Tag Archives: flapper

Not All Flappers Wanted to Be Flat in the 1920s

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.

On the right:  Stranded in the 1920s with a  Gibson Girl figure.

On the right: Stranded in the 1920s with a Gibson Girl figure.

 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. helen in washington 500 dpi 20s

 

“The boyish figure sans bust and curves and waistline is the ideal silhouette.” –Evelyn Dodge, Delineator magazine, July, 1925.1925 july  5204 swim july shortened

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]

Corselette pattern, Butterick, 1925, and Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, 1925. Delineator.

Corselette pattern, Butterick, 1925, and Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, 1925. Delineator.

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.

Combinations or Teddies, and a Chemise set, all from April 1925, Delneator.

Combinations or Teddies, and a Chemise set, all from April 1925, Delneator.

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

A graceful 1920s figure; this one is surprisingly late, from 1929.

A graceful 1920s figure; this one is surprisingly late, from 1929.

“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.

July, 1928 (left); December 1925 (right); Butterick patterns from Delineator.

July, 1928 (left); December 1925 (right); Butterick patterns from Delineator.

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.

Two office workers, late 1920s. They demonstrate two, different contemporary attitudes toward underwear.

Two office workers, late 1920s. They demonstrate two, very different, contemporary attitudes toward underwear.

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!

 

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Filed under 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets & Corselettes, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, vintage photographs

A Book I Need to Read Again: The Language of Clothes

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the popularity of striped coats in 1924.

Two striped coats from 1924, Delineator magazine.

Two striped coats from 1924, Delineator magazine.

This week I found this photo in Alison Lurie’s book The Language of Clothesillustrated with images assembled by Doris Palca.

A British fashion photograph of motoring and sports coart, 1924, from The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie.

A British fashion photograph of motoring and sports coats, 1924, from The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie.

The Language of Clothes, by Alison Lurie, 1981

I was de-accessioning my library, and had listed this book on Amazon, but I didn’t have to read more than a few sentences to realize that I want to read it again. Lurie’s observations about fashion are perceptive, very well-written and often very amusing. Her comment on these coats is:

striped 20s coats lurie p 74777“Women entered the second decade of the twentieth century shaped like hourglasses and came out of it shaped like rolls of carpet.”

When I was teaching, I always stressed that “Costume communicates.” We all speak the language of clothes, and we constantly make judgements based on our reading of what other people wear. Lurie’s book is about the subtle statements and psychological impulses behind our clothing choices, with chapters on “Clothing as a Sign System,” “Youth and Age,” Fashion and Status,” “Fashion and Sex,” and many other topics that explore the clothes we usually take for granted. Her comments on the fashions of the 1920s, in the chapter “Fashion and Time,” interested me particularly, because I have been thinking many of the same thoughts while looking through pattern illustrations of the twenties — but Lurie anticipated my ideas by thirty years.

And she writes really well, so that there is a lot of information packed into her seemingly effortless prose.

Dressing as Children: Thoughts on 1920s Styles

After summarizing several theories about why women minimized their breasts and hips in the twenties, Lurie reminds us that . . .

Child's drop-waisted dress, late 1880s, from Dress, The Jenness-Miller Magazine.

Child’s drop-waisted dress, late 1880s, from Dress, The Jenness-Miller Magazine.

“It has been sugested that women were asserting their new-won rights by dressing like men; or, alternatively, that they were trying to replace the young males who had died in World War I.

“…But a glance at contemporary photographs and films shows that women in the 1920s did not look like men, but rather like children — the little girls they had been ten to twenty years earlier….

“…And although [the flapper] might have the figure of an adolescent boy, her face was that of a small child: round and soft, with a turned-up nose, saucer eyes, and a “bee-stung” mouth.

I have been noticing that patterns for young women, aged 15 to 20 —  i.e., ‘flappers’ — were illustrated with very round-headed, big-eyed, baby-like heads, like the prototypical flapper cartoon character, Betty Boop.

Betty Boop, and fashion illustrations of women aged 15 to 20; Delineator, 1924.

Betty Boop, and fashion illustrations of women aged 15 to 20; Delineator, 1924.

Illustrations of a teenager and an adult woman wearing the same hat pattern, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Illustrations of a teenager and an adult woman wearing hats made from the same pattern, 1925. Delineator magazine.

Very large eyes, spaced far apart, in a round — rather than oval — head, with a tiny nose and “rosebud lips;” those are the traits associated with an infant’s head.

Middy blouse for athletic events; Jan. 1925.

Middy blouse for athletic events; Jan. 1925.

Alison Lurie goes on to say, “One popular style of the 1920s was the dress cut to look like a shirt, with an outsize collar and floppy bow tie of the kind seen on little boys ten or twenty years earlier. [See above, left.] Another favorite was the Peter Pan collar, named after [the boy who] . . . was chiefly famous for his refusal to grow up. . . . Middy blouses and skirts were now worn by grown women as well as children, and the ankle-strap button shoes or “Mary Janes” once traditional for little girls became, with the addition of a Cuban heel, the classic female style of the twenties.”

 

 

“I Won’t Grow Up”

My own observation is that dresses considered suitable for little girls aged 8 to 15 (or younger) in the early 1920s became the adult fashions of the later 1920s. When adult women were still wearing mid-calf-length skirts, in 1924, 12-year-old girls were wearing skirts that came just to the knee. Two years later, adult women — not just ‘flappers’ — were wearing knee-length skirts. The curves of a sexually mature female body were suppressed, or at least de-emphasized. The ideal may have been a ‘boyish’ figure, but it was also the figure of a little girl, too young for adult responsibilities, but insisting upon adult freedom of behavior.

Dresses for Girls 8 to 15, 1924; Woman's dress, 1928

Dresses for Girls 8 to 15, 1924; Woman’s dress, 1928

 

Young girl's dress, 1924; Dresses for ladies, 1928. Butterick patterns illustrations.

Young girl’s dress, 1924; Dresses for ladies, 1928. Butterick pattern illustrations.

Earlier in the century, young women looked forward to the day when they could “put up” their hair and let down their hems. By 1925, women were reverting to schoolgirl clothing styles: dropped waist lines, short skirts, pullover dresses, and middy-type blouses worn outside their skirts rather than tucked in (a look previously only seen on gym suits and children’s outfits.) Here’s another example of a child’s dress influencing the adult dress on the right:

Girl's dress with smocking, 1924; woman's dress with smocking, 1926.

Girl’s dress, 1924; women’s dresses, 1926. Butterick pattern illustrations.

At least, The Language of Clothes got me thinking more deeply about fashion trends. I’m looking forward to reading it straight through– but it’s hard not to skip ahead to such enticing topics as “Sexual Signals:  The Old Handbag,” and the underlying meanings of “Color and Pattern.” It’s available in used hardcover for about $10 plus shipping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Children's Vintage styles, Coats, Hats, Shoes, Vintage patterns, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes