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A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 1: The Rise of the Hemline & Disappearance of the Waistline, 1920’s

Women’s fashion trends prior to the twentieth century convey a sense of, well, discomfort to modern ears: s-curve, hobble skirt, corset, bustle.  In Joshua Zeitz’ Flapper, the author quotes ‘King of Fashion’ Paul Poiret’s description of the hobble skirt that he designed: “You will remember the tears, the cries, the gnashings of teeth caused by this ukase of fashion.  Women complained of being no longer able to walk, not get into a carriage.  All their jeremiads pleaded in favor of my innovation . . . Have their complaints or grumblings ever arrested the movement of fashion, or have they not rather, on the contrary, helped it by advertising it?”  Clearly, the fashion trends of the late nineteenth century were not targeted towards women who were active or independent, although women were not necessarily expected to be.  Yet it still sort of boggles the mind to think that fashion was a part of women’s shackle as early as a hundred years ago, which is sort of a hiccup in the grand scheme of history.  Yet, in the 1920’s, thousands of years of women’s fashion became undone and rewritten.  Fashion retained its appeal as a status symbol, yet also incorporated new ideas of comfort, movement, and function.  Instead of binding and controlling women, it became an expression of their liberation.  What changed?

Ideal of women's fashion, late 1800's.

Basically, a combination of social and cultural changes for women allowed for this sort of aberration in fashion history known as the twenties.  In America, women were finally granted the right to vote.  World War I was over, with America, a late-comer to the war and remote enough to be less devastated from its effects, emerging as prosperous and as a more established world power.  Meanwhile, the cultural climate of the West – Europe and America – was changing as well.  By cultural climate, I mean the creative output of writers, musicians, and filmmakers who were basically altering the perception of what society valued, what was acceptable, and what was ideal.  As everyone knows, the 1920’s heralded the arrival of the much lauded “flapper”, a new concept of the modern woman, who danced, drank, worked, and played at a level (almost) equal to men in a manner that offended the traditional Victorian thinkers but captivated the new generation.  The newly popularized medium of film helped to promote this new archetype, while writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald both created and promoted her to the American public.  Meanwhile, real-life ‘flappers’, such as Josephine Baker, thrived in liberal communities in Europe, in cities like Paris and Berlin, where the modern woman could express herself even more freely than in America.  American writers also formed communities in Europe, especially in France, which helped to further establish this connection between the American and European modern sensibilities.

Compared to the image above, the 1920's were a totally different world.

At the same time, fashion was responding to the new demands of the modern woman.  Supply and demand, again, reared its econ 101 head.  As early as 1914, Coco Chanel was promoting a new silhouette for women, one that emphasized comfort over decorative frills.  By the end of World War I in 1918, her designs were selling throughout France.  According to Zeitz, Chanel proclaimed to have “let go of the waistline” as she “came up with a new silhouette”.  This ‘new silhouette’ seems pretty tame from modern-day standards, but it was actually quite revolutionary.  Playing with androgyny, Chanel’s designs allowed women to take the best parts of men’s fashion – blazers, cardigans, streamlined designs – and make them appropriate for women.  The corset was completely unnecessary to achieve the chic Chanel garçonne look: slim, straight, and vertical, with no waistline, and a hemline that emphasized movement rather than modesty.  Instead of the ruffles, feathers, bustles, and trims of the previous era, women’s fashion was feminized with ornate beadwork and lightweight fabrics (jersey, silk), and incorporated elements from contemporary art, such as geometric, art deco patterns.  Paired with long cardigans (not unlike the ‘boyfriend cardigan’ that pretended it was invented a few years ago) or flowing blazers and topped with a bell-shaped, skull-hugging cap, the cloche, that emphasized the newly popularized bob haircut, the flapper look was born.

The cloche hat & the bob haircut

What did this mean for women?  Other than allowing them to replace binding, restrictive corsets with comfortable, lighter than air bralettes and slips, and to be actually able to move without ‘hobbling’ down the street, it meant a lot.  Fashion throughout history didn’t happen in a bubble; what women wore and what women did were connected.  The new found freedom in fashion accompanied some new found freedoms socially, from voting to working to being active in a sphere once reserved for men: the social sphere, out of the home and into the public eye.  While women’s roles did not change overnight because of a dropped waistline and a raised hemline, such changes in fashion represented the social changes that were affecting women’s lives.  The flapper ideal allowed women to borrow from men’s wardrobes, implying that women were also borrowing from men socially and culturally.  The ‘separate spheres’ keeping the worlds of men and women apart throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s were coming apart at the seams, as the ‘modern woman’ looked to new avenues for her liberation- the workplace, the university, and anywhere else where she could carve a new path.

Suggested further reading:

Flapper by Joshua Zeitz

Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age by D.J. Taylor

Next week, we look at the ‘flapper ideal’ of fashion in cinema: Colleen Moore’s Flaming Youth, the bobbed Louise Brooks, and the dancing daughters of the 1920’s…


Filed under Fashion History