American Women's Fashion Trends and Times by Decade, Part 1, 1900 - 1949
At the turn of the 20th century, the frills of ladies’ Victorian fashion lingered into the first decade, then gradually gave way to the less-corseted but still very romantic and lacy ankle-length dresses of the Edwardian era of the First World War.
Then roared in “the Roaring ‘20’s,” when U.S. women gained the right to vote in Federal elections and found themselves happily casting off other constraints as well--cutting long hair into short, sleek bobs (or sporting suddenly-frizzy hair as the “permanent wave” was developed); publicly enjoying a drink, despite Prohibition, and smoking; and showing previously-scandalous amounts of leg, ending somewhere between the ankle and the knee, and completely bare arms (gasp!) in “Flapper”-style dresses: straight-cut shifts or a dropped-waisted dress with a lanky but abbreviated silhouette, often trimmed with rows of fringe and accessorized by one or more strands of pearls or beads of exaggerated length, hanging from neck to thigh (this is the look that came to define the era--however, tamer versions might include a more modest “handkerchief hem” extending below the knee, cap sleeves and more conservative fabrics)--while dancing (the Charleston!) to the fast, fun, “popular” music of Jazz, Ragtime (think of the piano piece “The Entertainer”) and Broadway show tunes. In warmer weather, a feather boa might serve as a “wrap”; in winter, a coat with fur collar. Women enjoyed the luxury and status of fur coats if they could afford them--and for this space in time were joined by trendy-dressing men in duster-length raccoon coats. Cloche-style hats or headbands worn around the head with an ornament or feather were popular and went with the festive fashion mood of the times. Heavily made-up eyes and tiny dark-red “cupid” lips characterized the makeup of the day. Organized crime began to step out of the shadows, in no small part to fill the demand for newly-illegal liquor. Ford’s Model T began to make automobiles widely affordable to middle-class families. This was the era of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a good read to get a sense of the times. If you had it in the '20's, you flaunted it--right up to the close of the decade with the stockmarket crash of 1929, which set the tone for . . .
. . . the 1930’s, and The Great Depression. There have been many comparisons of the Great Depression to our current long-term recession, which have made us aware of the country’s earlier economic collapse and rampant unemployment following the 1929 stock-market crash, and its resultant financial hardships during the 1930’s, its breadlines and soup kitchens. Fashion trends were largely for the few remaining wealthy, as the once-burgeoning Middle Class was knocked to its knees and made do and re-made what they had on hand, emphasizing renewed importance on homemaking skills such as sewing, home canning, and the art of fine-thread crochet as seen in doilies and table runners, which provided evening “entertainment” by the fireside or tuning into a favorite radio program, while producing lacy (now thought of as “grandmotherly”) coverings for worn upholstery and scratches on furniture that was not soon to be replaced. Still, there were trends in fashion, and this was not a decade for foolishness: the short, straight, boxy look of women’s dresses of the 1920’s turned into more modest hemlines and shapes that skimmed the body (and required less fabric). Ladies with unfulfilled longings left over from the 1920’s, to own full-length fur coats, were now delighted if they could acquire small mink “neck” stoles of 3-4 mink pelts with paws and faces still attached, the frontmost face affixed with a clip to “bite” onto the lower fur to create a loop to hold it onto the neck, and these remained treasure items, popular throughout the 30’s and well into the 1940’s. Men with the means and inclination to dress in the fad of the times might choose the “zoot suit”, comprised of an oversized blazer with a jacket falling nearly to the knees and high-waisted, loose trousers, pleating in at the ankle to a narrow bottom.
As the decade progressed (and into the next), the accentuation of feminine curves in fashion was enhanced with shoulder padding and gathers at the sleeve to provide more contrast between shoulder width and the narrowing of the waist. Many women who had previously relied on household help, sought more practical garments as they stepped up to cook and clean for their families, and cotton, previously dismissed as “cheap,” reappeared in daily at-home wear for women. Aprons were big: if you couldn’t afford to replace a garment, it was best to protect it from splatters with an inexpensive, easily-washed apron. Movies were an affordable diversion, where the trend toward body-skimming designs was extravagantly shown off--in glamorous evening gowns in satin, silk or crepe fabrics with the defining 30’s look of the fabric-hogging bias cut, giving the clothing of the era its distinctive body-hugging fit and flair, often trimmed with heavy beading, for events that few could dream of attending--but they cherished those dreams as presented onscreen. Board games and cards were popular and inexpensive ways of enjoying the family or entertaining friends. In mid-decade, popular music began to shift from Broadway and Ragtime (Jazz being a force unto itself) to big-band, swing-dance music. As Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and the public no longer had to seek illegal access to liquor, Organized Crime moved from alcohol to uglier vices, and its many overt, public acts of violence left its mark on this decade as well.
Continuing the trend from the ‘30’s, the accent on feminine curves remained strong, with padded shoulders and belted waists. Dressy suits with slim skirts, and fitted jackets--often these were “Sunday Best” and ended up doing double-duty with a hat and oversized corsage for brides in hasty “leaving-for-war” weddings. The women left behind were going to work more than ever before--meaning skirts for office workers, but for the first time, pants were accepted for the many female assembly-line workers taking the place of men who had joined the service. Many women tailored their husbands’ or brothers’ suits to their own form, causing a “menswear” look to come into style. The enormous popularity of the book and then movie Gone with the Wind at the end of the decade put the accent on achieving a small waistline, and this did not relax until the mid-1960’s. Girdles--even on slender women--were de rigeur to trim that waist. Similarly--and conveniently for swing dancing, which continued through the decade as the rage--what better to accentuate a nipped-in waist, than to flare back out into a full skirt--and as high-school proms became Middle America’s answer to the Debutante Balls of high society, this style began to be seen for special events--full-length for formal attire.
With the war came rationing of clothing and limiting the amount of fabric allowed to be purchased for one garment. Gored skirts, with multiple vertical sections cut in a trumpet-like shape for fullness and swing at the bottom, were popular. With many women working, American fashion took on a practical, comfortable, sportswear type of style, with separates for daywear, to be matched as appropriate for the situation. Although house dresses tried for a comeback in the 1950’s, separates for non-business daywear won out first in America and, although looked down on by other cultures as too casual, is generally accepted anywhere.
To be continued in Part 2.
©KatieK, April 21, 2010