Steps on the Way: 1914 to 1924

How did fashion get from here …

Fashion image from Delineator, March 1910.

… to here …

Fashion illustrations from Delineator, August 1920.

… in just ten years?

This is not a definitive answer — just a large collection of intriguing and sometimes contradictory tidbits I collected last month.

“Facts and Figures;” about the new corsets, from Delineator, April 1914. The author is Eleanor Chalmers. Page 38.

I was reading this article on corsets (1914) when I saw a sentence that leapt out:

That’s what it says: “Among smart women the size of the waistline has increased three inches in the past two or three years.”

I’ve been going through magazines from 1910, 1914, and 1920, and there is no doubt that a big change in the ideal figure happened between 1910 and 1914. This 1914 corset article will make more sense if we first look at some images from 1910.

Cover illustration, Delineator magazine, March 1910.

Full  breasts, narrow waist, wide hips: a classic hourglass figure. This is a voluptuous, grown woman in the prime of life.

Two curvaceous women wearing Butterick patterns from May 1910.

The 1910 beauty ideal is a mature woman, not a teen-aged girl. Of course, not all women looked this way without help.

Two 1910 corsets in a “Nuform”/ “Reduso” corset ad. Delineator, March 1910.

Even slender women were expected to be curvy:

The Sahlin Perfect Form and Corset Combined was lightly structured, but promised the small-waisted, big-busted look of 1910.

“For the Slender Woman… The only garment that, without padding or interlining, produces the stylish high bust, straight waist, and long hip…. Braces the shoulders, expands the chest naturally.”

If pulling your shoulders back didn’t do the trick, you could resort to a different sort of help:

Nature’s Rival promised a Perfect Bust: “the full rounded bust form of a finely built woman” — very large in relation to the tiny waist. Ad from Delineator, June 1910.

A slender but curvy woman (with an ideal figure for 1910) models a lingerie frock. Fashion illustration, Delineator, April 1910.

Shapely — but not necessarily girlish — women, March 1910; Delineator. Even the older woman has a tiny waist.

The woman at left is curvy; the woman in the suit at right has the hips of a corset ad.

Ad for American Lady corsets, April 1910.

The corset Chalmers recommended in 1914 created a very different shape: it doesn’t support the bust at all; it has — preferably — a stretchy rubberized waist, and its stated goal is to make the hips look narrower while making the waist look larger. (“Unless your waist is large, your hips will not be small….”)

Front and back views of a recommended corset, April 1914.

“The waistline no longer exists… You obviously can’t have the new straight lines with a curve at the waist and hips.” I was surprised to read this in an article from 1914. It seems to prefigure (no pun intended) the fashion ideal of the nineteen twenties.

“The silhouette that the corset makers and manufacturers are working on for 1914, and which is the basis for all the present styles, is the straight figure, with small hips, large waist, and no bust. ” [This is 1914, but it could be 1920-something!]

First paragraph of Eleanor Chalmer’s corset advice.”The face alone, no matter how pretty, counts for nothing unless the body is as straight and yielding as a very young girl.” Delineator, April 1914.

“If a woman clings affectionately to the high bust, the small drawn-in waist and the big hips of a few years ago, she is going to look not only old-fashioned, but old. The corset of former years gave a woman a mature, well-developed, matronly figure. The corset of to-day makes her look like a very young girl.”

American Lady Corset ad from April 1914. It seems to meet the large waist requirement, but young?

Compare two corsets from the same manufacturer, 1910 and 1914. Ads from Delineator.

“If necessary, you can wear a brassiere with it.”

Since the ideal was now a small, low bust, this brassiere for a full-breasted woman confined her breasts rather than supporting them.

Ad for a De Bevoise brassiere, June 1914.

Of course, what fashion writers tell readers they are looking at, and what we actually see, are not always the same thing.

Thomson’s corset ad, February 1914. Her hips are bizarrely long and thin.

Ms. Chalmers and the corset makers are selling the idea of a slender, girlish hip. But for other fashion writers in the same year, this was the headline :

“New Skirt Models That Widen the Figure at the Hip.” Delineator, March 1914.

These skirt patterns were shown in the same issue as the corset advice article which emphasized the importance of slender hips. Delineator, April 1914, p 26.

It hardly seems worth the trouble of wearing a corset under those skirts. “Saddlebag thighs?” Very chic!

However, the waist was definitely getting thicker — and higher. Hard to believe, but the following six outfits are all for girls 14 to 19 years old.

Patterns for teens 14 to 19. Delineator, April 1914, p. 37. [These skirts are wide at the hip and very narrow at the ankle.]

The 1914 ideal of a slender, girlish figure does not look as we might expect.

