Fashion in the 20th Century

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The first two decades of the twentieth century can be regarded as the most radical and significant period in women's fashions - the most fundamental breakaway from tradition. A time when fashion was dictated by the designers, and for many decades, a woman's entire wardrobe could become obsolete each year, if she faithfully followed the collections displayed by leading designers.

The 20th century opened with the tightly-laced corset, which apart from a brief period at the beginning of the previous century, had been worn for several hundred years and was considered a permanent basic requirement in achieving a fashionable figure, to exaggerate every curve of the female form, for the fashionable S shape. The extreme styles fitted the hips tightly and started to flare out from the thighs to flounce widely and trail out on the ground giving a trumpet line to the skirt and complete the fashionable 'S' shape.

Dressed in this ultra-feminine, impractical way, women could not lead a busy domestic or business life. The upkeep in time and labour of the fashionable woman's wide range of outfits and undergarments, hats, shoes and gloves could only have belonged to a time where cheap domestic help was available. Ladies' maids were essential to supervise the range of clothes, help get the wearer in and out of outfits, and arrange the ornate hair styles. Mass-produced clothes were unknown to these women. Hours were spent by dressmakers, seamstresses and embroiderers producing complicated, highly-decorated clothes. Like domestic help, the labour needed to make the garments was cheap and plentiful.

Women wore a great many undergarments to complete one outfit. Confining corsets, long knickers, underslips and several petticoats, intricately made in cotton, lace or embroidered silk and often finely pleated or tucked and trimmed with ribbons. Over the corsets and underclothes, dresses were even more elaborate.

Day dresses were very covered up but evening dresses often had daringly low necklines. Very feminine blouses, followed the same lines as the dresses with high necks and long sleeves, fine rows of pleats or tucks were repeated on the sleeves and collars.

As the decade progressed, social changes became more apparent, and the more independently-minded woman who had directly developed from the so-called 'new woman' of the 1880's and 1890's began to make her presence felt and be taken seriously. More women were going to universities and colleges, entering professions, and participating in active sports such as cycling, tennis and golf, and their new attitudes reflected in more practical and less fussy and frilly garments.

The tailored jacket became established, (a version has been fashionable in all decades of this century) worn with matching skirts, usually pleated for easy movement and slightly shorter, touching the floor but not trailing. Plainer blouses were worn with these suits. It was during the second half of the decade that more avant garde women began to wear dresses with flowing lines rather than the stiffer corseted ones.

Poiret, one of the first 20th century designers to have his own vision of how he wanted women to look rather than designing variations within the established shape and lines, now showed more of the natural shape of the figure, and out went the whalebone corset. Waists were high and loosely marked, like those of the first decade of the 19th century, the only time corsets had lost popularity before this. The shape of the thighs and legs showed clearly for the first time in 100 years.

Technical developments were affecting everyday life, the telephone, electric lights became more commonplace, people travelled more and flying caught the imagination, motor transport was increasing every year speeding up day to day life. All of which was bound to affect clothes and introduce a more practical style of dress, even if slowly at first. By 1907 the basic silhouette showed a slimmer, straighter line, less tightly-waisted and with growing tendency to a high waisted effect. By 1909 the silhouette became more like the letter T than the S shape of the early years of the decade.

Children's clothes were nearly as elaborate as adults, girls wore long stockings and frilly fussy looking dresses and hats, elaborate clothes were even worn by children for playing on the beach.

The difference between the younger and mature generations became more marked in the first half of the 1910's. The mature woman continued to wear long straightish lines with high necks and large ornate hats. The newer styles of easier fitting clothes with simple round or V necks suited a younger figure and the faster pace of life with cars now driven by women, active sports, and new dance crazes.

Breasts were less emphasised and waists were much easier fitting, either in the natural place or slightly above. Legs were now the focal point and showed under the new, narrow 'hobble' skirt, slit at the sides or in the front or one side with the lower buttons left open for easier movement. The 'peg top' skirt became very fashionable, full at the top with draped folds around the hips, wrapped over and narrowed down the legs . The 'tunic' line was also popular, the top flounced or flared out over the hips, sometimes with two or three flounces like large frills. The most extreme were wired out like a lampshade and were called 'lampshade' tunics. The tops reaching to about mid-thigh were worn over tight slit or draped skirts in contrasting fabric or colour, or both. Some narrow skirts for dressy occasions or evening wear had narrow trains trailing out on the floor called 'fishtails.'

By 1912 and 1914 younger women's fashions changed quite fundamentally in line, and the growing use of flimsy materials, particularly for warm weather and evening dresses.

Ragtime music, the forerunner of jazz, was the basis of many of the new dance crazes- the animal dances, energetic dances needing easy fitting dresses with long slits to enable women to do the movements.

