Beauty is Shape By Pauline Weston Thomas for Fashion-Era com

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1914 -18 Changes for Women

Socio economic changes that occurred during the First World War 1914-18 and became accepted, changed the role of women in a way that no amount of campaigning by a few liberated ladies could have.

The Flapper

The costume history image in our minds of a woman of the 'Roaring Twenties' is actually likely to be the image of a flapper. Flappers did not truly emerge until 1926.  Flapper fashion embraced all things and styles modern.  A fashionable flapper had short sleek hair, a shorter than average shapeless shift dress, a chest as flat as a board, wore make up and applied it in public, smoked with a long cigarette holder, exposed her limbs and epitomised the spirit of a reckless rebel who danced the nights away in the Jazz Age.  The French called the flapper fashion style the 'garconne'.   

Attainable Fashion for All

High fashion until the twenties had been for the richer women of society.  But because construction of the flapper's dress was less complicated than earlier fashions, women were much more successful at home dressmaking a flapper dress which was a straight shift.  It was easier to produce up to date plain flapper fashions quickly using flapper fashion Butterick dress patterns. 

The flapper fashion style flourished amid the middle classes negating differences between themselves and the truly rich, but continuing to highlight some differences with the really poor.  The really rich still continued to wear beautifully embellished silk garments for evening, but the masses revelled in their new found sophistication of very fashionable flapper clothes. 


The Short Skirt Misconception of the Twenties

New students of costume history often mistakenly assume that all dresses day and evening were short in every year of the twenties and that flappers were the only fashion style of the twenties.  Dress and coat lengths were actually calf length and quite long for most of the decade.  Shortness is a popular misconception reinforced by the availability of moving film of the Charleston dance which shows very visible knees and legs on the dancing flappers.

Skirts only revealed the knee briefly between 1926 and 1928, and this was the only period when evening dresses were short in line with day dress lengths. This was the flapper period.

Dating the Twenties Hemline

From 1913 the hemline had begun to show a little ankle.

Between 1916 and 1929 hemlines rose steadily, faltered then rose again.

In 1918 skirt lengths were just below calf length.


Calf length loose dresses circa 1918 compared with those of 1920 where the waist has shown a definite drop, but the length remains steady around the calf area.


In 1919 skirt lengths were calf length.

Between 1920 and 1924 skirts remained calf length with fluctuations of an inch or two according to garment style.  Skirts were actually still rather long, but were designed to confuse.  


The Elusive Hemline of the 1920s.

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Gradually by degrees they gave the illusion of being first long and then shorter with dipping, scalloped and handkerchief hemlines in floating fabrics.  It was only in 1925 that skirts rose 14 to 16 inches (45 to 50 cm) from the ground making the shorter hemline we associate with the era.

By 1926 skirts were at their shortest in the Twenties decade and showed the knee until 1928. The whole leg as far as the kneecap was revealed.

By 1929 uneven hems and asymmetric skirt hemlines again helped the transition to longer skirts.  Longer sheer overskirts and semi sheer top skirts were worn over shorter linings.  By 1930 the hemline was several inches below the knee. 

The Masculine Silhouette of 1920's Females

After the war when women's dress became more mannish, each year seemed to get more severe in line which almost emphasised the feminine woman beneath. Female clothes became looser and more shapeless in fit. The bust was suppressed, the waist disappeared, the shoulders became broader and hair shorter and shorter.  Narrow boyish hips were preferred.  The silhouette emphasised a flattened chest and womanly curves were eliminated as the line became more simplified.

The Flat Chest of the Twenties

The slender flat chested tanned body and face of a 15 year old became the desired silhouette of the bright young things of the 1920s.  Health and beauty clubs helped women refine their silhouettes whilst getting fitter and healthier.

It was a difficult time for the former matrons of Edwardian society, the previous leaders of fashion whose style of dressing became as passé as their rounded figures and older faces.  More youthful women who could party all night and carry the boyish fashions well were all the rage. 

The 1920's Bra

The bras of the early 20s include home made ones in white cotton and which were little more than bust bodices with extra separation.  Some purchased bras were like camisoles and they offered no support.

Big busted girls turned to bandaging their breasts flat, but many adopted the Symington Side Lacer, a bra that could be laced at both sides and pulled and pulled in to flatten the chest.

For young ladies with youthful figures a satisfactory bra was the four sectioned lace bandeau bra, lined in net.  None of the bras gave much shape, but few ladies were seeking anything more than stopping the bust from wobbling. As long as they looked boyish they looked fashionable.

