A Look at the 1920s

Vintage Fashion

NOTE: The following is the introduction from our 1920s women’s fashion book. Time has passed since it was written, but the wisdom remains.

This is the third book in a series of vintage fashion books on clothing from the turn of the century, and concentrates on the clothing of women when we entered the modern age. Our text and illustrations, like our preceding publications, are taken from the fashion magazines, catalogs, pattern magazines, and home craft books of that time. We endeavor to convey, in our own words, what was written about clothing at the very time it was introduced. We have made it a point to not use contemporary writings on the same subject. Please remember that this is an overview and may not cover every type of garment or accessory that was available at the time.

It is important that when using this publication as a research book that you not look at just one particular year for information, but read both preceding years as well as years later to get the full picture. Remember that fashion changes slowly, so hints of some changes may occur over several years time.

As we look back at the 1920s we think of flappers, speak-easies, roaring twenties fashion, great looking automobiles, and an era that seemed to glorify the easy money and carefree attitude of the times.

There has probably never been a time when the styles of clothing changed so radically in ten years time. Why did this occur? Probably the best way to describe the change is by looking at two figures that distinctly epitomized those times. On March 4, 1921 they came together on the Capitol steps in Washington D.C. The torch was being passed from former President Woodrow Wilson to the new President, Warren G. Harding. They were men of two different eras, two different thoughts, two different attitudes. Wilson, crusading for peace, reluctantly lead the United States during its first really modern war, World War I. The devastation and horror of that conflict helped shape the attitude of the country toward a more cynical, inward looking climate. The old values and traditions of the previous eras were no longer as strong as before. Too many dreams and promises of a great peaceful millennium in the new century were not materializing. Outside influences by radical thinkers and artisans were beginning to take hold, and thus didn’t seem quite so radical as in the past. The country wanted to modernize. Women had gone to work in factories, shops, and businesses to replace the men on the war front. That freedom from the home made it hard to return to domesticity after the men returned. Women were marching in earnest for suffrage, and in 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the vote and thus the right for greater freedom in deciding their own destinies.

Einstein was talking of a new type of universe and was stretching our comprehension on a variety of theories. Henry Ford made the automobile available to the common man. Fortunes were being made all over the United States. We were not interested in the problems across the ocean anymore. Our own country and family were more important. Thus a League of Nations, or anything that dealt with the world at large, was no longer the most important issue for the average “bread winner.”

Harding, a rather lackadaisical president, was popular with the nation although he did virtually nothing while his government became very corrupt.
Coolidge, who succeeded him, was about the same… probably most remembered for his photo in an Indian headdress than for any of his policies.

The 1920s was a great time for opposites: graft and corruption in business and politics; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and mob rule strengthened by Prohibition. Billy Mitchell and Charles Lindbergh were promoting flight, so young boys all across the nation were dreaming of soaring through the clouds. It was truly the age of the young. F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing of the frivolous life of the rich while we viewed the sometimes seamy underside of society in the dark plays of Eugene O’Neill. We listened to Rudy Vallee’s crooning; George Gershwin’s Rapsody in Blue, or Paul Whiteman with his latest jazz hit. Many homes now had phonographs, telephones, radios and a shiny Model T Ford out in front. Will Rodgers could be read in the paper, listened to on the radio, watched in a movie theater, or seen on a stage. Movie idol Rudolph Valentino took the nation by storm. Charlie Chaplin made us laugh and cry; John Gilbert and Ronald Colman had the ladies all in a flutter; and Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow epitomized what we thought we wanted to be, all on the silver screen. Our favorite movie stars could be seen every week at a movie house down the street or at the great palatial theaters that were showcases even without a movie.

Chicago police arrested some bare legged and bare-armed bathing suit clad women for indecent exposure in 1922. But by 1929 bathing suits were a necessity in every young woman’s wardrobe. Stockings were no longer a requirement at the beach. Women had come a long way in a short time.

There were flagpole sitters, Mah-Jong players, and marathon dancers. But the motor car was king. People were touring the countryside on their days off. Tourist parks sprang up to provide a place to stop overnight. Filling stations had replaced the stables and motorcycle policeman and traffic lights were everywhere. It must have a great era to be young. “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was becoming a reality. But it all came to a screeching halt in October of 1929 when the stock market collapsed. Within a short time French couturier Jean Patou dropped the hemline. The country would never again regain the innocence and frivolity epitomized by the 1920s.

Kathleen M. La Barre
Kay D. La Barre