The Roaring Twenties Fashions: A 5-Minute Guide

Dubbed the “Roaring Twenties” in Britain and America, the “Années folles” (Crazy Years) in France, and the “Golden Twenties” in Germany, the 1920s was a period of sustained economic growth and cultural exuberance that lasted from the end of World War I to the Wall St Crash of 1929.

Out went the rigid Victorian way of life and in came a break with traditions, a disdain for acceptable behavior, and a flouting of social and sexual norms.

Young, rebellious, middle-class women, labeled ‘flappers’ by older generations, did away with the corset and donned slinky knee-length dresses, which exposed their legs and arms.

Women everywhere spread their wings and flew free as if for the first time.

It was a glorious revolution for women’s fashion.

1920s fashion at the Industriemuseum Textilfabrik Cromford in Ratingen, Germany. Credit Geolina163
1920s fashion at the Industriemuseum Textilfabrik Cromford in Ratingen, Germany. Credit Geolina163

Coco Chanel

One of the first women to wear trousers, cut her hair and reject the corset was Coco Chanel.

The only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, Coco Chanel emancipated women’s fashion.

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, 1920
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, 1920

One of Chanel’s signature techniques was to take simple designs inspired by service uniforms, riding habits, and even men’s clothing and create exquisitely tailored, expensive interpretations.

In 1926, American Vogue likened Chanel’s “little black dress” to the Ford Model T, alluding to its almost universal popularity as a fashion basic.

1926 Chanel Little Black Dress. metmuseum
1927 Chanel Little Black Dress. Silk, wool, metal. metmuseum

Paul Poiret once called her style “poverty de luxe,” to which Chanel replied, “simplicity does not mean poverty.”

The “little black dress” became one of Chanel’s most popular and enduring contributions to women’s fashion and inspired many simple designs that championed a modern lifestyle and attitude.

1920s Chanel dresses. Left Pink crepe chiffon (1925). Right Blue silk crepe (1926). Credit MFIT
1920s Chanel dresses. Left Pink crepe chiffon (1925). Right Blue silk crepe (1926). Credit MFIT
1920s Chanel Evening dress. Silk, metallic thread, sequins. metmuseum
1920s Chanel Evening dress. Silk, metallic thread, sequins. metmuseum

Carefully cut to follow the floral pattern of the textile, the dress hem and appliqués of chiffon on the jacket below exemplify Chanel’s excellence at soft tailoring.

1929 Chanel Ensemble. Silk, wool. metmuseum
1929 Chanel Ensemble. Silk, wool. metmuseum

A host of fashion designers found fame or peaked during the Roaring Twenties, including Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret, Callot Soeurs, Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, and House of Drécoll.

1920 Madeleine Vionnet dress. French. Silk. metmuseum.org
1920 Madeleine Vionnet dress. French. Silk. metmuseum.org
1927 Evening Dress. Paul Poiret. Silk, metal, plastic
1927 Evening Dress. Paul Poiret. Silk, metal, plastic
1920s. Callot Soeurs. Green and Pink Silk. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder. Acton Art Collection - Villa La Pietra
1920s. Callot Soeurs. Green and Pink Silk. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder. Acton Art Collection – Villa La Pietra
1923 House of Lanvin. French. Silk. metmuseum
1923 House of Lanvin. French. Silk. metmuseum
1926 House of Patou Evening Dress. French. Cotton, plastic, glass, polyester. metmuseum
1926 House of Patou Evening Dress. French. Cotton, plastic, glass, polyester. metmuseum
1924. House of Drécoll. French. Silk, wool. metmuseum
1924. House of Drécoll. French. Silk, wool. metmuseum

Flappers

Said to refer to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly, the slang word “flapper” had emerged in England in the late 19th century to describe lively mid-teenage girls.

But it could just as easily have referred to a dancer, flapping her wings to the Charleston dance moves of the Roaring Twenties.

Josephine Baker was one of many celebrities who embraced the flapper fashion movement, becoming a symbol of the jazz age of the 1920s.

Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergère, Paris, 1925
Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergère, Paris, 1925

Going on to star in the major motion picture in 1934—Marc Allégret’s Zouzou—she was the first person of African descent to become a world-famous entertainer.

Orphaned at the age of four and partially raised in foster homes, actress Barbara Stanwyck began her career as a dancer at the Ziegfeld Follies in the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway.

Future Hollywood star Barbara Stanwyck, c. 1924
Future Hollywood star Barbara Stanwyck, c. 1924

One of the most elegant and glamorous film stars of the roaring twenties, Norma Talmadge married a wealthy film executive who nurtured her career and with whom she started the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation.

Flocking to see her extravagant movies, women from around the world wanted to be Norma Talmadge.

Norma Talmadge
Norma Talmadge

Popularizing the bobbed haircut and noted as an iconic symbol of the flapper, American film actress and dancer Louise Brooks starred in iconic flapper movies of the late 1920s.

Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were considered shocking portrayals of sexuality and social satire.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks

Rising to stardom in silent films, Clara Bow rocketed to global fame in the 1927 romantic comedy “It” about an ambitious shop girl who wants to marry her handsome, wealthy boss.

Earning her the nickname “The It Girl”, the magnetic attraction she portrayed in the movie made her a sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties.

Clara Bow, 1928
Clara Bow, 1928

Besides sharing a love for Roaring Twenties fashion, what these women had in common was the flapper attitude captured in Russell Patterson’s famous illustrations—a confidence that helped empower women to defy traditional notions of their role in society and chart their own course.

'Where there's smoke there's fire' by American artist Russell Patterson
‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire’ by American artist Russell Patterson

Bob Cut

The hairstyle of the decade was a chin-length bob, which had several popular variations.

Older generations used to seeing Edwardian-era pompadour styles found the short bob cuts a shocking statement of young women’s independence.

But acceptance of shorter hair had been gaining ground during World War I.

With most men away fighting in Europe, women took over the factory work and soon came to realize just how impractical and dangerous longer hair was.

As early as 1915, dancer and fashion trendsetter Irene Castle had introduced her own version of the bob to a receptive American audience.

The flappers adopted the bob cut and didn’t look back for the entire decade.

Renée Adorée, French actress who appeared in Hollywood silent movies during the 1920s
Renée Adorée, French actress who appeared in Hollywood silent movies during the 1920s

Louise Brooks and Colleen Moore in particular started a trend that many women followed—short straight hair cut about jaw-level with a fringe or “bangs” at the front.

Louise Brooks. Credit Laura Loveday, flickr
Louise Brooks. Credit Laura Loveday, flickr
Photoplay cover for January 1926 featuring Colleen Moore, based on a painting by Livingston Geer
Photoplay cover for January 1926 featuring Colleen Moore, based on a painting by Livingston Geer

Cloche Hats

As its name implies, the bell-shaped cloche is derived from cloche, the French word for “bell”.

Usually made of felt to comfortably conform to the head, cloches were worn low on the forehead.

By the end of the 1920s, it became fashionable to turn the brims on cloche hats upwards.

A symbol of the Roaring Twenties, cloche hats became obsolete in the early 1930s.

1925 Evening cloche. House of Lanvin. French. Silk, metal
1925 Evening cloche. House of Lanvin. French. Silk, metal
Cloches from the mid-1920s. metmuseum
Cloches from the mid-1920s. metmuseum
1925 Evening cloche. House of Lanvin. French. Cotton, metal
1925 Evening cloche. House of Lanvin. French. Cotton, metal
1920s Actresses. Top Row: Vilma Banky, Evelyn Brent; Middle Row: Joan Crawford; Bottom Row: Greta Garbo
1920s Actresses. Top Row: Vilma Banky, Evelyn Brent; Middle Row: Joan Crawford; Bottom Row: Greta Garbo

Shoes

Rapidly changing fashion meant a cornucopia of shoe designs were available in the 1920s.

High-heels were in vogue, even for dancing, necessitating straps over the instep.

