The Roaring Twenties

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Fashions of the Jazz Age

‘Goddess’ gown by Paul Poiret, c.1927

‘Goddess’ gown by Paul Poiret, c.1927

As it is now a century since the 1920s began, this seems the perfect time to focus on the fashions of that remarkable decade. 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. Optimism 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 from the horror experienced by 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.

The First World War was an 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. For those who did not have the means to participate in the luxurious and international lifestyles of the wealthy, they 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.  

Technological developments also had a direct impact on the fashions of the era. Advancements in manufacturing techniques, the growth of the ready-to-wear industry and developments in the use of the man-made fibre artificial silk (known as Rayon from 1924), meant that fashion became more available and affordable during the 1920s. Modes reflected the social, cultural and economic changes that were taking place within society. The emphasis on youth was a strong influence on the spread of the ‘garçonne’ look. 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. However, in its purest form this fashion did not emerge until the mid-1920s. Styles did in fact vary quite significantly during the course of the decade, and it is interesting to observe how hemlines altered, fashions for accessories and decoration came and went and waistlines moved up and down. Curves and longer skirt lengths did in fact return to fashion in 1929; the same year in which the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression brought the optimism, fizz and exuberance of the 1920s to an abrupt end. 

This exhibition was on display 25 July 2020 to 4 September 2021.  All garments are drawn from the Olive Matthews Collection of Fashion which is housed here at Chertsey Museum.

Puttin’ on the Glitz

Evening gown, c.1925 - 1928

Evening gown, c.1925 - 1928

Eveningwear is one of the most memorable aspects of 1920s women’s dress. Here is where fashion designers were able to let their imaginations run free, and the styles and decoration we see reflect the exuberance and optimism of the age. Evening dress was both glamorous and light-hearted at the same time, and the striking styles, which feature colour, texture and shine, are an essential part of the visual language of the 1920s. Various influences were at play, but significant ones were the importance of youth as a style-setter, the increasing popularity of jazz music and the glamour of the silver screen.  

As with day wear, much 1920s evening dress tended to be of a simple, tubular or drop-waisted construction, with bodices hanging loosely from the shoulder line and hemlines rising and falling according to the dictates of fashion. However, there was some variation with the addition of layered panels, triangular gores to create flared skirts, and uneven hemlines. The ‘Robe de Style’ or ‘Picture Dress’ was another more structured eveningwear alternative. Though still drop-waisted, the bodice followed the figure more closely and the style featured wide, bouffant skirts; sometimes supported by paniers or net under-structures. This historically-inspired fashion was recommended for younger women to wear for formal occasions and offered an alternative to the prevailing evening look.    

Surface decoration was an essential part of 1920s eveningwear. The era saw a riot of applied ornamentation of all types. The most common was glass beadwork. Beads of different colours, shapes and sizes were arranged in abstract or figurative patterns. Hundreds of beads were applied by hand, often using the tambour method; where lines of pre-threaded beads were attached individually using a fine crochet-style hook. Though labour-intensive, this technique could be done at speed by a skilled professional.

The beaded decoration had great visual impact; making garments hang correctly, catching the light and glittering seductively when the wearer moved. However, it also caused problems with the durability of the whole garment. Panels of silk satin might sometimes be used as a base material, but the for many of these dresses the underlying fabric is much more delicate. Fine net or georgette (a supple silk crêpe) was generally favoured. Such fabrics gave the beadwork flexibility and movement but could not hold the considerable weight of the glass beads for prolonged periods. The result has often been damage to pressure points such as shoulders, necklines and waist seams.

Designers of Dreams

‘Robe de Style’ evening gown, c.1925 - 1927

‘Robe de Style’ evening gown, c.1925 - 1927

Paris was the epicentre of 1920s fashion. A small band of elite couturiers captured the essence of the 1920s era and translated it into the styles we know and love. Their work was rapidly disseminated through society. New technology, mass production and the advent of ready-to-wear all played their part, while powerful visual imagery was harnessed by increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns, a thriving fashion press and the film industry.

Before the Great War, fashion had already seen a relaxation of formality, greater emphasis on a narrow silhouette, and a move towards exotic and oriental sources for inspiration. These early developments paved the way for the fashions of the 1920s. Such changes can be attributed to a small group of style setters, particularly the couturier Paul Poiret. It has been said that Poiret never matched his pre-War successes, but this stunning gown suggests otherwise. This and other work notwithstanding, Poiret scorned the simplification and democratisation that were hallmarks of much 1920s fashion. He faced financial ruin in the ‘30s, but without his inventiveness ‘20s fashions would have looked very different.

Gabrielle Chanel was a central force in the development of 1920s style. Emphasis on purity of line, cut and colour, and a talent for marketing gave her work relevance and mass appeal. Chanel created the first ‘Little Black Dress’ in 1926, and she designed comfortable yet stylish garments in soft, knitted jersey that drew on menswear and sports clothing for inspiration. Another influential proponent of the simplified ‘garçonne’ look was Jean Patou, who led one of the largest fashion houses of the 1920s. Known for his innovative sportswear, Patou is also widely credited with popularising longer skirt lengths for evening wear in 1929; a mode which completely altered the fashion landscape. Jeanne Lanvin gained a firm footing during the 1920s. At this time she was known for more decorative and romantic styles, particularly her famous ‘Robes de Style’. Madeleine Vionnet also established her fashion house during this decade. She was already exploring inventive approaches to bias cutting and complex construction; techniques she would continue to perfect during the ‘30s. Norman Hartnell, known for his decorative eveningwear designs, opened his London-based fashion house in 1923, but also showed his collections in Paris. Edward Molyneux was another British-born designer who achieved great success during the 1920s. He too became established in Paris; catering to a select clientele who favoured his uncluttered aesthetic. These and a handful of other talented couturiers shaped the 1920s look as we recognise it today.

