Finery in Fashion
The formal wear norms of respectable middle-class dress did not change much in early 20th century fashion. Men and women were required to dress appropriately in the morning, afternoon, and evening. They also had several costumes, each suited for a distinct action, such as strolling, riding, or driving.
Chiffon and Lace
Fashionable upper class 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.
Around the middle of the 1920s, clothes started to have less decoration. Use of two or more shades of the same colour or fine tucking, shirring, pleating, founcing, etc., added interest. Patterned chiffon became popular in the late 1920s, and chiffon coats won over afternoon dresses. Fur collars and cuffs were added to coats made of kolinsky, moleskin, musquash, squirrel, etc. In 1922, monkey fur was used as a trim. In the early 1920s, fox fur was in style, and people wore it as a hood or on the collar of their coats. Costume jewellery, like long drop earrings, shoulder pins, ropes of beads, a slave bangle worn on the upper arm, etc., softened the look of shaved heads and chemise-topped dresses. (Waugh, 2013)
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.
Women in New Zealand and three American states gained voting rights in the 1890s. Suffragettes pushed for the right to vote extended to all women in the early 1900s. With newfound political independence came newfound freedom of fashion for women. Corsets were gradually phased out in favour of unboned stays, and by 1910, a straighter, the 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.
Because wartime work necessitated utilitarian attire, women in the early 1900s could wear pants for the first time. For farm work, jodhpurs was 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.
Waugh, N. (2013). The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930. United States: Taylor & Francis.
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