Failed Fashion? Fichus,1920

A collar resembling an 18th c. fichu is the focus of this dress pattern from 1920.

Sometimes a style appears that captures the mood of the times, and it becomes a dominant fashion. But sometimes a fashion misfires (wrong time, wrong look.) Example: The fichu dresses of 1920.

Another fichu dress pattern from 1920.

In 1920, young people had experienced the deaths and injuries of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed young, healthy people rather than the old. “The Lost Generation” wasn’t in the mood for a return to the 18th century.

A “Martha Washington costume” from Butterick, 1924.

A scarf (fichu) was long enough to cross in front and tie in back. 1792, Met Museum costume plate.

The late 18th century fichus helped to cover the breasts which were pushed into view by the combination of stays and low necklines.

The 18th c. fichu could be tucked into the bodice, Met Museum Fashion plate collection.

A fichu crossed in front and tied in back, 1792. Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates Collection.

This tight-waisted, busty mode would not seem to have much in common with the nineteen twenties.

A fichu crossed in front and tied in back, 1793. Metropolitan Museum collection.

However, we can’t discount the possible influence of popular culture in 1920, such as novels and movies set in the late 1700s, like A Tale of Two Cities, which was filmed in 1911 and 1917. For whatever reason, Butterick thought women might like to wear fichu dresses in 1920.

The fichu/collar is part of the dress. Butterick 2408, June 1920.

Two dresses from June, 1920. Delineator.

Styles that tied in back, or were heavily ruffled, were not unusual in 1920.

Non-fichu styles from Butterick, summer of 1920. (Chi-chi balls on the left?)

Butterick 2364, a fichu dress from May, 1920.

This one has a three-layered skirt.

The waistline was in flux in 1920: sometimes near the natural waist, and sometimes very low-waisted.

Butterick 2470 ties its fichu at a low waist.

This graduation dress for teens 14 to 19 ties its fichu near the natural waist.

Two illustrations of Butterick 2408. On the left, the dropped waist is emphasized with trim.

Butterick 2192 has a fichu-shaped collar, but in darker colors.

Butterick 2192 was illustrated in February 1920…

…and again —  in color — in March, 1920.

The fichu also appeared on this dress for girls:

Butterick 2202 from March 1920.

Sometimes the fichu is referred to as a surplice, and sometimes (as here) what seems to me to be a surplice closing is called a fichu! [“Fashion is spinach.”]

Butterick offered this fichu dress pattern in 1922:

Butterick 3720 from June 1922.

This could mean that Butterick had some success with its 1920 fichu dress patterns after all….  (Also, another film of Tale of Two Cities was released in 1922….) The waist on 1922 pattern 3729 — like the other dresses on the same page — is definitely low.

Three Butterick patterns from June, 1922.


Filed under 1920s, Children's Vintage styles, Musings

10 responses to “Failed Fashion? Fichus,1920

  1. Very interesting, thank you! I think, the fichus go quite well with the ruffled styles of the time. Maybe they just didn’t make it, because these frilly dresses disappeared anyway? I think, some of them also emphasize the low bust of the 1910s, which was on its way out, too. But the thought, that looking forward, not back, was the spirit of the time, is surely right!

  2. Tamar Jeffers McDonald

    I know I’ve seen some fichus in Twenties films, so looked at this excellent archive of movie magazines and found several film-fashion commentaries using the term:
    Thanks for another great post.

    • Thank you for the amazing Lantern digital library of magazines! The Lantern home page is here.
      Fashion vocabulary is so often stretched and/or misused that all those references in your link were great fun. I do wish there was a photo of Errol Flynn wearing a “fichu” in Don Juan! Seriously, as a silent film fan I, too, have vague memories of 1920’s’ fichu dresses, but couldn’t locate a photo.

      • They were around, weren’t they? I could swear I’ve seen some too, but where? The only ones I can think of that definitely had them were costume films like Orphans of the Storm.

      • So many films from the early days have been lost that it’s hard to know what was influential. I just came across an article in an old (1917) Photoplay magazine that claims fashionable ladies would wear “Babylonian” dresses inspired by D.W. Griffith’s movie Intolerance! Publicity? or Reality?

      • lol I think that’s optimistic marketing. I don’t recall Babylonion dresses. I’d say the slew of classical movies from Italy would be more influential.

        I feel like it was a mutual influence, because 18th century fashion was already fashionable, so they made a lot of movies about that, so it became more fashionable.

  3. Well, as someone who dislikes frills, I find most of these examples much too girlish. But the few that are plain and dark add interest to the dresses. Maybe we could call it a double surplice? And thanks to Tamar for the new source!

  4. Duy Khang Nguyen

    Ok, this is not related with the fichus blog
    But I still wonder how the ladies from 19 century to the year 1914 deals with sweep dress or dress that got hem touch to the floor like this one

    Ex: what if that day is a rainy day, dont they scared about making their dress dirty

    • An important concept of high fashion is that it is not practical. Working men and women and poor people do not wear high fashion, although they may aspire to imitate it. (Think of the upper-class Chinese ladies who had bound feet. Their feet proved that they had servants to do all the work. But gradually, middle-class women began to bind their daughters feet in the hope that they would marry into a wealthy family. Sadly, many of these women did not marry “up” and had to perform work in spite of their crippled feet.)
      An economist called Thorstein Veblen introduced his “Theory of the Leisure Class” in 1899. He discussed conspicuous wealth, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, conspicuous leisure, etc. as expressed in clothing. That is, upper-class clothing is intended to show that the wearer is a member of the upper class and does no practical work. For example, in the 1760s and the 1860s, dresses for wealthy women used many, many yards of fabric, often hand-embroidered or lavishly trimmed. They consumed more fabric than necessary, which proved they had money to waste. A dress with a train that drags on the ground proves that, when it gets dirty or torn, you can afford to buy a new dress. The women who did the laundry did not wear a dress with a train! Clothing designed to be worn for expensive sports, like yachting, shows that the wearer can afford not to work (conspicuous leisure) and can spend time vacationing. Beau Brummell convinced wealthy men to wear clean shirts and gloves — changing them several times a day, discarding them when they became the least bit soiled: this is “conspicuous waste.” In the 1400s, aristocratic men wore shoes that prevented them from walking normally.
      Most of the clothing we see in museums and paintings belonged to rich people. Roman senators had a slave who went everywhere with them, carried their belongings, and arranged the folds of their togas — because the senator did not always have both hands free.
      But poor people wore their clothes until they wore out, and then the fabric was re-purposed into quilts, children’s clothing, and cleaning rags. The social significance of clothing is a fascinating topic!

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