Embracing Modernity: 1920s Fashion Trends

by Megan Bang , November 8, 2019

 

1920s street-style couple, Courtesy of FIT

When most people think of the 1920s aesthetic, they think of flappers, prohibition and Great Gatsby. These might be accurate, but there is so much more to the decade than those hallmark pop-cultural references. Western society was just getting over World War I, and needed to establish themselves in a fresh way. Styles needed to be more simplistic and functional for the new type of woman. 

The new era of the 1920s brought fun and jazz, Courtesy of Getty Images

People were fast-moving and wanted to start anew after the shock of wartime. It was the Jazz Age and life was all about embracing modernity. This woman has gained the right to vote, she wants to go out dancing and she wants to be seen as equal to her male counterpart. Similarly to athleisure today, Women also started wearing sportswear as their daywear. This was already common amongst menswear, however, womens-wear eventually caught up to the comfort craze. Designer Jean Patou popularised the tennis fashion look that was fashionable on and off the courts. This sportswear trend translated into an obsession with health (or the image of it). Bathroom scales became available for domestic purchase for the first time, exercise became popular, and suntanned skin was the image of health and wellness.

1920s tennis players, Courtesy of Wikimedia

This decade can easily be defined by art deco. It was all about geometry. Strict lines, industry and modernity were in vogue. Architecture, fashion and all forms of art all took this aesthetic element into account. This is clear from stream-lined silhouettes to bold, geometric prints. This silhouette was known as the “le garçonnes” style – this is the straight, columnar silhouette that is common to see in most images from the time. 

1920s street-style, Courtesy of Vintage Everyday

In the early 1910s, fashion designer Paul Poiret wanted fashion to become artistic movement. This was not a common thought process at the time as fashion was commerce and luxury oriented. Poiret was once a dancer and was theatrical by nature. He introduced harem pants in his collections, staged large scale shows and required guests to arrive to his lavish parties in costume. Movement and exoticism were paramount. This contributed to the 1920s aesthetic immensely as fashion needed to be comfortable to dance (and just generally move) and was inspired by far away lands and high art concepts.  

Designs by Paul Poiret, Courtesy of Style Your Man

Egyptomania was all the rage at this point. The tomb of King Tutankhamun was discovered, and the aesthetics of the ancient people became fashionable. This related to use of metallics, bold jewel tone colours (black, yellow, crimson, deep blues), embroidery and heavy beading embellishments. 

Cinema also brought forth the spread of Eastern aesthetics to the Western culture (and vice versa). Society women in the West began to adapt the traditional qipao as a glamorous garment. The chinoiserie trend in general became a popular way to dress within the West as women in major Chinese cities like Shanghai began adapting western prints, hairstyles and garments into everyday wear. 

The first designer most think of for this time period is Coco Chanel. She popularised styles that women could wear comfortably running around the city or going to work. As they started entering the workforce more, women needed pieces to accommodate the demanding lifestyle. She wanted clothing to be practical for working or traveling. Her revolutionised thought process promoted minimalism and style without bells and whistles. You can also thank her for the little black dress (said to be inspired by Chanel’s french maid’s uniform). 

Coco Chanel – the iconic modern woman who designed clothes meant to be worn in everyday life, Courtesy of Wikimedia

The style icon of the decade was Josephine Baker. She was an entertainer who eventually became the face of everything. She was sensual, heavily embellished and simply iconic. She was a black woman who moved to France from the still segregated United States to become a french icon within the night-club and celebrity scenes. She was the poster-child to almost any product within France and inspired all women of the nation to be stylish and daring. Her banana skirt stage costume remains a defining piece of the era. 

Josephine Baker, Courtesy of CMG Worldwide

Myths

There are many myths when it comes to the 1920s style. This is due to costume designers often embellishing what the aesthetics of the decade truly were. Many movies used modern ideologies of style ingrained into costumes. So don’t trust the movies!

Dresses were not the mini dresses we may picture. They were about mid-calf length in the first half of the decade, which was definitely considered shocking. By 1927, they barely covered the knees which was even more insane (knees were not shown in mainstream day-wear until the 1950s). Also, fringe was not really used very often!

Long gloves often did not happen in evening situations. Shoes were very low heels – they were not higher than shoes in earlier decades. Heels were short, curved in a specific shape and thick heeled with a single strap across the top of the foot. 

So, let’s talk corsets. Undergarments remained important in the 1920s. Corsets were still worn, but without boning. They had elastic shaping panels instead – flattening the silhouette instead of accentuating the waist as slim, flat bodies were preferred. Not everyone wore this new form of corset: if a woman had the desired silhouette, she would already be seen as fashionable, and didn’t need to wear one. The need for shape-wear seems somewhat silly as clothing was always loose-fitting and had a drop waist. The shape-wear was mostly for flattening the chest. 

There were actually very few real flappers – there was a deco-revival in the 1970s that accentuated the idea and popularity of the flapper. The few flappers there actually were, were daring women who shocked and were even seen as obnoxious in certain crowds. 

Flappers of the 1920s, Courtesy of Getty Images

Here are pieces that are inspired by the trends of the daring 1920s era:

Daywear

1. Chanel 2. Push Button 3. Zues + Dione 4. Chanel 5. Chanel 6. Marni 7. Sensi Studio 8. Chanel

When we think daywear in the 1920s, we think Chanel. Classic sportswear pieces come together for an effortless look that is great for any weather or occasion. 

Evening

1. Haute Hippie 2. Miu Miu 3. Maddalena Marconi 4. Marni 5. Bottega Veneta 6. Bottega Veneta 7. Cartier 8. Manolo Blahnik

Cocktail hour never looked so shiny. This Haute Hippie beaded dress is the ideal 1920s silhouette and length, yet emits modernity. Playing up the sparkle factor with varying accessories creates a layered and sophisticated look.

1. Valentino 2. Chanel 3. Chanel 4. Tory Burch 5. Biba 6. Georg Jenson 7. Lanvin 8. Hermès

Inspired by Daisy’s look from Great Gatsby, this look is an elevated evening dream. The Valentino gown emits pure glamour and is elevated by Chanel, Hermès and Lanvin jewellery. Elements of playfulness are equally important in this look so the Biba fox-fur stole adds the fun factor. 

Chinoiserie 

1. Shanghai Tang 2. Stuart Weitzman 3. Hermès 4. Etro 5. Van Cleef & Arpels 6. Shanghai Tang 7. Prada 8. Marni

This iconic aesthetic screams for Shanghai Tang. The silk dress looks straight from vintage Shanghai and the more modern components of the luxe jewellery and accessories make the look feel rich while still emulating the 1920s. 

Sources:

Historic Shanghai, The Ultimate Fashion History, Marie Claire, FIT

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