17 Nov 2017

Nacktigall's costume lesson

Fashion of the 1920s and how it came about that...

To understand the history of 1920s fashion, I consider it necessary to examine its evolution and backgrounds. Therefore I'd like to start with that even one decade earlier.

Around 1900, time of ‘fin de siècle’, the woman’s silhouette was strictly formfitting. The corset tied up a small waist and optically curved out the backside, so the body looked like an S from the side. During the Belle Époque fashion was expressing luxury in material, workmanship and decoration until the reform fashion brought simplified patterns and new decorative art nouveau designs. People loved blouses and dresses with stand-up collars and overlong skirts to even the so-called hobble skirt, which made walking almost impossible due to its narrow width. Besides gloves and lace-up boots, rich decorated, huge hats (cartwheel hats) belonged to modish embellishment.



Ill. 1: Silhouette of the

Belle Époque

Doctors, artists and women societies protested against the existing model ideal and claimed a healthier, more natural, plainer fashion, until the only ankle-length skirt combined with loose kimono patterns and smooth falling tops established around 1914. Furthermore the beginning working life of the unmarried woman as well as the first women’s types of sport brought female suits with bloomers and shrouded straw hats.


Ill. 2: War crinoline, design by Chanel 1916

During the First World War fabric shortages and huge difficulties in supply prevailed. In an incomparable way Gabrielle Chanel 1917 designed jersey suits and dresses in a straight pattern and also shirt dresses with calf-length skirts in the so-called style of the ‘war crinoline’. Women who provided aid services in the army or in munitions factories, who worked in transport and health services as well as in industry and agriculture, used men’s fashion more than ever before and wore straight shirts, union suits (like today’s jumpsuits), straight patterned flannel trousers and uniform jackets.



The fashion of the 1920s

About women's clothing.

The First World War nearly changed everything - but first of all women’s position in society. Owing to an increasing equality, own workmanship and independence (around 1920 one third of working Berlin citizens were women) as well as the earned woman suffrage a never known female emancipation arose which of course also showed in clothing.



The skirts became shorter, varied between calf-length and visible knees, and exposed naked ankles. Those were shrouded of the recently developed faux silk (rayon) stockings and above of feet that were in sharp pumps, Mary Janes or ankle boots with curved, broad heels. The lowered waist blurred the build and created a boyish slim silhouette also supported by a new corset-free, light underwear, elastic camisoles and panties as well as dance or suspender belts with strap garters.

Ill. 3: Underwear in the 1920s

Ill. 4: Daywear 1920s


In day wear, the woman reached for combinations of skirt and blouses together with suit coats in men’s shape and also straight dresses with flared and pleated insets as well as house frocks made of cotton or viscose. Knitted pullovers also got popular, often adorned with low fitting belts or cords.


Trousers, as knee-high bloomers (knickerbockers) or as straight, floor-length model with cuffs and creases remained accepted, albeit only in female work, sport and leisure clothing. Day coats were, as blouses and jackets, made in men’s pattern - straight and with lapel collar, single- or double-breasted.


After the removal oft he dance ban valid during war, the Berliner Tagesblatt wrote on New Years Eve 1919: „Wie ein Rudel hungriger Wölfe stürzt sich das Volk auf die lang entbehrte Lust.“ (Like a pack of hungry wolves the nation lungs for the long missed lust.)


The survival of the war should be celebrated, as well as inflation, unemployment, starvation and political riots should be forgotten. In a raging speed amusement and dance premises occurred. The writer Klaus Mann wrote about that time “One dances hunger and hysteria, fear and avidity, panic and horror. A beaten, impoverished, demoralized nation seeks for oblivion in dancing…”


The American amusement dances known from about 1925 like the foxtrot, the shimmy and the Charleston even increased the tempo of the raising pleasure compulsion and required clothing in which a woman could celebrate her ability to step out and move her body adequately, without losing any of her grace and elegance.



So the formal attire formed that picture of the „Golden Twenties” fixed in heads today.


There also established the straight baggy loose or sheath dress but with a deep décolleté and back neckline as well as sumptuous embellishments with beads and sequins. The dresses skirt often got a swinging hem with fringes, dips or valances. Also popular and rich embellished were capes and warming coats, often draped and just held closed by hand as well as fur coats which often represented the wearer’s income.