More patterns for teens 14 to 19 years old. April 1914. Tiny waists are out of style. Wide hips seem to be in… regardless of that corset article in the same magazine.

Even though I’ve written about the Tubular Twenties, I was looking for the arrival of the dropped waist; I missed the arrival of the thick waist. Maybe I should have been asking, “When did the waist disappear?” It looks like the answer is earlier than I realized. In 1914, the new style was usually high-waisted, but look at the girl at far left, above. Her waist is almost Twenties….

Skirts began to rise during World War I, but the wide hips and thick waists of the pre-war era continued into 1920:

Butterick fashions for May, 1920. Delineator, p. 151. The wide, loose sash actually adds bulk to the waist.

Maybe the thickening waist is how we got from this …

Butterick patterns 3828 and 3789, May 1910

… to this …

Butterick patterns for March 1914 show a thick-waisted, wide-hipped silhouette.

… to this:

Butterick patterns for January 1924. The line is long and narrow; there is no hint that women have waists.

In 1925, another Delineator writer suggested that women had let their figures go during these years of bulky fashions. “A Few Years Ago Women Took Off Corsets . . . and Let Their Figures Go.” — Evelyn Dodge, Delineator, July 1925.


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, 1920s, Bras, Corsets, Foundation Garments, Girdles, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Underthings, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, World War I

20 responses to “Steps on the Way: 1914 to 1924

  1. I wonder, was it fashion to “dictate” the new trends, or rather were history and movements (women wanting to become more independent, different outlooks in life, the modern era after the shock of WWI) influencing fashion?
    I’m reading a book about bohemia (the artists – not necessarily the famous ones, their lifestyles and ideas): they had a rather unconventional approach to life and I cannot imagine bohemian wearing restrictive clothing, and women started to cut their hair and enjoy a bit more freedom (at least in principle). I suspect that such movements had some influence on mainstream trends in the long term.

    • In 1914, Butterick and other pattern and clothing manufacturers were still very dependent on French fashion design for trends. Celebrities also influenced fashion — photos of stage actors and later, film stars, were available, and women like Irene (Mrs. Vernon) Castle and society ladies and famous beauties were trend-setters. However, sometimes manufacturers guess wrong about what will appeal to the public — success depends on matching the product to the spirit of the day. I see quite a few vintage illustrations of couture that did not set a trend! And not every woman follows fashion slavishly, in spite of all the fashion editors, etiquette columns, and advertising. Nevertheless, we can all spot a consistency in fashion eras. Movie costumes were setting trends in the 1930s. The late 1960’s is the era I usually see cited as the moment when street fashion (and youth fashion) became heavily influential, rather than haute couture.

  2. I’ve found the move to really widening, thick waisted fashions and a sudden and (to most people, although I like it personally) unflattering emphasis on the hips really obvious when watching silent movies. It’s something I see modern audiences always react to in theatres. A really good example of this is The Cheat, where Fanny Ward wears a lot of clothes in this style, including what I always think of as the world’s ugliest coat. On the other hand when you look at European divas like Asta Nielsen or Pina Menichelli, they usually wore really clinging, slinky styles that still focused on the waist. Although Holland is an exception to this again.

    • I need to watch The Cheat! I notice that film actresses in the 20’s often wore much more form-fitting clothing than we see in store catalogs — because it was custom made for them. I also notice in crowd scenes that it’s natural for a belt on a coat or dress to rise to the natural waist. I’ve shared lots of family photos of real teen-aged girls wearing truly ugly, bulky clothes around 1917.

      • I love The Cheat anyway but it’s also a great movie for fashions. You’re right about the fit difference, and I’ve found watching extras and so on in movies the fashions are a lot less extreme looking on them too.

        Those coats with the belts across the hips… I love the hobble skirts and so on but those coats are really the limit even for me. Those teens were daring.

      • They were either daring or stuck with what they could buy — or, “tyranny of Fashion” victims? I can’t remember if it was James Laver or another historian who wrote about a young woman who passed his window every day, probably in the short-skirt late 1930s. She wore a leg brace. He observed that, in a different, long-skirted era, people’s eyes would have gone first to her lovely face. But — alas — our brains are set to notice differences, and her brace was the first thing they noticed. Could she have defied fashion and worn a long skirt, or trousers, to work? Not unless she wanted to attract a different kind of negative attention.

  3. I must admit, I am not a fan of the “saddlebag hips” of 1914! Seems like a transition that is best left in the past. Let’s jump from 1910 straight into 1920! 😀 Or better yet – straight into 1940 when the hourglass figure is back! Augmented by shoulder pads. 🙂

    • I suppose are lucky to be living in a “pretty much anything goes” era, when wearing vintage can be chic.