Browns, greys and beiges dominated the first half of the decade, while crocodile, snake and lizard shoes became fashionable in the late 20s.

Pietro Yantorny (1874-1936), the self-proclaimed “most expensive shoemaker in the world”, was a consummate craftsman utterly devoted to the art of shoemaking.

He sought to create the most perfectly crafted shoes possible for a select and exclusive clientele.

1925. Pierre Yantorny. French. Leather. metmuseum
1925. Pierre Yantorny. French. Leather. metmuseum
1925 British. Leather, lined with kid leather and canvas. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1925 British. Leather, lined with kid leather and canvas. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1927. French. Calf leather, stamped design, lined with leather and canvas.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1927. French. Calf leather, stamped design, lined with leather and canvas.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1920s ladies shoes. metmuseum.
1920s ladies shoes. metmuseum.
1928. British. Snake skin, metal buckle, lined with leather and canvas. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1928. British. Snake skin, metal buckle, lined with leather and canvas. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wall St Crash of 1929

The exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came crashing down with the Wall St collapse of Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.

But the profound changes to western culture, especially women’s liberation and equal rights, continue to reverberate to this day.

The Colorful Shoes of the 18th Century

Adorned with decadent decorative arts and steeped in affectation, it’s no surprise that the French Court led European preference for elaborate clothing and accessories—everything from luxurious wigs to the colorful shoes of the 18th century.

Just as the formal ladies’ Robe à la Francaise showcased lavish embroideries and silk damask fabrics, so too did footwear display the very best of the era’s woven artistry.

Both ladies and gentlemen were expected to be fluent in fine arts, music, and dancing and behave with the utmost grace and poise.

This exuberance was no less manifested in the footwear of the period—the colorful shoes of the 18th century.

1700. French. Silk, leather
1700. French. Silk, leather
1709. European. Silk
1709. European. Silk
c1710s. European. Silk. Leather
c1710s. European. Silk. Leather

Trending toward the lighter floral decoration of Rococo in the first quarter of the 18th century, the predecessor to the classic buckle was the latchet tie (shown below).

When buckles did become available later in the century, they were often retrofitted to latchet tie shoes to extend their life.

1720. British. Silk, leather
1720. British. Silk, leather
1721. British. Silk, metal
1721. British. Silk, metal
1729. British, Silk
1729. British, Silk

“Bargello” or flame stitch was an embroidery style most commonly used for upholstery and personal accessories, but also for shoes.

The bold zigzag wool canvas pattern shown below extends to the heels, which was unusual for the time—more often being silk or leather.

1729. British. Wool, linen, metal
1729. British. Wool, linen, metal
1729. British, Wool
1729. British, Wool
1729. British. Silk. Metallic
1729. British. Silk. Metallic
1739. European. Wool
1739. European. Wool

Wel-established in the 17th century and continuing into the 18th was a decorative style of braid with multiple parallel rows.

Pinched toes, high throat, flared tongue with small side opening, and sturdy high heel rounded out this popular style.

Ties were still in fashion and were the main method of closure until the buckle was introduced later in the century.

1739. British, silk
1739. British, silk
1739. European. Silk, gold, leather
1739. European. Silk, gold, leather
1740. British. Silk. Metallic
1740. British. Silk. Metallic
1745. British. Silk
1745. British. Silk

Inspired by an Indian floral design, this pair of ladies shoes (below) shows the penchant for patterned fabrics.

Ladies would sometimes embroider the upper themselves and take it to a shoemaker to be made into shoes. Published in ladies magazines, embroidery patterns had become popular by the last quarter of the 18th century.

1749 British silk
1749 British silk
1755. British. Silk, metal
1755. British. Silk, metal

Eye-catching textile designs were a favorite choice of aristocratic ladies.

The red heel and white strip along the shoe’s front edge coordinate well with the uppers.

A wide metallic ribbon down the center of the vamp was a popular decoration of the period.

1759. British. Silk, leather, metal
1759. British. Silk, leather, metal
1759. European. Silk
1759. European. Silk

Popular for about 100 years, striped braid is shown below toward the end of its fashionable period in the monochrome preference.

Despite a buckle that would hide the intricate pattern, the braided tongue was fashioned with an attractive star design.

1759. European, Silk
1759. European, Silk

Bold and colorful, the finely worked flame-stitch canvas upper was a common embroidery style.

The higher, more upright heel and blunt toe—free from the upturn of earlier designs—shows the progression of fashion through the 18th century. Gone is the metallic decoration down the vamp’s center, but of note is the unusual printed silk adorning the heel.

1769. British. Wool. Linen. Silk
1769. British. Wool. Linen. Silk

Fashionable from the late 1770s were pointed tongues—sometimes reworked from an original square tongue as shown below.

Increasingly favored as the 18th century progressed were simpler, lighter textile designs. In this case, the silk uppers have been carefully cut to show off the brocaded motifs.

1770. British, silk
1770. British, silk
1775. French. Silk, metallic
1775. French. Silk, metallic

Plainer than ladies shoes, those of gentlemen did, however, have decorative aspects. Red heels were a favorite among aristocrats—a style inherited from the French courts of the 17th century.

1779. British, leather
1779. British, leather
1780 American silk
1780 American silk
1780. British. Silk
1780. British. Silk
c1780. French. Leather
c1780. French. Leather
1785. European. Silk, leather
1785. European. Silk, leather
1789. European. Silk
1789. European. Silk

Embodying the pointed toe and tongue from ladies styles, this rare pair of children’s shoes (below) is in unusually good condition.

This type of flat-heeled shoe was common among boys and girls, although the bright color suggests they complemented the more colorful feminine dress of the period.

1790 European leather
1790 European leather
1795. American. Silk
1795. American. Silk

Edwardian Fashion: A 5-Minute Guide

The Edwardian era was the period covering the reign of King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910, and is sometimes extended to 1919.

King Edward VII in coronation robes

Edward loved to travel, setting a style influenced by the art and fashions of Continental Europe.

English socialite Vita Sackville-West and friends at Ascot, 1912

“A leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag.” —Samuel Hynes.

Reminiscing in the 1920s, after the horrors of world war one, the Edwardian era was remembered with nostalgia.

A bygone time of long summer afternoons and garden parties, basking in a sun that never set on the British Empire.

Garden party at Fort York, Toronto, Canada, c1909

Time for some Edwardian fashion fun.

Two French evening dresses from the Edwardian era (1901 – 1919) battle for your vote. Which one will win? Cast your vote to find out.

Dress A

c1905 Gala Dress. Silk tulle, machine woven silk in plain weave and satin. Silk ribbons, metal hooks. French, now owned by National Museum Norway.

Dress B

1909 evening gown with empire waist, short sleeves and fishtail hem; skirt is square sequins on net over satin fitted to fishtail. Callot Soeurs.

56
Which dress do you prefer?

The Edwardian era marked a prominent turn in the direction of fashion for women.

Couturiers of Paris introduced a new columnar silhouette, with a distinctive “S” shaped curve.

It signaled the demise of the corset, which had been an indispensable garment of fashionable Victorian women.

The Edwardian era saw the full flowering of Parisian haute couture as the arbiter of styles and silhouettes for women of all classes.

Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909

A series of Edwardian fashion plates give us a good idea of the couturier designs that formed the basis for what women would wear.

Featuring Spring season designs from 1901 to 1906, these New York fashion plates also have notes from the designer.

The first plate features a rose red dress with a high collar and long sleeves. The dress has two decorative bands, one with horizontal stripes of deep pink and black, and the other with pink floral brocade. The collar and bodice have a “v” design, and the sleeves include puffed sections of rose. The skirt is gathered to the waist, flaring out with a slight train at the back. Decorative bands create a petal effect above the hem.

