Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum, on how fashion was transformed during the roaring twenties
The styles of the 1920s were bold and distinctive. Despite the many years that now separate us from the time of their creation, garments from this era still exude an undeniable air of freshness, optimism and decorative appeal.
The 1920s was characterised by an emphasis on the new. Hopefulness was the order of the day and youth was celebrated above all things. The First World War had resulted in the terrible and unprecedented loss of young male life.
Shocked and in mourning for the deaths of so many, society reacted strongly and swiftly. The seeds of social, cultural and technological change had already been sewn before the war, but the conflict accelerated this process and paved the way for a more dramatic break from the conventions and formalities of the past.
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The First World War was a particularly important catalyst for change in the lives of women. Many had been called upon to work, often in traditionally male roles, during the conflict. The result was greater independence and visibility within society, which was reinforced by the advent of long fought-for female suffrage. Some women were permitted to vote in 1918.
All women over 21 gained equal voting rights with men in 1928. Though women were encouraged back into the home once troops returned, circumstances had changed, and attitudes had altered. For some the sheer number of male casualties meant that they could no longer expect to follow the standard route to marriage and motherhood. Greater female participation in the public sphere was, whether by choice or necessity, an important part of the post-war world.
Technological progress was also a hallmark of 1920s society. Here again the war had been instrumental in hastening developments in communications, transport and manufacturing methods. The accelerated pace of life that characterised the decade was fed by these advancements. Domestic entertainment in the form of the gramophone and mass-communication via radio and film were essential ingredients in the swirling mix of progress and novelty.
Foreign travel also became easier. Those who did not have the means to participate in the luxurious and international lifestyles of the wealthy, could nevertheless witness and aspire to them through the wireless or local cinema.
Jazz music, in many ways the soundtrack of the 1920s, was also spread by these means. The popularity of this music of black American origin was another small step towards the hope for a more democratic and integrated society; one which we continue to aspire to today.
In terms of fashion, technological developments had a direct impact. Advancements in manufacturing techniques, the growth of the ready-to-wear industry and developments in the use of the manufactured fibre artificial silk (known as Rayon from 1924), meant that fashion became more available and affordable during the 1920s.
Modes strongly reflected the social, cultural and economic changes that were taking place within society, but despite our modern conception of a typical 1920s look, styles varied quite significantly through the decade. Hemlines altered, fashions for accessories and decoration came and went and waistlines moved up and down. To the untrained eye the styles of the period 1920 – 1922 were more akin to those of the First World War of 1914 – 1918. It took time for ideas and styles to crystallize into what we now associate with 1920s fashion.
For example, during the early years of the decade waistlines had not fully dropped to hip level and hemlines fluctuated from ankle-length to calf-length, but never higher. It was not until 1923 that the familiar tubular, drop-waisted style took hold in earnest and shorter knee-length skirts did not make an appearance until around 1925.
The emphasis on youth was a strong influence on the spread of the ‘garçonne’ look during the middle years of the decade. This style, in which female fashion played with ideas of adolescence and masculinity, required the elimination of womanly curves. A completely straight, simple, tubular line, hip-level waistlines, knee-length skirts and simple, short hairstyles were the hallmarks of this look, which tends to be the most memorable of the period.
During the later years of the decade variations crept in. Skirts flared out with the addition of godets (or triangular inserts), and uneven hemlines were seen, particularly in more formal dress and eveningwear. Drapery such as scarves and stoles were also used to break up the columnar line of women’s dress; softening its appearance both day and night.
The last few years of the 1920s saw day and evening dress diverge significantly in terms of hemlines; something that would carry on for decades to come, and curvier figures, natural waistlines and longer skirt lengths did in fact return to women’s fashion in 1929.
Accessories were a vital aspect of the overall 1920s ‘look’. Hats were particularly important. Social custom dictated that everyone was expected to wear a hat when out in public, and it would have been very unusual not to grab one when leaving the house. The cloche hat is particularly associated with the 1920s. They varied in size and style through the decade, but this helmet-like item of women’s headwear, pulled down low over the forehead, was a specific ‘flapper’ fashion which first emerged around 1923. Alongside the cloche hat came short hairstyles for women; another distinctive feature of 1920s fashion.
The bravest style-setters bobbed their hair from around 1917, and by the early 1920s many more had followed. By 1926 short hair was the most common style for women, with the bravest later going for the ‘Eton Crop’. Make-up was a further daring new accessory. Rather than hide the judicious use of natural-style cosmetics, young women of the 1920s applied bright red lipstick and plucked and pencilled their eyebrows in ways that made the older generation gasp.
Decorative influences on fashion were many and varied as designers gathered inspiration from a multitude of sources; particularly the decorative art of ancient civilisations and works produced by African and Asian cultures. 1923 was the year that ‘Egyptomania’ swept the Western world following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in late 1922.
The fashion saw an abundance of ‘Pharaoh’ sandals, tightly pleated wrap-around garments in greens, blues and golds and accessories decorated with Egyptian-style motifs such as scarab beetles. Art produced by Mayan and Aztec peoples was also a strong influence on 1920s fashion and decorative art.
Many of these design motifs were made manifest in the form of surface decoration, which was an important aspect of 1920s fashionable dress. Though the cut of ‘20s garments was relatively simple and linear, this was often merely a canvas for a riot of applied decoration. Beadwork was a particularly popular technique. Glass beads were lavishly applied to evening dress, making them glitter in the light every time the wearer moved. Shiny fabrics were important too. The gathering momentum of Hollywood was a strong influence here.
Unable to use colour to add flavour, costume designers for black and white movies turned to shiny fabrics to evoke glamour. Unsurprisingly this sparked a fashion for similar textiles in the real world. Newly developed metallic lamé in gold and silver was widely used in 1920s eveningwear, and occasionally even for wedding gowns.
Change was most definitely in the air during the 1920s, but our conception of the hedonism and optimism of the decade is also tempered by what we know occurred at its close. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression brought the positivity, fizz and exuberance of the 1920s to an abrupt end; altering fashions once more and making this cherished era all-the-more poignant and fascinating to our modern eyes.
It is now 100 years since this ground-breaking and exciting decade began. The Olive Matthews Collection at Chertsey Museum celebrates this centenary with its brand-new exhibition The Roaring Twenties, Fashions of the Jazz Age. You can visit it and more at the newly re-opened Chertsey Museum.
All images copyright The Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum. Photos by John Chase Photography.
We have fine collections, including history of the Runnymede area, local archaeology and history of Chertsey Abbey, fine art, decorative art, social history including many documents and photographs, local clocks and the nationally significant Olive Matthews Collection of dress and textiles. Free Wi-Fi and smart phone gallery guide available.