Ill. 5: Evening clothing 1925

Ill. 6: Art déco and Egyptian influence

Ill. 7: Evening style dress by Lanvin

Well-liked decorations were besides pearls and lace greatly exotic things like feathers of different birds, golden ornaments or Asian patterns. In 1922, when the grave of Tutanchamun was discovered, also an Egyptian wave ran through fashion. The flowery-dainty nature ornaments of art nouveau slowly became replaced by the modern, geometrical and very elegant art deco.






Alternative to the loose dress, the evening dress created by the Parisian dressmaker Jeanne Lanvin with a flared, low on hip sitting, calf-length skirt and a snug top in princess line was worn. (Stilkleid)



For the first time in history, women cut her hair short - to a cheeky ‘Bubikopf’, a shingle-bob or the elegant-androgynous Eton crop, sleek or wavy, e. g. the famous water wave. On top of that she wore the cloche hat or a turban in the evening, close-fitting caps and also imposing feather headdresses. Further long hair bands and berets decorated the head.

Ill. 8: Bob with water wave

Ill. 9: Nightwear 1921

Though seldom seen by a stranger, sleep and home wear got regarded with a detailed love. Night gowns made of silk and viscose together with pajamas and union suits (kind of a short leg, sleeveless overall) had a smooth, fluent pattern line, gentle pastel colors and often lace ornaments. Night- and home wear was not longer just functional, rather it should be erotic and seductive now.




In addition the woman of the world loved to decorate herself with scarves, kerchiefs and umbrellas in eye-catching colors with coquettish patterns and also multi-row pearl necklaces, bracelets and earrings. While besides real jewelry also fashion jewelry became drop-dead gorgeous, the quellazaire rose to a voguish cult object. As for that mattered: the longer, the more sophisticated, the better.




For swimming in the upcoming open air baths or at the Baltic or North Sea the woman now wore an un-braced, one-piece tricot, often sleeveless and covering half of the thighs - usually the leg pieces were even covered by a short little skirt.



Furthermore the sportswear conquered the women’s wardrobe. So the so-called Norwegian-suit for skiing with ankle-length trousers and lumberjack jacket, the tennis skirt and jodhpurs in knickerbockers style as well as sport shoes with flat soles came about.



Ill. 10: Swimwear 1920s


Ill. 11: The ideal of the flapper, regarded as provocative


Today still a sloppy phrase, it already entitled the picture of the “new woman” in the 1920s: stubborn, confident, standing and dancing on her own feet, with bobbed hair in a loose dress smoking and drinking through the city, even at times of prohibition. At night they wiggled through the jazz clubs and exposed her powdered knees while dancing.



Flapper girls became the female role model of provocation and emancipation, were regarded as cheeky and adventurous. Whether the term comes from the English language to symbolize a flapping bird or describes an unclosed boot with clicking tongues in the American hasn’t been clearly defined yet.



THE FLAPPER, Washington Post, May 23, 1922


‘She crosses her legs with a “Why should I care?”, as she draws on a nicotine pill.

 She talks about Freud with a nonchalant air, and discusses the “power of will”.

 She never turns in till it’s time to get up, oh the men flock around her like fleas.

 She reads Scott Fitzgerald, and owns a bull pup, and is famed for her well-powdered knees.’


The Garçonne

This term from the French, which kind of means celibate or boyish woman, established because of the novel “La Garçonne” by Victor Margueritte published in 1922. The title had even before been a synonym for lesbian women, but now it further described pretty androgynous women with very short hair and a passion for men’s clothing. They went out man’s shirts with cufflinks, bow tie or long tie and also in smoking suits, sometimes wearing bowler hats. The bravest of them even wore a monocle which had been only common among homosexual men until then. That’s why those did not just go out, they went “monocling”.



Ill. 12: Anita Berber in

Garçonne look

About men's clothing.

The men’s world remained mostly unimpressed by the female fashion experiments. The factually serious to casual day wear stayed in unostentatious colors and also patterns like squares, stripes and smaller patterns.



Ill. 13: Menswear in the 1920s


At the beginning of the twenties, the jacket still was made with a braced front, high waist and single breasted with a peaked (pointed) lapel - also known as double breasted style lapel - and worn to downward tightening trousers. Around 1925 the jacket lost its bracing and waisting, the trousers became regular wide.