    • Re 1914 to 1918: I still can’t get over the fashion for the “tonneau” skirt, led by French couturiers. “Tonneau” means “barrel.” But women bought it!

      • The same way as medieval knights bought the “bucket” helmet. Seriously, put a bucket over your head and it’s cool? 🙂

      • Oddly, the “bucket” helmet is very important in the history of historically accurate costume design for the stage. When James Robinson Planche decided to costume the cast of Shakespeare’s King John (Charles Kemble’s production of 1823) in historically accurate costumes, the cast objected strongly to wearing the bucket helmet. They thought it looked ridiculous. (King John lived from 1166 to 1216. He’s the king who signed the Magna Carta.) Planche went on to research and write several early studies of costume history. His idea of accuracy might look odd to us today, but he’s generally acknowledged as a very important figure in theatre history. If the the bit players in King John hadn’t made a fuss about their costumes, we might not be aware of Planche’s innovation. (His real victory was establishing, with Kemble’s help, the practice of one person designing costumes for everyone in the production, instead of letting the actors choose or supply their own.) Today, once an actor is cast, he/she can’t even get a haircut without the costume designer’s permission.
        I say “Hooray for Planche” (that rhymes 🙂 )

      • The “bucket” helmet was actually very effective in battle. I suppose the knights had figured staying alive with a bucket on your head was preferable to lying dead with your head smashed in. 🙂 If the actors had been re-enacting the battles even half-seriously, they would have figured that out! Except their helmets were probably not real… not like the armour (and weapons!) of modern re-enactors (as opposed to actors).

  4. this was very interesting to me, as i’ve attempted to see the evolution from early 1900s fashions into the 1920s silhouettes.

    it’s funny how no matter what the fashion dictates of the moment may be, a woman’s natural, un-corseted, un-girdled, un-flattened, or un-bolstered figure is never quite “the thing”… at any time, a very small percentage of (usually young) women may have a natural figure that is close to current ideals, but most women won’t. we seem wired to play with our shapes. or market forces are… and it is interesting to look for interplay between fashion and larger forces, changing social mores and new ideas…

    i’ve worn historically correct (not costume grade) european garments with period appropriate underpinnings often, from dark age and medieval to elizabethan/renaissance, baroque from simple to court garb, empire/regency to victorian, turn of the century, twenties, and into art deco/thirties style… it’s extraordinary how different each period’s attire feels, and how they rearrange and selectively accent/downplay aspects of female form. my personal favorite to wear and look at is the attire from about 1900-1916. since a back injury, i cheat a bit and substitute a rago cincher and simple modern bra for the proper corsetry, as the correct corseting for the period hurts the injured bit. i also love the earlier 1920s fashions, but only the evening wear.

    i always enjoy your posts—thank you!

  5. What an interesting comment about body shapes in 1914–if you didn’t adopt the new silhouette, you would not only look old fashioned but old. I hadn’t seen such comments at such an early date before. Great detective work, Susan!

    • You are always so kind and encouraging –Thanks. I found some 1930 fashion editor “arguments” about whether the long skirts and the natural waist introduced in 1929 made women look “old” or “young.” Still getting them ready to share in the blog.

  6. really excellent close reading and research! I cant imagine that the husbands of this era were happy about the end of the hourglass figure. mine certainly wouldnt have been. those hobble skirts look just as confining, to my eye.

    I wonder what happened that the fashon world began to worship the gir’s figure instead of the woman’s? it doesnt seem to have let up untill just lately. thank you again.

    • I wrote once about being glad I missed the 1920s because of my hourglass figure (sometimes the hourglass gets pretty big, but it stays proportionate!) Then I realized that I have the same shape as my mother, and she was quite popular in the 20’s. I was lucky to be young in the sixties, because the tight clothing of the late fifties made me look much too mature for my age. I guess if we live long enough, we’re bound to hit one fashion wave that suits us.

  7. Pingback: A 1917 Fairy-Tale | Seam Racer

  8. Thanks for the chuckles! Your comments were great. Studying women’s fashions thru the ages, those corsets were changed to push and shove the woman’s shape into what was deemed fashionable. No wonder when those gals got to the 1920s they threw their corsets away so they could dance. Unfortunately, the straight, cylinder look wasn’t good for all. I have snaps of average women in their “Easter best” dresses wearing dresses that look like sacks and were really not flattering to anyone. However, there they stand with huge grins because they’re wearing the latest fashions.
    If you want some real laughs, look at bridal fashions from 1900 to about 1930, look at the headpieces and veils. I have a photo of one poor woman who looks like Big Bird with her headpiece resting on her eyebrows. Check out for some laughs.

  9. Pingback: The Rapidly Changing Corseted Shape: Part 3, 1912 to 1914 | witness2fashion

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