The second plate features the dark, up-swept “Gibson Girl” hairstyle and long red dress with a black trellis-like diamond pattern on the bodice and skirt. The outfit starts with a high-necked, long-sleeved floral blouse in white, red, and black. The blouse extends beneath a full bodice, cinched at the waist with several black bands. The dress flows to the ground with a double layer of red ruffles and a train of tightly-gathered folds at the back, ending in ruffles. The rear view of the dress is shown in black and white.

The third plate features a yellow gown with leaf or abstract flower pattern, deep V-neck over a pink under-layer, and high lace collar. The collar has three or four picot-edged ruffles with narrow black bands and a rosette of eight loops of narrow black ribbon at the V-neck. Bodice features three vertical bands of black lace on each side of the center front.
Elbow-length sleeves mirror the collar with ruffles and a black rosette. The waist has three horizontal rows of black with bows at the back, and two long streamers over the gored skirt, flaring into a trumpet hem with a slight train. Vertical lines of black lace surround the skirt at knee length, and five bands of ruffles with picot-edged black ribbon adorn the hem.
Complete with elbow-length mitts and a black-banded, yellow flat-brimmed straw hat with white ostrich plumes.

The fourth plate features a home outfit with an elaborate up-swept hairstyle, rose-colored gown with floral-patterned sleeves, lower bodice, and skirt insets. Square neckline with pleats for fullness, floral lower bodice with rose cap sleeves, and bands of trim. Lower floral sleeves are full to the elbow, gathered snug from elbow to wrist. Softly gathered skirt flares into a trumpet hemline, flat at the front with three bands of decorative stitching on the hips. Ornate floral bands decorate the skirt below the knee on each side.

Of course, it just wouldn’t be the Edwardian era without hats, would it? Nine photographs of women numbered 1 through 9 show a variety of hats for Spring 1902.

In the upper left, number 1 wears a dark dress with a white jabot and a hat adorned with overlapping rows of leaves.

Below her, number 2 dons a high-necked white lace dress with a dark straw flat-brimmed hat featuring white on the crown and roses under the left side.

Number 3 sports a dark jacket over a white lace high-necked blouse. Her hat is woven straw with wide strands and several large feathers on the crown.

In the center column at the top, number 4 wears a white lace dress similar to number 2, with a hat covered in white lace, bows, and roses.

Number 5 wears a white lace gown with a jabot, and her hat has an upstanding brim adorned with rows of small beads and feathers fastened by a round jeweled brooch.

Number 6 is in a black outfit trimmed with white-edged ribbons, checks, and lace. Her dark hat has a high brim trimmed with white lace and adorned with many white plumes.

At the top of the right-hand column, number 7 wears a dark patterned high-necked blouse with a deep white collar featuring a scalloped hem and inset diamond patterns.

Number 8 wears the same dress as number 6. Her small-brimmed white hat is adorned with white flowers, bows, and black-dotted veiling.

Number 9, with her back turned, wears a light jacket with a fluffy white jabot. Her white hat has a banded brim turned up, trimmed with ruched dark velvet ribbon around the crown, and a jaunty feather at the side.

Edwardians showcased their latest fashions at horse races, as seen in the next plate featuring three women in conversation amidst an attentive crowd.

On the left, a woman wears a mulberry embroidered French voile gown with a high lace collar, softly gathered sleeves, and a flared skirt. Her high-crowned straw hat is adorned with purple flowers and a large black feather plume.

In the center, a woman dons a black chiffon satin taffeta gown with a high white lace collar extending to the waist. Top-stitched pleats at the shoulders create bust fullness, and the skirt features inverted box pleats. Her black velvet hat has a turned-up brim and is decorated with a large white ostrich plume.

On the right, a woman wears a pale yellow tussar gown with Irish lace, featuring a v-neck collar, released pleats, and elbow-length sleeves with lace cuffs. A soft bow tie and a fabric belt with a large buckle accentuate the waist. Her wide-brimmed straw hat, adorned with a black band and a large yellow rose, complements the ensemble.

References: Wikipedia, Clairemont College, National Museum of Norway, Gregg Museum of Art & Design.