Exhibition Archives: 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs

Dawn of a Decade

The end of the First World War marked a new era. The borders of Europe were redrawn and the United States of America, along with Britain and France, entered a period of economic prosperity. Traditional values gave way to newer and more radical codes of conduct that were being established by a young generation slaughtered by the Great War.

By 1920, for the first time in America’s history, more people lived in cities than in the country. Increasing mechanisation provided greater leisure time and disposable income than ever before. Women also entered the workforce in growing numbers; a new-found freedom ushered in a new sense of dressing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise in 1920; it was an instant hit and established the young novelist as the voice of this young, and radical, generation. The first in a wave of writers, musicians and artists to celebrate – and critique – the decade’s youth, Fitzgerald made the modern young woman, who became known as a ‘flapper’, his specialty. Though the word can be traced in English culture, the popularity of the word and its associated image reflect its American incarnation.

Women’s fashion – which had begun to reflect a more active lifestyle before the war – became a bellwether of the social and cultural changes that the decade would witness. The dizzying array of choices in the 1920s, and not just the tubular drop-waist dress immediately associated with the era, allowed the modern woman to express herself.

Shaping the Modern Woman

The silhouettes of the 1920s were foreshadowed by the haute couture fashions of the pre-war years; designers such as Paul Poiret and Lucile had promoted a straighter, less exaggerated shape for a decade. Hemlines, too, had begun to rise in the years preceding and through the First World War; by 1915 the ankle was no longer considered scandalous. The end of the war saw the beginnings  of the 1920s’ look firmly in place.

Designers had claimed to banish the  corset in their creations; indeed, the exaggerated, corseted shape of the turn  of the twentieth century had been replaced by a longer, less unnatural shape, though this was merely the result of a new design of corset. By the 1920s, the waist – while not completely gone – had ceased to be a focal point of modern fashion. Lingerie was designed to flatten and smooth the bust as it, too, became less of a focus of contemporary styles. Gamine rather than boyish, a thin tubular silhouette was the accepted norm. With the modern shape, there was an increasing emphasis on sport and exercise during the decade. France’s Les Sportives, athletic young women, and the strong, confident American girl, set the standard in these years. Women with curves were still active consumers, however, and the multitude of styles in the 1920s allowed for all shapes and sizes.

New Found Freedoms

The 1920s was a decade of unprecedented change after the ruinous years of the First World War. The urge to erase the horrors could be seen in the excessive, almost hedonistic, tenor of the decade. Women’s suffrage in both the USA – the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote in 1920 – and in Great Britain – which gained full suffrage for women in 1928 – reflected their expanding role in the discourse of public life. Alongside the political changes, social change was also a feature of the 1920s. Young women broke free from the constraint of parental control and claimed for themselves a new-found liberation. As the number of women in the workforce grew in the years following the war, so did their expectations. Women were able to be out and about – working, shopping and playing – without the aspersions cast on earlier generations of independent females.

As a generation came of age just after the war, new morals and manners were embraced by the youth of the 1920s who openly discussed sex. Psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud’s concepts of sexuality and its manifestations became part of the cultural currency of the decade; the boom in the production of automobiles provided young couples with alternatives to family homes or local dances as trysting places. The fad for ‘petting’ parties, when groups of teenagers and young adults would get together to kiss and hug, caused much consternation among the older generation. Though the initial reaction to this openness was one of dismay and approbation, by the end of the decade a cultural shift was evident as smoking, drinking and frank discussions of sexuality became more common.

The Social Whirl

The 1920s was a decade of dance. A continual sense of movement, luxuriating in the rhythms and beats of jazz, was a leitmotif of the era. Films such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring Joan Crawford, linked dancing with the loosening of the morals of the younger generation. Women’s clothes, particularly those for evening, were designed to move and shift. The swing of a beaded hem or a fringe, or an evening cape sliding off a shoulder, was intrinsic to the look and feel of the garments. The Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Shimmy not only broke social conventions of dancing in their exaggerated, frenetic steps but they also gave the newest design styles a chance to shine both figuratively and literally.

Nightclubs proliferated in 1920s London, both licensed and unlicensed; these provided a place to see and be seen, where the latest trends in fashions were observed and reported on. The USA introduced the Prohibition, which was an amendment to the Constitution banning the production and sale of alcohol across the country. It came into force in January 1920 and continued until 1933. This drove American nightlife underground and the ‘speakeasy’ was born. The most famous of these illegal drinking establishments was run by Miss Texas Guinan, a silent-film actress and national celebrity.

Out & About

An active social life, which came to include athletic as well as less strenuous pastimes, was de rigueur for young women of the 1920s. The newly fashionable suntan, made popular by couturière Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, encouraged leisure activities in the outdoors: swimming, tennis, golf. The term Les Sportives was coined in France to describe a group of active young women, viewed as scandalous by older generations. Fashion responded and couture houses such as Jean Patou, Jane Regny and Jenny were noted for collections of clothing for sports. Suzanne Lenglen, arguably the most famous female tennis player of the 1920s, set the trend for simple dresses with pleated skirts, fine jumpers and bandeau headbands. For Lenglen, the bandeau was in her trademark orange.

The decade brought in a new sense of freedom to travel. The surging popularity of the automobile opened up the possibilities of holidays to ever-increasing numbers of people. In the USA in particular, the long distances between states and regions began to seem less daunting as millions of Americans took to the roads in search of adventure. Many people, both in Europe and America, began to travel frequently on trains, ocean liners and newly established airlines. A whole wardrobe was developed to provide the fashionable woman with an outfit for every aspect of holiday life.

The Fashionable World

Alongside the proliferation of styles during the 1920s, women’s access to clothing and fashionable designs increased. As the decade progressed, the manufacturing of ready-made garments boomed and department stores, and in the USA the mail-order catalogue, were able to offer a large and varied supply of goods to eager consumers. In France, an extensive fashion industry produced the most desirable goods in the world. An ever-expanding range of garments designed in Paris was disseminated through haute couture sales to wealthy clients and through the sale of official toiles, or models, to upmarket department stores around the world. This helped to secure Paris’s reputation as the international capital of style.

For many women, couture originals and French models from department stores remained a distant dream. The simpler, streamlined silhouettes of the era were a boon to the home dressmaker and, like the production of mass-produced garments, domestic dressmaking increased exponentially during these years. Sewing skills were still considered part of education and the widespread availability of paper sewing patterns contributed to this. Craft magazines and dressmaker journals included crochet, knit and needlework patterns of current styles. Information about the latest fashions in a rapidly expanding news market, the rise of movie magazines such as Photoplay that featuring fashionably dressed stars, and the film studios that created those stars were factors in the ever-widening scope of stylish dressing. Advertising experienced a new power in a decade driven by the desire for the latest fad. The proliferation of adverts helped to promote the fashions of the day, keeping the consumer culture of the 1920s well fed with up-to-the-minute trends.

End of an Era

It all ended with a bang. Years of a speculative stock market, overproduction and easy credit lead to one of the biggest drops in the history of the New York Stock Exchange, signalling a worldwide panic in the industrialised world. The Great Depression would last through the 1930s, with the stock markets not reaching the levels of 1920s’ trading until the 1950s.

‘Black Tuesday’, 29 October 1929, is for many historians the theoretical end of the era. The causes of the stock market crash are complicated, but it represents a symbolic shift as the decade-long party was finally over. While the Depression changed everything in the ensuing years, and women’s fashions along with it, the great strides made in freedom for women lasted. Through the vote and politics, through birth control and open discussions about sex, the 1920s represented a new way of life. The decade’s fashions reflected that seismic change, and altered the way women would dress forever.


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Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

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