I love Art Deco style, but I’m always glad that I didn’t have to be young in the 1920s, because I have exactly the wrong figure for 1920s dress styles. And then, one day, I looked at this photo of my mother in a 1920s bathing suit, and realized that she had exactly the wrong figure for the twenties, too.
But that was her era.
She was a teenager when the 1920s began, a popular, fun-loving, slightly wild girl (She eloped while still in high school.) She was the first girl in town to get her hair bobbed; she loved fabric shopping and sewing her own dresses, going dancing, and earning her own living in “The City” as a secretary. So I think it’s fair to say she was a flapper.
“The boyish figure sans bust and curves and waistline is the ideal silhouette.” –Evelyn Dodge, Delineator magazine, July, 1925.
Underneath 1920s Fashions
Some women in search of the boyish figure bought “Boyshform binders,” or the “Flatter-U” brassiere or bandeaux, or wore flattening brassiere-and-girdle combinations called corselettes. [See Underpinning the Twenties: Brassieres, Bandeaux, and Bust Flatteners, and Underpinning the Twenties: Girdles and Corsets]
Others wore only one thin layer of light cotton or silk ‘combinations,’ or camisoles and bloomers, and rolled their stockings over elastic garters to hold them up, eliminating the girdle completely.
Some women wore even less.
Some Flappers Did Not Try to Reshape Their Figures
Writer Elspeth Huxley spent 1927 as a student at Cornell University. An animal husbandry major, she was matter-of-fact about sex, but she was surprised enough to record this incident:
“A teddy was the silk slip worn by some co-eds; others wore no underclothes at all. One, demonstrating a device she had thought of, peeled off her dress to reveal herself naked but for a strip of adhesive bridging the buttocks. ‘It improves my silhouette,’ she said.” – from Love Among the Daughters: Memories of the Twenties in England and America, by Elspeth Huxley; p. 244.
I would love to know more about the placement of that adhesive strip!
“Never Assume” is a rule of the costume shop. But I realize now that I have been assuming that young women who chose to wear next-to-nothing under their clothes were the ones who had a slim build, close to the twenties’ fashion ideal.
I confess I’m a little surprised, looking this photo of people in similar fashions, that some young women apparently chose not to wear a brassiere or bandeau, even if they had very un-boyish, unfashionable curves.
The girl on the right has what is usually thought of as an “ideal” nineteen twenties figure; her bust is so flat that I suspect she is wearing a breast binder. The girl on the left is obviously wearing nothing more restrictive than a chemise or combinations as underclothes. Her body is far from the 20s ideal, but she looks confident and completely at ease.
Seeing Through Clothes
Anne Hollander has demonstrated, in Seeing Through Clothes, how strong the influence of fashion is on our idea of beauty – to the extent that artists sometimes paint nudes as if they were wearing an invisible corset. This raises the question: Can we ever see through the eyes of another era?
Which of those girls was considered more attractive by the men of the late 1920s? Were other women scandalized when the big-breasted girl danced the Charleston? Or did many young women dress just as revealingly?
I think I know which one a man would be more likely to bring home to meet his mother – but – I shouldn’t assume!
15 responses to “Not All Flappers Wanted to Be Flat in the 1920s”
So interesting! I have read (but can’t remember where) that men hated the twenties style precisely because it underplayed breasts. But maybe legs on display compensated for that.
This is a great reflection on how we look at history and touches on something I keep with me whenever I research fashion. We can never see exactly through the eyes of another era but we can obtain a better understanding of the evolution of fashion by research and more research and by looking at social and economic history. My background is costume design working in film and television so absorbing history in as much detail as possible is critical to the authenticity of any project.
The internet is littered with distilled repetitious commentary about the 1920’s the period you have written about so it’s a pleasure to read your observations.
Thank you, Christina. Like you, I had a professional interest in what costume communicates, so I share your need to place clothing in social and economic context. I’ve learned to appreciate the insights I get from period cartoons and advertisements, and other sources that are not called “fashion history.” And, as with these photos, I sometimes have to rethink what I thought I knew. The costume designer’s contribution is so important (and so rarely appreciated); I hope producers send many wonderful projects your way!
So interesting! I’m reading “The Study of Dress History” by Lou Taylor and she cautions against taking fashion illustrations too literally. This is a prime example of that.
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Good post. Remember that not all young ladies were flappers, in the same way that in my youth ot all young people were hippies – despite what the elder generation thought.
Some fashionable girls found it easier to be flat than others! I’ve seen in a UK museum a real no nonsense flattener – lace up back – no elastic and vertical bones over the breasts. I’ve also seen some 1928 family photos of a honeymonn couple. Some shots were taken by the new husband on the beach and some photos were almost of the “wet t shirt’ category. The bride had well formed breasts under her 1920s coverall swimsuit. There are also some photos taken at the hotel dinner dance by a professional photographer using flash (snaps ready by breakfast ettc) which show the couple in evening dress. She is wearing a dress of a shiny material and she is completely flat. I reckoned that in one image I could see one of those rigid vertical flattening bones.
Interestingly, in the 1930s doctors were writing that new mothers were suffering inverted nipples due to binding in the late 1920s. But doctors are not a good source of comparative information!
Yes, medical men could always be found to support both sides of the corset or bra question. Have you read Uplift: The Bra in America by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau? Very scholarly and jammed with sociological as well as garment industry information. I found it online, used, for under $5. They start with the 1860s and end in the 2000s. (I think my mother really was a flapper — she was one of the first girls in town to have her hair bobbed, and she eloped — briefly– while still in high school — but not with my father. They seemed to know a lot about roadhouses, Saturday night dances, and bathtub gin…. Oddly, I haven’t found any photos showing her with obviously flattened breasts; I think she was proud of her curves.) Her mother still wore a lace-up corset in the 1950s, possibly because she had been wearing them since the 1890s.
Another great post! I’ve read a few interviews in which silent film actresses said all the silent male players tended to rate Billie Dove the most beautiful, because she was curvy. And Dorothy Parker quipped of Clara Bow, “It? Hell; she had Those!”
But it is rare to see pictures that show the womanly figure in the 20’s, so thanks for finding some examples.
I love your byline, “harried costumer.” We can relate to that! Clara Bow sometimes photographs very flat-chested, but not always. My father was a young man in the 1920’s, and he didn’t mind my mother’s curves at all.
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Your mother was beautiful! I love the one of her sitting. So chic!
“I would love to know more about the placement of that adhesive strip!” LOL Me too!!! Hahaaahhaaa!!! Wonderful post! 😀
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Wonderful to discover your blog. As a retired apparel/textiles teacher, it’s fun to read comments by like-minded scholars. Thanks for sharing your stories, which I found doing a google search. Serendipitous.
Thank you! Nice to “meet” you!