Fashion Design from 1900 to 1920 – Focus on Freedom

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ul Poiret Selection Met Museum
Paul Poiret Selection Met Museum

Finery in Fashion

The formal norms of respectable middle-class dress did not change much in the first few years of the new century. Men and women were required to dress appropriately in the morning, afternoon, and evening. They also had several costumes, each of which was suited for a distinct action, such as strolling, riding, or driving.

Chiffon and Lace

Fashionable women wore rustling chiffon and lace to project a soft, feminine image. Evening gowns had low necklines, but skirts were lengthy and voluminous to hide an undesirable glimpse of the ankle or leg.


Women wore layers of complex undergarments and heavily boned corsets beneath their light chiffons to sculpt their bodies. To shape a woman’s figure into the famous feminine silhouette known as the “S-bend,” a tightly laced corset shoved out the bottom, pulled in the waist, and pushed out the breast.

New Freedoms

Women in New Zealand and three American states gained the right to vote in the 1890s. Suffragettes pushed for the right to vote to be extended to all women in the early 1900s. With newfound political independence came newfound fashion freedom. Corsets were gradually phased out in favour of unboned stays, and by 1910, a straighter, less curvy design was in style. Léon Bakst (1866-1924) developed exotic oriental style costumes for the Russian ballet, which profoundly impacted these more loose designs. When it premiered in Paris in 1909, the ballet created a stir.

Women in bathing suits (1917 - 1920)
Women in bathing suits 1917 – 1920?

Wearing Pants

Because wartime work necessitated utilitarian attire, Western women were allowed to wear pants for the first time. For farm work, jodhpurs were suitable, and for some industry occupations, women wore boiler suits. Working women’s new experiences forever transformed attitudes toward women’s clothes.


Gaff, J. (2000). 20th Century Design: 1900-20: The birth of modernism. Gareth Stevens Publ.

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