Then around 1929, the shoulders were broad padded, jackets were gentle waisted and close fitting to hips. Trousers with cuffs and a wide, straight pattern became fashionable.



As a casual coat the trench coat was worn - a long un-hooded, often double-breasted rain coat made of cotton or gabardine. Further the broad boxy Ulster coat got famous among men.


In a distinct separation the formal attire remained formal and had to be chosen suitable to an occasion.


The rather slack, suit-similar smoking with its long shawl lapel and usually with only one breast pocket for the dress handkerchief was worn for unofficial companies like e. g. an evening at the smoking salon with other men (and that’s also were it got its name from).



Far more formally the cutaway (short: cut) appeared which was similar to a frock-coat in pattern of the top but always made single-breasted with a peaked lapel and a wide neckline. It was also often closed with corozo (ivory nut) buttons.



The tailcoat (also: dress coat/ frock coat), today still known as the king of menswear, was chosen for very formal occasions. Typical were its waist-length jacket with a back long, often split tail - why it was also often referred to as the swallow tailed coat.

Ill. 14: Evening clothing of the 1920s man

Ill. 15: The stroller-suit


For social occasions by day the stroller (Stresemann suit) came in fashion, a combination of a black single-breasted jacket, light grey vest, a gentle black and white patterned tie and striped trousers without cuffs.



As an evening coat the elegant overcoat (paletot) established, a slightly waisted single- or double-breasted coat with suit-similar lapel as well as collar and pockets (lined with fur and made with a shawl collar also known as pelisse).



Sportswear like knickerbockers and sports jackets found its way into men’s daywear. The waistcoat/vest, previously an essential part of correct clothing, was now allowed to be replaced by a pullover during daytime.






Ill. 16: Casual menswear with knickerbockers and pullover

Ill. 17: Hatwear for men in 1920s

Sirs wore the short parting hair style sleek combed and fain pomaded. On top of this you could see, according to occasion, the smooth bowler hat with head pinch, the elegant-stiff Homburg hat and also the top hat (also: stovepipe hat), or they chose from casual bonnets and caps.




On foot one did not only wear ankle-high boots anymore, but also low shoes, sometimes with gaiters.

Stylish accessories like gloves, shawls and scarves, ties and bow ties brought color spots as well as patterns into the clothing combinations. As popular jewelry the wristwatch and the seal ring were regarded.


The fashion of the 1920s does not count for nothing as one of the most innovative, dressiest and outstanding unique of all times. Furthermore it describes like no other the emancipation of the woman, the birth of ready-to-wear clothing and the potential of fashion to design life a bit shinier and life-affirming.




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Image sources:

Ill.1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e0/Robe_de_petits_d%C3%AEners_par_Redfern_1902_2_cropped.jpg/268px-Robe_de_petits_d%C3%AEners_par_Redfern_1902_2_cropped.jpg

Ill.2:  http://clarerosehistory.com/2016/03/fashion-in-world-war-i-march-1916/

Ill.3: http://gallica.bnf.fr/accueil/?mode=desktop

Ill.4:  https://vintagedancer.com/1920s/1920s-dresses-for-sale-the-best-online-shops/attachment/1920s-dress-fashions-patter-ads/

Ill.5: https://www.flickr.com/photos/christine592/3382936595/sizes/o/in/set-72157614654837205/

Ill.6: https://vintagehandbook.wordpress.com/fashion/1920s-fashion/

Ill.7: https://blog.pattern-vault.com/tag/1920s/

Ill. 8: http://glamourdaze.com/2010/05/1920s-fashion-womens-dress-and-style.html

Ill.9: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/17/c0/d9/17c0d9e63f27640aed413ea46357c9ab.jpg

Ill.10: https://retrowunderland.tumblr.com/

Ill.11: http://ziegfeld-folly.tumblr.com/post/38013539499

Ill.12: http://www.anita-berber.de/unser-service/index.html

Ill.13: http://www.maskerix.de/20er-vintage-gangster-kostuem-selber-machen/

Ill.14: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-f7d0-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99#/?zoom=true

Ill.15: https://szarmant.pl/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/stroller-i-stresemann.jpg

Ill.16: https://digitaltmuseum.se/021015723790/ung-man-i-monstrad-troja-appelknyckarbyxor-knastrumpor-och-keps

Ill.17: https://vintagedancer.com/1920s/1920s-mens-great-gatsby-hat-style/