrait
Lousie Brooks
Josephine Bakers in iconic banana skirt
Josephine Bakers in iconic banana skirt

Josephine Baker paved the way for celebrities of color and was the first black woman to appear on the silver screen. Her fame boomed when she moved to Paris to focus on her career as a dancer and singer. One of her most iconic outfits features banana dress, she also often dances bare breasted, which back then was really outrageous. Josephine Baker was also one of the first celebrities to franchise her name.

Marlene Dietrich, born in Germany, was another movie star that influenced fashion. She was one of the first women to wear three-piece suits and was known for her androgynous look.

Male icon of the decade was definitely Rudolph Valentino, silent films star he was nicknamed The Latin Lover. Another important person was of course Charlie Chaplin, who popularised wearing bowler hats.

 Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich
Rudolph Valentino
Rudolph Valentino

The most influential Fashion designers of the 1920’s

Coco Chanel

The most known fashion designer of the 1920’s is definitely Gabriel Coco Chanel. She perfectly understood the spirit of the decade and gave women what they wanted. She is famous for her little black dress. One of her biggest contributions is shifting black from typically mourning color, to appropriate for everyday wear.

Chanel was more than a designer, she was a celebrity and trailblazer for women fashion. She was one of the first women to wear trousers, cut her hair short, and stop wearing the corset, even before the 20’s. Probably the most influential woman in fashion of the 20th century, Chanel did much to further the emancipation and freedom of women’s fashion.

Paul Poirett

If Chanel was the queen of fashion in the 1920’s, Paul Poirett was its king without any doubt. He led a fashion renaissance that introduced free-flowing dresses and was one of the first to replace tight corsets with brassiers. His wife was his biggest muse and he contributed to introducing la garçonne style.

His patterns, prints and embroidery were heavily influenced by Orientalism and Ballet Russe. Paul Poirett also took a different approach to designing clothes, by focusing on draping directly on the body, rather than focusing on tailoring and pattern making. He advocated cutting fabric in straight lines and constructed of rectangles.

Paul Poiret, “Bataille,” 1925
Paul Poiret Coat, 1923, velvet.

Jean Patou

Jean Patou is known for designing knitwear and sportswear, which before didn’t seem fashionable. He is also considered as an inventor of a tennis skirt and knitted swimwear. Suzanne Lenglen, a female tennis star had her sportswear designed by Patou, with then-daring sleeveless and knee-length cut. He is also known for his line of fragrances like “Joy” that used to be the most expensive in the world.

Jeanne Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin was a French couturier who started as a hat maker and became known for her clothing for children. Robe de Style was her signature style, which stood as an alternative to chemise styled garments. In addition to that she patented and labelled her signature color, called “Lanvin blue”. She was the first Parisian designer to launch a bespoke clothing line for men in 1926.

Jeanne Lanvin Robe de Style peach dress
Jeanne Lanvin Robe de Style Lanvin blue dress

Madeleine Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet was one of the few designers among Paul Poiret to reject corsets. By studying classical Greek statues she was mesmerised with the soft facture of clothes that move like water. It led her to experimenting with fabric cutting methods and a discovery of bias cut for the whole dress (previously used only for collar).

Thanks to that she was able to create more elastic clothes that floated freely on the body creating a mesmerising silhouette. She also used a very interesting method to prevent counterfeiting her garments, as she marked her original clothes with a fingerprint.

Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress
Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress
Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress
Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress

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