Decadence was a theme in 1920s evening wear--even though fitted bodices were loosened, waistlines were dropped and skirt hems were hiked to the scandalously high calf-level. In the decade that epitomised the liberation of women, youthful dresses like the chemise and robe-de-style were at the height of fashion. Spangled or feathered headpieces topped cropped haircuts, as cheeks were rouged and lips painted. Geometrical-shaped jewels and strings of pearls dangled down ladies' bare backs. These were the finishing touches of '20s evening wear.
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In the era of the roaring 20s clothes made the woman---the more expensive the better, according to Drowne and Hugh's book "The 1920s." Just because the chemise dress was simplistic in design, didn't mean it was the exception to this norm. Worn by many fashionable women of the time, the columnar-shaped dress fell in a straight line to ankle length, sans any darts, pleats or fitted seams that would help suggest feminine curves. Crafted in opulent fabrics, such as velvets and silks, the shift-style dress dripped with sequins and beading. Geometric patterns were prevalent, as were inlaid panels accentuated with beading and trim. As the '20s progressed, draped sections were added to produce an uneven hem--a style element that continued into the 1930s.
For women who wanted an alternative from the chemise dresses, the robe-de-style offered a little more drama with its full flounce. A 1920s dress most associated with Parisian designer Jeanne Lanvin, the womanly style was an adaptation of a young girl's dress. The silhouette had a slightly fitted bodice, which was more form fitting than the chemise, and a rounded neckline that was occasionally accentuated with a stylised floral motif. The youthful full skirt was sometimes supported with the use of petticoats or hoop structured undergarments, and accented with a thick waist band, which sometimes sat lower than the natural waist. And, like most 1920s evening wear, the dress was available in sumptuous fabrics from structured taffeta to hefty velvets. Suitable for women over 30, the robe-de-style modestly fell right above the ankle.
One of the strongest influences in 1920s design was the Art Deco artist Romain de Tirtoff, known to most by the pseudonym Erté. His simplistic style, rich with Greek influences and geometrical designs, inspired many commercial designs--from architecture to packaging. His influence was also seen in fashion, as flowing Grecian gowns graced evening parties and social gatherings. Like the chemise dress, the Grecian dresses were tubular in design. How they differed was they involved a lot more draped fabric---which was sometimes cut on the bias to move better with the body. Constructed in regal fabrics, such as silk and velvet, the dress' signature element was how the fabric was gathered at a strategic location---be it a shoulder, waist or hip. Ornamented clasps made of enamel or mother of pearl, grasped the soft drapes keeping them intact. These distinct dresses were sometimes accessorised with turbans, headbands or semi-sheer wraps.
Flapper Evening Dress
With the younger, more controversial flappers, shorter evening frocks made a splashy appearance on the evening scene. As busts were flattened down with the use of restrictive undergarments, a low round or V-shaped softly-draped neckline was fashionable. For the more daring, a low backline was preferred---as an exposed back was the perfect canvas to showcase strings of pearls. Iconic French designer Coco Chanel even made her indelible signature on the flapper evening scene. She is credited with creating the little black dress which is a staple garment even in today's fashion world. The little black dress, like many shorter dresses of the time, came in a sheath like silhouette, and in some cases even had the uneven handkerchief hemline that fell at calf-level.
With the "Garçonne" or boyish figure being the desired look, some flappers preferred a certain level of androgyny, often wearing men's wear-inspired evening wear or men's wear. This evening ensemble could include something as simple as a top hat, or in more dramatic cases an entire man's outfit. The flapper movement was one that aimed to push the button of convention. And, with men's wear and shorter, sexier, sheath dresses, the flapper put her own spin on what was considered evening wear.
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- "The 1920s"; Kathleen Morgan Drowne, Patrick Huber; 2004
- "The 1920s and 1930s"; Anne McEvoy; 2009
- "Flappers: a Guide to an American Dubculture"; Kelly Boyer Sagert; 2010
- "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through American history ..., Volume 1"; Amy T. Peterson, Ann T. Kellogg; 2008
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883--1971) and the House of Chanel
- NY Times: Liberating Women's Bodies