Women's clothing in the 1920s

Written by izabel raffy
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Women's clothing in the 1920s
(Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

The post-war 1920s were a time when women wanted to hang on to their independence and freedom. Their lifestyle had changed significantly during World War I, and these changes inevitably reflected on fashion and style. During the 1920s, it was normal for women to be seen in public without a male companion; women were active and participated in sports; they drove cars, they had office jobs, they travelled and they even smoked in public. Their wardrobe had to reflect the freedom of movement and the eternal youth trend that was emerging at that time.

The Androgynous Style of the 1920s

The modern, fashionable, pretty woman of the '20s was active, athletic and had a body like that of a young boy. Gone were the restricting corsets of the pre-war era, replaced by a flat-chested, hipless boyishness that became the signature androgynous style of that decade. Dresses and skirts were cut straight and hung loosely, disregarding the waist, hips or bust. As the waistline dropped lower and lower, the hemline got shorter and shorter, and by the end of the decade it transitioned to a "swinging bell shaped or uneven skirt that hanged low on the hips and fell no further than middle of the calf," according to Gertrud Lehnert, author of "Fashion: A Concise History." The '20s sartorial look evolved from the high-waist dress and ankle-length skirt at the beginning of the period to the shapeless tube with a hip-level waistline and a skirt barely covering the knees at the end of the decade.

Women's Day Wear

In the 1920s, one name truly embodied the fashion trend of the time: Coco Chanel. She was the epitome of the modern woman of the '20s: loud, outspoken and determined to liberate women through fashion. She lived the life of a modern woman and she knew that what her day wardrobe needed was freedom of movement. This was the essence of the '20s day wear, which was practical and accessible for all classes. Fashion designers were inspired by contemporary men's clothing, which they modified into an independent feminine style. Straight cut, single-colour skirts were combined with sweaters; long-belted jackets and simple shirt dresses became the norm. This decade also saw the birth of the famous "little black dress," which, later in the '50s, became a sartorial staple.

The materials used were also new and revolutionary for the time, especially as the first synthetic fibres appeared, such as kasha, rayon and satin double face. The most common fabrics were wool, silk and cotton jersey, previously used only for underwear and sportswear. Jersey was a firm favourite of Coco Chanel because it was the perfect material for the flowing and straight-cut clothes that allowed women to move comfortably about their day jobs.

Women's Evening Wear

With the democratisation of fashion during the '20s, fashionable day wear was easily accessible to all classes, and it was in elegant evening wear that the difference in luxury became apparent. Evening gowns in the '20s were mostly sleeveless and low-cut, either at the front or back. They did not differ much from day wear, apart from the fact that the dresses revealed more bare skin. Evening wear was made mostly of gold or silver lamé, often sequinned, beaded or embroidered with pearls. Furs were still very much in demand, but in a more subtle and inexpensive way. Rabbit, mole and fox were favoured over chinchilla and sable, and worn as trims rather than coats. Luxurious brocades and soft chiffon velvets were also often used for evening wear gowns.

1920s Fashion Designers

The biggest names in 1920s fashion are Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Jean Patou and Jeanne Lanvin. Each one of them contributed with their own signature style and design, but it was Chanel and Vionnet who left a fashion legacy that still inspires today. Chanel's desire to liberate women helped them live active, unrestricted lives through her androgynous fashion; Vionnet invented the bias-cut technique that became very popular in the 1930s.

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