By the 1930s Triumph, Maidenform, Gossard, Warner Brothers, Spirella, Twilfit and Symingtons were all making bras that did the job of separating the breasts. At the same time it was finally acknowledged that women had differing cup sizes and bra sales doubled with the new designs.

Girdles and Underwear

Between 1920 and 1928 corset sales declined by two thirds, but it adapted to changing needs.  Fast flappers refused to wear corsets and rolled their stockings to the knee to enable them to dance easily.  Long Corsets produced the boyish figure, but instead of thick boned corsets many women preferred thin elastic webbing Lastex girdles that flattened the abdomen.  Suspenders were attached to the girdles. Underwear was minimal, sheer and lightweight. Women wore cami-bockers (directoire knickers and chemise) or cami-knickers or knickers and a petticoat. 

1920's modern underwear.

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An Air of Nudity in Stockings and Bare Arms

Although the 1950s are thought of as the first time of the teenager and the 1960s as the era when the young first led fashion there is no doubt that the possession of a youthful body was a prerequisite of twenties fashion.

The arms were bared not only for evening, but also for day and the legs were covered in beige stockings visible to the knee which gave an overall more naked look than ever before.  Feet, ankles and calves formerly hidden and encased in black stocking were suddenly on show.  Young women always wore black wool stockings until the end of World War I.

By the 1920s stockings with patterns were hot fashion items. Embroidery snaked around the ankles and up to the knees.  Flesh and soft pastel colours were popular and they were made in either silk or artificial silk known as art silk later called rayon.  The rayon stockings were very shiny so girls powdered their legs to dull them before venturing out.  Names of stocking colours were Honey Beige, Teatime, Rose Morn, Boulevard and Spanish Brown.  Lastex, a rubber based thread was used in knee highs in bright colours.  

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

Coco Chanel sporting short hair wearing one of her simple jersey outfits and revealing bare arms and flesh toned stockings.

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The great fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel 1883-1971 self styled herself to be known as Coco Chanel.  By 1920 the silhouette of her clothing designs have come to be the epitome of 20's style.  The work of other famous designers beside hers seemed old fashioned and outmoded belonging as they did to the pre World War One era.

She promoted the styles we associate with flappers. She worked in neutral tones of beige, sand, cream, navy and black in soft fluid jersey fabrics cut with simple shapes that did not require corsetry or waist definition.  They were clothes made for comfort and ease in wear making them revolutionary and quite modern.  She was the Jean Muir or Donna Karan of her day and the originator of the LBD - that little black dress. 

Short Hair

The 1920s saw a universal fashion for short hair a more radical move beyond the curtain styles of the war era.  Hair was first bobbed, then shingled, then Eton cropped in 1926-7.  An Eton crop was considered daring and shocked some older citizens, since hair had always been thought a woman's crowning glory.  Only maiden aunts and elderly dowagers avoided the severe shorter styles, but by the 1930s softer waved hairstyles were a refreshing change.

Sketches of the changes to the soft Bobbed hairstyle of 1922 to the severe Eton Crop of 1926.

Circa 1922, 1925,1925,1926

See more hairstyles from 1900-1950 here.

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Go to this superb book link on Art Deco Hair



Cloche Hats

Women wore cloche hats throughout the twenties.  A cloche hat told everyone that you had short hair.  It was only possible to get a close fitting cloche on the skull if the hair was cropped short and flat.  The cloche hat affected body posture as it was pulled well over the eyes which meant young women held their heads at a specific angle in order to see where they were going.  Foreheads were unfashionable in the 1920s. 


Make Up Rites

During the era there was an increased use of make up and it was fashionable to perform the rites of make up in public.  Instead of disappearing to the powder room women got out their engraved compact and applied lipstick and powder in sight of a whole restaurant or nightclub or tearoom.  Ox blood lipstick was used lavishly, but rouge was still used sparingly.  Today compacts from the 1920s are sought after by collectors.

Fashionable Twenties Coats and Outerwear

Coats of the 1920s were mostly long until 1926.  They all seemed to have one thing in common in that almost all illustrations of them show them as wrap-over whatever the length.  They often wrapped to just one side fastening which was a feature of the garment as either a huge button or some complex tab and buckle.

1920's Wrapover coats.

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Many coats had shawl fur collars.  A fashion for coordinating coat linings with dress fabrics started at this time.  

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