From Ancient to Modern

Dinner Dress, Dinner Dress, Perry & Wellbourn, c.1923 - 1924Perry & Wellbourn, c.1923 - 1924

Dinner Dress, Perry & Wellbourn, c.1923 - 1924

In early November 1922 Howard Carter was excavating in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt. He was soon to make the most famous discovery in archaeological history; the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun. Carter’s first glimpse into the tomb itself was through a small hole in the sealed doorway. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, his flickering candle revealed the ‘wonderful things’ that were to be discovered within; ‘with everywhere the glint of gold’. The story of the abundance of treasures that he uncovered was quickly reported by an enthusiastic world media, and it instantly captured the public imagination. By spring 1923 ‘Egyptomania’ had taken hold. This craze saw the symbols, design motifs and colour palette of Ancient Egypt proliferate in almost every aspect of decorative art.

Dress was no exception. Soon Pharaoh-inspired sandals appeared, handbags were embellished with images of scarab beetles and evening gowns were wrapped around the body in the Egyptian style. Carter’s discoveries, mostly appreciated from a purely aesthetic point of view, were soon subsumed into the existing lexicon of Egyptian imagery. The strong visual language associated with this look was so prevalent and all-pervasive that only the slightest hints were needed to conjure up the mystery of the pyramids. The beaded tunic displayed here, with its strong colours, kneeling figures and snakes, somehow evokes the spirit of Egypt despite its obvious historical inaccuracies.

Egyptian art was not the only exotic influence to be employed in the eclectic world of 1920s fashion. The decade is particularly notable for its magpie-like plundering of design styles associated with ancient and tribal cultures from across the globe. The simple, tubular construction of women’s dress lent itself to these strong motifs. Chinese decorative art was a notable influence. The cream beaded gown shown features a Chinese-style design of cranes and boxes. The art of the ancient cultures of South America was also raided for inspiration. Abstract, angular formations of Aztec origin were all the rage during the 1930s, but first came the softer, flowing lines of Mayan art. The black gown displayed is embellished with beadwork embroidered in distinctly Mayan-inspired motifs.

Despite their disparate roots, these various striking design styles, once placed in the context of the progressive 1920s, took on a new significance. They managed to be both ancient and modern simultaneously. Strong visual appeal, combined with the mystery and excitement of treasures re-discovered, lent ancient art modernity and credibility in equal measure.

Music and Movement

Bust Bodice, c.1921 - 1925

Bust Bodice, c.1921 - 1925

The Jazz Age saw people take to the dance floor with renewed enthusiasm. Public dance halls and nightclubs were a common sight in most towns and cities and the 1920s saw a series of energetic dance crazes take the world by storm. The Waltz and the Tango were still popular, but these were joined by dances designed for the new jazz music that spread from the black communities of America. The Charleston, the Foxtrot and the Shimmy all featured moves that were far more frenetic than anything seen before the Great War.

Increased levels of physical activity were not confined to the dancefloor. Women in particular were leading more active lives, and the 1920s saw many take up sports such as tennis, swimming and organised exercise classes. There was greater emphasis on the body-beautiful than ever before. Diet and exercise were harnessed as a way of keeping oneself healthy and looking good in the new, slender fashion lines. With this greater activity came the need for more comfortable garments that made freer movement possible. Men’s clothing saw less alteration than women’s dress but became more relaxed in general, and soft rather than starched collars were worn for all but the most formal occasions. Sportswear for both sexes became much lighter, figure-hugging and comfortable to move in, and many of the new trends in mainstream fashion were in turn derived from sportswear. Flexible knitted jersey fabrics were important and for women shorter skirts allowed legs to move more freely. A few women adopted bifurcated garments for leisure pursuits including horse-riding, golf and beachwear, though trousers were still deemed daring attire by most women in the 1920s.

New levels of activity also called for the torso and hips to move more freely. As a result, underwear became briefer and more streamlined. Corsets with heavy boning and lacing were no longer obligatory. Some left them off entirely, though others, whether out of habit or a need to control the figure as firmly as possible, did continue to wear them. The new ‘Corselette’, which gave a smooth line from bust to hip, was a useful alternative. It often incorporated elasticated or rubberised panels and this new technology was also used in the briefer versions of corsetry which gained popularity in the 1920s. These shorter foundation garments, named ‘belts’ or ‘girdles’, covered only the hips and abdomen. A narrow bust-bodice, or the more liberating ‘brassière’, a truly revolutionary development in women’s fashion, was worn above. For much of the ‘20s this was designed to flatten the bust into near invisibility, but by the end of the decade it offered gentle uplift and shaping.