By 1914, straighter, flatter corsets designed to narrow the hips rather than shape the bust and waist, were back. Blouse and dress bodices were easier fitting and less decorated, and high boned collars were replaced by lower necklines. Tailored suits were firmly established. Department stores were now selling ready-made clothes.

Women were far more active and couldn't lead busier lives in the fashions of the early 1900's. The clothes women wore for active sports became a little easier, and even swimming costumes were a little less covered up.

The fashions for 1914 were very soft and feminine, and after the horrors of World War I some men thought women had never looked so lovely. Styles were easier looking and less contrived, Very girlish dresses with wider, fuller skirts, short enough to show the ankles, were beginning to be worn.

As the war continued and more women joined the armed forces, trained as nurses or undertook some kind of war work, women of all classes now wore the same clothes when on duty in the Services or working in the factories, their off duty clothes and the clothes worn by many women not directly involved in war work, tended to be simpler. Despite anti-fashion attitudes and the many changes in life during the war, fashion changes did continue and new designers began to make a name for themselves. One was Chanel who believed in uncorseted, easy fitting clothes. By 1916, her simple tops, skirts and chemise dresses were becoming known internationally.

The 'chemise' dress which exists up to to-day, was to be the basic line of the future. It was simple, with a round or straight across boat- shaped neck, hung loose, and easy fitting with a belt or fabric tie lightly marking a high, natural or lowish waist. The skirt was moderately full and mid to lower calf length.

With much simpler clothes, home dressmaking became more popular. Blouses continued to be popular, and fabrics, such as voile, crepe and silk crepe-de-Chine, were used for styles with round, deep V or crossover necklines.

During the last two years of the war, a new alternative silhouette, the 'barrel-shaped' line, was introduced, with easy fitting bodice and a lightly marked slightly high waist, the line curved out from the waist over the hips and narrowed to a calf length hemline.

By 1918 women's clothes had become simpler and more functional because of their emancipation. They had now been given the vote and had been involved in the war effort. This was also reflected in the growing popularity of short haircuts, obvious face make-up, straightish calf length chemise dresses and smoking cigarettes through a long holder.

Children's fashions followed the basic change towards simpler easier- fitting clothes.

The Roaring Twenties, the jazz age of dancing, like the Swinging Sixties, went down in history as the fun periods of the century. They were the only decades given names that instantly conveyed the lighter side of life. In many ways they were akin to one another, and both experienced expansion, major social changes, daring young fashions and new styles in popular music and dancing.

Whereas in the 20's the middle and upper class had instigated and taken part in the changes, the social revolution of the sixties was more extensive and ideas came from all classes, and fashion was followed by a wider range of young people than ever before.

The sixties "Dolly Girl" in her thigh length mini skirt, like the twenties "flapper" in her knee length dress represented fashion from the middle years of both decades.

Fashion in the early 20's was still quite elaborate, hairstyles, hats and skirt shapes varied; only the bodices with their straight across necklines, flat chests and low waists were very much of the 1920's. By the mid 20's the straight uncluttered silhouette with a low or no waistline had become the dominant line for day and evening clothes.

Hair styles were shorter than ever and face make-up was becoming more acceptable. Suntans were now admired, resulting in women wearing trousers, shorts and sleeveless tops.

The ideal for the fashionable figure had changed completely from the 1900's rigid corset designed to exaggerate every curve of the well covered female form, to the simpler and scantier, the fastest and most revolutionary in the history of fashion.

The very simple dress shapes with a plain straight across neckline, no sleeves and two side seams, were easy to make. With difficult economic circumstances being experienced, home dressmaking was the only way many women could afford to dress their families.

Chanel became a famous designer during the twenties and established herself as an important and lasting influence on 20th century fashion. She believed clothes should be more functional and allow for greater ease of movement. Her sleeves, bodices and skirts were all cut to give this freedom without being unnecessarily loose or baggy. Clothes were cut to flatter the figure without emphasising it, often achieved by cutting on the cross of the material which gave the maximum suppleness and ease. She popularised the use of knitted fabrics, particularly jersey which previously had been used mainly for vests and underpants. Chanel styled fabric into easy fitting but well cut jackets, skirts and dresses.

Fashionable women aimed to look neat and uncluttered. 'Chic' became a popular way of describing clothes that were on a higher plane than styles that were just in the latest fashion. Having a tailored blazer jacket made in an evening fabric such as satin or clustered sequins to wear over a flimsy evening dress rather than wearing the usual evening wrap, or wearing cheap cotton trousers and a sailor top on board ship or in a resort, were examples of the new approach to clothes.

Stockings and shoes were very important, flesh coloured stockings in silk or cotton lisle replaced original black ones. Town shoes were neat looking and fairly simple in design. Suede and polished leather were more generally worn. Basic styles lace-ups or court shoes with slightly pointed toes and medium and high heels.

