After the tight corsets and long-flowing dresses of the Edwardian Era, the 1920s was a decade of liberation for women. The most important change occurred on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, giving women the right to vote. Fashion restrictions were also breaking down, as skirts hems crept up the leg and dress lines straightened out.
Although Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, and Paul Poiret are just a few of the legendary designers who came to prominence during the 1920s, the decade’s sense of style is routinely lumped together with the name of Coco Chanel. In 1921, the Parisian designer was well regarded enough that she could launch a perfume that bore her name and lucky number.
The scent proved immensely popular, but Chanel No. 5 was a sideshow compared to all the little black evening dresses Chanel designed. Chanel’s wool jersey suits were another mainstay. Her jackets were paired with straight skirts, which did away with the petticoats and hoops of the Edwardian and Victorian eras.
Although skirts generally got shorter in the ’20s, hemlines did not stay up for the duration. Before the stock market crash of 1929, skirts had crept up the leg until they almost reached the knee. After the crash, though, hemlines dropped precipitously, as if in sympathy.
Like a lot of 1920s designers, Chanel studded her garments with beads. In fact, the beaded chemise dress is an icon of the decade, thanks in no small part to its acceptance by trendsetters such as Josephine Baker.
Other garments, particularly coats and jackets, were more androgynous in appearance, borrowing freely from the styles of menswear. Typical outer garments ranged from three-quarter-length Russian-style coats, with buttons running in a vertical row below the left shoulder, to colorful tailored jackets that stopped at the knees. Fur at a coat’s collar and hem were popular.
By the 1930s Chanel was designing costumes for Gloria Swanson and other actresses. Meanwhile, the trend toward masculinity from the preceding decade continued until World War II...
A new Parisian designer named Elsa Schiaparelli was just one of many who, in the 1930s, produced coats and jackets that were architectural in their structure and cut. Almost more importantly, Schiaparelli pioneered the acceptance of zippers in women’s clothing.
The dominant cut of skirts in the 1930s was long and flowing, with more material at the hem than the waist—the short straight skirt of the 1920s was out. Skirts on suits often featured kick pleats to make it easy to move in the garment and give it life as the wearer walked. Pleasant floral prints on lightweight materials for daywear were a tonic to the austere times, and soothing green was a favorite color for skirts during the decade.
Sweaters from turtlenecks to Vs had been somewhat popular in the 1920s, but the garment really came of age in the 1930s when a group of full-chested Hollywood starlets made the sweater the icon it is today. Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, and Jane Russell were the decade’s most popular “sweater girls.” While the sweaters and silhouettes beneath them are what most of us remember, the photographs of these actresses were frequently shot as advertisements for new, figure-flattering bras.
Finally, swimwear also received a fairly radical makeover in the 1920s and ’30s. At the beginning of the 20th century when men and women went to the beach, splashing about in the surf while covered from head to toe in water-absorbing wool was accurately described as bathing rather than swimming. In the 1920s, though, it became acceptable for men and women alike to show a little bit of skin at the beach or by the pool.
One company to capitalize on this change in social norms was Jantzen, which proclaimed the new free spirit of female swimmers with a diving-girl logo stitched on the outside of their suit’s left thigh. Catalina put its logo, a flying fish, in the same spot. Jantzen and Catalina suits of the 1920s and ’30s, including Jantzen’s Shouldaire, were still made of wool, but there was less material to drag the swimmer down, as the arms, legs, neck, and back were now bare.