Cocktails, Lipstick, and Jazz: Fashion in the 1920s

Inspired by a Smithsonian Associates lecture by historian Elizabeth Lay.

FLAPPER – Word origin – late 19th century – perhaps from the noun flap in the dialect sense “newly fledged wild duck or partridge” (or “woman of loose character”).
Dictionary definition-(in the 1920s) a fashionable young woman intent on enjoying herself and flouting conventional standards of behavior.

Young people blamed World War I on their parents creating an enormous cultural gap much like the schism that occurred during Vietnam. The next generation was bound and determined to create its own rules of living. Our 1913-1929 economy boomed. During the war, women took jobs formerly occupied by men. One quarter of the workforce was made up of women reluctant to give up making their own money. More of them were educated. Social norms radically changed.

Movie Poster (Public Domain)

While the European feminine ideal was soft and sexy, here women were increasingly independent and athletic. We drove cars- driving gloves, dusters, and goggles were manufactured for females – piloted planes (Amelia Earhart, Elinor Smith were aviatrix), explored, lived in, and wrote about foreign climes (Gertrude Bell and Isak Dinesen).

Ten years prior, skirts were at women’s ankles, now clothing had to allow for movement. Apparel was specifically created for a sport or pastime. Tennis dresses, boating outfits, golf knickers, and more flattering, body conscious swimsuits emerged, the latter as a fitted tank top over attached shorts. Movie stars influenced fashion. A rage for exoticism was spurred by Rudolph Valentino, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and trade with Japan.

NY Tribune 1922 (Public Domain)

FASHION: The tubular “la garçonne” look dominated the decade. Coco Chanel helped popularize the style. Always having designed practical apparel, she started to use men’s wool knit, formerly relegated to their undergarments. Daytime saw menswear inspired suits made with elongated jackets. Suffragettes, for example, wanted to present as sober and serious. Tops were modest, with open boat necks or necklines allowing garments to be slipped on overhead. Dangling neckties, vertical pleats, pockets and oversized collars could be found on day wear. Tunic and middy tops were common. Separates were favored.

Left: Suits 1924 Creative Commons  Right: Judge Magazine 1926 (Public Domain)

Afternoon dresses (there were tea dances) might feature tiered skirts, wraps to one side, and handkerchief hems. Evening styles were ornate, feminine, romantic, skimming the body with little underneath. Silk, satin, organdy and chiffon showed off a woman’s figure. Grecian drapes and ruching created interest. Sheer dresses were worn over a matching long slip. A flapper dress was traditionally sleeveless, hanging from shoulders to knees. It had a low, often loosely sashed waist and a hemline decorated with beadwork or fringe to make it swish.

Left: 1921 gown Creative Commons; Right: Beauté, Feuillets de l’ élégance féminine, Juin 1929 Creative Commons                             

MAKE-UP: In films, women’s eyebrows were plucked thin and drawn to an extended line which worked particularly well in black and white cinematography. Few outside entertainment followed suit, but rouge (applied in circles not at angles) and lipstick became standard. During the 1920s, one only had to look at a Geisha to see the Clara Bow cupid mouth (stencils were sold to duplicate it), or to Queen Nefertitti to see the origin of eyeliner and shadow. Cake mascara was created. In 1909 Selfridge’s opened the first cosmetics counter to allow women to “try before you buy.” By the 1920s, every pharmacy and department store in the world had makeup counters.

Clara Bow 1927 (Public Domain)

“If you can show me a woman who doesn’t want to look young and beautiful –well, I’m afraid she isn’t in her right mind.” (Helena Rubinstein) Maybelline, Max Factor and Coty raced to produce versions that could be carried in handbags. Tubes of lipstick and compacts were not only practical, but sophistication props. Revlon introduced “the moon manicure” leaving a portion of the nail without color.

HAIR: For decades women’s long, luxurious locks and complicated hairstyles were a sense of pride to both wearer and male companion. Perhaps it was film star Louise Brooks who ushered in the flapper cut meant to free us from that particular maintenance labor. (The bob was a short hairstyle cut straight around jaw-level.) Women got shorn in barbershops, though some establishments refused for fear of angry husbands. Irene Castle and Coco Chanel sported bobs.

Louise Brooks’ bob (Public Domain); Dolores Costello Marcelled hair (No known copyright restrictions)

Read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marvelous short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair to get a feel for the impact this new style had. In 1920, an estimated 5,000 beauty parlors were in operation in the United States. By 1930, that number jumped to over 40,000. On the heels of the bob came marcelling (tight waves created with a curling iron) which achieved a more feminine look allowing hair to be just a little bit longer.

DANCE: Valentino popularized the tango which in turn evoked column dresses with high slits in order to slide a leg out. Charleston, the polar opposite, required full leg freedom and showcase of movement. Dresses were shorter and liberally fringed, slimming a woman’s ideally boyish figure.

LINGERIE: Their mothers’ cotton or linen underpinnings included drawers/bloomers, chemises, corsets (creating the “s” curve – bust forward, tiny waist, hips out), corset covers, and petticoats. 1920s women wore a brassiere (Bandeau bust flattener or Symington Side Lacer) and tap shorts (wide leg briefs) or a one piece “step-in” teddy of silk or rayon. (Crotches were buttoned or stitched with fluted folds.) Stockings were held up with garters or garter belts and/or brazenly rolled below a rouged knee. A new market was created for luxury loungewear with heavily detailed bottom hems, cuffs, and wrists.

Tres Parisien 1923 Creative Commons

SHOES: When hemlines rose, footwear was visible. Pumps often had several straps, t-straps, and modest 2” Louis or 1” Cuban heels. (The single strap Mary Jane has been popular for decades.) Cutouts on the sides connecting straps across the vamp were common. Walking oxfords, boots, two tone saddle shoes and the first canvas sneaker arrived. Buckles, buttons, and metal sequins were used. Satin (often dyed to match a dress) and patent leather came out in the evening. Rhinestones, sequins or diamanté were added to top end versions.

Advertisement (Public Domain)

ORNAMENTATION: There were 130,000 Russian immigrants in Paris in the ‘20s. Many had worked in fashion. As all young women were taught needlework, jobs executing embroidery and beadwork were also filled by those without specific training. Minimalist silhouettes cried out for decoration. Gold thread became popular. In 1924, the exchange rate was immensely favorable to Americans. Parisian fashion was suddenly affordable. We’re told that one ship carrying five million pounds of beaded dresses sailed to New York.

Left: Eugenie 7 Juliette Paris- Cinese Embroidered Silk Satin Dress 1926 Creative Commons Right: Sequin & Bead Embroidered Evening Dress by Tirrochi 1925 Creative Commons

JEWELRY: Simplicity reigned. It was no long stylish to display one’s wealth. Expensive precious stones were replaced with semi-precious stones and fake plastics like Bakelite and Lucite. Necklaces grew extra long to move with dance. Layers of them were worn in various lengths from 60 inches up. The sautoir emerged – a tassel or gemstone pendant hung at the bottom of a necklace, sometimes in front, at others spotlighting a low cut back. Quality and affordability of cultured “fake” pearls created a trend. Colored Art Deco brooches were often abstract. Stacked bracelets added decoration and sound. Haircuts and cloche hats saw the advent of dangling, drop earrings.

Then came the crash.

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About Alix Cohen (1725 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.