The Invention of Modern American Culture And the Fashion That Followed It

For both women's fashion and American culture, the 1920s was a very transformative decade. It was the decade that women won the right to vote, the decade of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance, and tremendous middle-class affluence. It was also the decade of Lindy Hop (the first swing dance) and of the Flapper.

Women's fashion in the 1920s was a rejection of stuffy Victorianism and the rejection of the "Gibson Girl" look. 1920s fashion, instead, was the embracement of vice, youth, and frivolity. The embodiment of this was the flapper, a cigarette smoking, boozing, young look that tried to hold on to the look of the prepubescent girl while at the same time being overtly, and casually sexual. The fashion of the 1920s, and the culture that created it, was the first youth rebellion in America, one that preceded the rebellion of the late '60s by four and a half decades.

Much of the cultural change of the decade still lives on in the present. Indeed, 1920s women's fashion was perhaps the most influential in creating modern tastes in women's clothes, and the view of and towards women.

Early Influences on 1920s Fashion for Women

Several factors played into the social changes of the decade. Of the many influences, some of the most important came at the end of the previous decade and the beginning of the 1920s. These included the women's liberation movement, the first World War, and the beginning of prohibition.

World War I, known then as The Great War, began in 1914, and ended in 1918. One of the results of the war was bringing the United States onto the world stage as one of the major powers. Another was the rapid growth of wealth among the middle class. However, there was also huge amount of anger by the American youth who considered the older generation as the murderers of millions of young men. The wealth combined with the anger as well as the euphoria of the wars end, resulting in a rebellion against the social norms of that time.

1920 saw both the enactment of Prohibition as well as women winning the right to vote. American youth now felt liberated and desired to create their own culture which embraced their values.

No longer did the youth desire to dress or act like the older generation. Instead, the embraced their youth, have fun, and enjoy life — every joy that life could offer. They took to nudism, and casual sex, and going to petting parties. No longer was courting accepted, instead they created modern dating. Women tried to look even younger by choosing clothes that did not emphasize women's curves, choosing instead to look the part of the thin, bosomless prepubescent girl. To the dismay of their parents, they embraced up-beat jazz music performed and created by African-American musician.

Within the first couple years of the 1920s, the new culture that its generation had created was already set in motion. The Jazz Age had begun. The flapper was the new "in" woman's fashion. Charleston and the Black Bottom was danced on jazz club floors, and these dances would later evolve into the Lindy Hop.

The free-spirited, fun-loving outlook of the decade pushed 1920s fashion to be more casual. Not only was this new attitude seen in women's clothing, but it was also reflected in the larger American culture; and embrace of fast-paced jazz music, casual inter-personal interactions, even attitudes seen in the still-new silent movies.

The most popular actress of this silent screen era was Clara Bow who embodied much of the attitude women had in this time. Clara was born in the Brooklyn slums, grew up in poverty, but she was reckless, generous, with a care-free attitude. She embodied the sexuality and the love of sex ("It") of the era and she gave it to her audience with no apologies. Smoking, drinking, and going to petting parties, she became known as the original "It Girl." Her popularity caused many women to imitate her style, and she was one of the biggest influences on women's fashion in the 1920s. However, when movies moved out of the silent era, when movies became "talkies," her career came to a sudden end due to her high nervous voice, and her heavy Brooklyn accent.

Characteristics of 1920s Women's Fashion

Before the 1920s, women usually strove to look older than their age. The change in outlook that distinguished the 1920s changed this, and for the first time, that previous norm reversed. Women now strove to maintain the look of youth, copying the look of younger women and young teens. While the beginning of the century saw women attempting to achieve a curvy S-shaped body with large breasts, wide hips, and large bottom, women now were trying to hide their curves to achieve a thin, smaller breasted, and straighter figure that was characteristic of just-pubescent girls. The look that women strove for would be felt for decades later, becoming the stereotypical super-model figure of the present.

With the trend toward the pubescent girl look, hair was styled short, with curls or shingled. At the beginning of the decade, the bobbed hair-cut was most popular, but by 1923, the shingle cut takes over. The hair is flat and close to the scalp, its parted on the side or in the center, and a single large forward sweeping curl is at each ear.

Eyebrows were thinned to emphasize a young beautify face. Makeup was added around the eyes to make them look younger and larger. Lips were painted to make the mouth narrower from side-to-side while emphasizing the bow of the upper lip and the depth of the lower lip — the cupid's bow lip style made popular by Clara Bow. The increased emphasis on makeup, particular for the lips, made makeup one of the largest industries of the 1920s. However, many women still make some of their own makeup, such as the use of soot for eye-shadow, or petroleum jelly mixed with soot for mascara. Tanning becomes popular for the first time during the decade, and with it, several new products are created to prevent sunburns, or create more even tans.

Ankle-strap cuban heeled shoes were the most popular heeled shoe during the decade. Women wore simple brimmed hats, the most popular being the cloche hat, with the hats worn low just above the eyes. Later in the decade, feathered headbands gained popularity in place of hats, particularly for evening attire when brimmed hats were not frequently worn.

Large "Peter Pan" collars, or a large floppy bow often adorned shirt dresses. Before the 1920s, women did not show their legs, nor their bare arms. However, in the '20s, dresses became short, showing off women's legs. By 1926, dresses reached their shortest length, reaching no further than the knees. Dresses had very short sleeves, but more often often were sleeveless. Larger chested women flattened their breasts and de-emphasized their hips, and dresses were light, loose, and baggy giving the women a straight-lined figure.

Underwear for women varied. Underwear could be found in light colors, bright colors, and in black. Many were decorated with flowers, frills, and butterflies. Camisole knickers were sometimes worn, but more common was to wear no underwear at all, a result of increased women's freedom, rebelliousness from the previous generation, and the more sexually receptive attitude of women during the decade. Underneath their light, loose dress, with the exception of a pair of rolled-down stockings, many women were completely naked.

Most clothing was home-made, sewn by dressmakers or by tailors. It would not be until the 1930s that ready-to-wear clothes would become widely available in departments stores, or ordered from a catalog. Patterns for clothes could be found in the many magazines devoted to sewing. Commercial manufacturing of clothes during the decade would begin improving during this decade, making ready-to-wear clothes increasing affordable and setting the stage for the many department stores of the next decade.

Fabrics are more elaborate during the '20s. Fabrics are now embroidered, have prints, or have designs reflecting Egyptian, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese art. Scarves have an oriental look with fringed edges. Mid-way through the decade, dresses with elaborate beadwork become popular. Seamless stockings made from rayon are cheaper than silk, and are now preferred, giving the leg a naked look. A drawback to rayon is their shininess, but some women use powder to reduce this.

With the popularity of the discovery of King Tut's tomb, Egyptian art became an influence on 1920s fashion. This influence included Egyptian patterns and snake bracelets worn on the upper arm. The awareness of Chinese and Japanese culture also influenced women's fashion in the 1920s with kimono inspired stylings, prolific use of the color red, and embroidered silks.

By 1926, dresses reached their shortest length, and women were now wearing skirts. Short evening dresses are elaborate with beads, bright colors, and fringes; such dresses gave birth to the cocktail dress. Stockings are rolled down to below the knees, garters sometimes used to hold them up, and rouge applied to the knees.

Besides Clara Bow, the heroine of the era was the flapper. The flapper was the ultimate combination of all the trends which defined women's fashion in the 1920s. The flapper had short or bobbed hair, a dress that came to the knees, her stockings were rolled below powdered knees. The flapper's dress was baggy, and hid her curves and showed her arms. Long strings of pearls were worn, frequently tied in a knot at the neck and tossed over her right shoulder. Many metal bracelets were worn (similar to the Madonna style of the 1980s) but usually worn on the upper part of the arm. Flappers wore makeup, and would often apply their makeup in public.

A certain attitude also defined the flapper look. Flappers loved jazz music, danced the Charleston, Black Bottom, and other popular jazz dances. They smoked, applied make-up in public, and had a "don't care" attitude toward showing off skin. A flapper was reckless, and on the outlook for the next thrill or sexual encounter. She was a rebel, defying the mores of the older generation, blunt and no-nonsense.

However, there was much more to women's fashion in the 1920s than flapper dresses which is now the stereotyped look that present people have of the Roaring '20s. It was a turning point in women's fashion which broke with the past and set the groundwork for modern fashions of today. Some of the styles and fads of the 1920s still live on, built upon, and emulated today. The ideal body of the modern supermodel is itself modeled on the driving ideal of women's 1920s fashion (the thin, prepubescent girl on the verge of puberty). Overall, the central idea of 1920s women's fashion was the Worship of Youth and Sex.

Website and article author information