During 1928 and 1929, a more feminine look began to develop. The longer look for evening wear was achieved with uneven hemlines. Dresses had dipping points, flowing panels or transparent over skirts a few inches longer than the under skirt, or were knee length in the front and dipped almost to the ankles at the back. For daywear, simple practical jersey suits, loose straight coats or versatile blazer jackets suited women's more active lives.

The thirties ended with the Second World War and the worsening economic situation meant women could not afford new clothes, so that the longer more flowing lines in the autumn 1929 collections were strongly reconfirmed by the fashion world in 1930.

Fashion lines, as if reflecting the slump, drooped downwards. Necklines were cut to fall into rather monastic looking cowls and shoulders looked very sloping with soft cape effects. Sleeves had low fullness from the elbows to the wrists where they were loosely draped into cuffs or floppily tied. Skirts were long and lean looking, gradually falling into low unpressed pleats or godets which were triangular pieces of material stitched into the skirt seams so that they flopped rather limply when a woman walked. Colours and fabrics reflected the subdued mood of the early thirties.

New fashion ideas in the early 30's showed a distinctively different length for day and evening clothes. Floor length evening dresses were worn again for the first time since the early 1910's, and backless evening dresses, a daring new innovation cut almost to the waistline. Women were now expected to consider carefully the suitability of clothes for different occasions and the time of day. Swimwear became more recognisably modern and began to be better fitting. Keeping fit and looking healthy became a great pre-occupation.

Styles were more complicated and required more material than the short straight lines of the twenties. By 1934 fashion had become less droopy, shoulder widths began to be emphasised for the first time since the beginning of the century, and sleeves and bodices were more shaped and fitted. Big department stores now catered extensively for women's interests and needs in one building. Many women felt that the extravagant evening dresses could only be worn for really special occasions, and the 'dinner dress', ankle or floor length, but more related to day dress styling than the extravagant evening dresses, became a new category to fill the gap.

It was the time of peroxided hair, pill box hats and deliberately enlarged mouths. Wide padded shoulders became popular and stayed in fashion through the century. Children's clothes continued to have easy fitting simple lines. The new rolled hair styles were sometimes covered with wide hairnets called 'snoods.'

The 1940's were unique, the effects of the second world war made fashion less exclusive, catering for a much wider market. Fashions were more practical than the frivolous styles of 1939. The corseted waistlines reintroduced that one time in the century at the end of the decade, were forgotten.

When Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and France in May 1940, an acute shortage of transport, saw short full skirts worn by women who were now cycling. Drab plain functional civilian clothes, such as box shaped jackets were worn with trousers or skirts. The 'shirtwaister' dress was introduced with crisp looking collar and belted waistline.

Teenagers wore rolled up jeans, ankle socks and ponytails. Jeans had originated in the 19th century for cowboys and prospectors. The South American look for evening included peasant blouses with wide- frilled sleeves, and skirts edged with traditional embroideries.

In 1947 came the 'New Look', skin tight bodices, nipped in waists and long full skirts. And the dirndl style (short full skirt), and strapless cotton prints with matching bolero jackets for girls.

The 'Tube Look' at the end of 1948, with shoulders still sloping and waists tightly nipped in but bodices and skirts molding the curves of the figure rather than exaggerating them, was followed by the 'Maypole Line' with loose flying panels over very tight skirts.

At the end of 1949, the 'geometric line' and 'bloused look' both with mid-calf length hemlines were shown. The geometric featuring sharp angular designs on the basic tube shape, skirts were back wrapped into uncomfortable angled folds or draped across the front and stiffened into a triangular shape on one hip. Bodices with the bloused look cut like loose shirts over wide dropped shoulder lines, tightly belted so that they bloused above and below the waistline, were worn with narrow and tapered skirts.

The semi fitted look was in by the 1950's, and it was at this time that women became concerned that with sudden fashion changes, as one single dormant line would outdate entire wardrobes. Evening clothes were constructed and sculpted to fit the upper torso. Tailored clothes were in but it was impossible to wear a blouse under the closely shaped jackets, so bare necklines and fronts were filled in with rows of pearls or a scarf. Jacket lengths were quite short.

The new 'Sheath' dresses showed every curve of the figure, while wide crinoline skirts were used for evening wear.

In 1957 the simpler and shorter 'sack' dress, a new unfitted line with tapered skirt to just below the knee came on the scene. Loose tops and tapered trousers, and calf length pedal pushers were in. New fabrics like terylene, acrilan, orlon, bri-nylon came in the late 50's. The 'oval' and 'trapeze' dresses tried in 1958 were not successful. By 1959, the 'trouser suit' was in.

The 1960's saw the Dolly Girl in her 'mini', considered the only correct day length dress, and the Chanel Suit. Styles of the sixties were informal designs, clothes less categorised were no longer aimed at specific occasions. Liberty prints, tight jeans and the unisex look were in fashion. So too the 'wet look' achieved by a new synthetic fabric, with shiny look and leather texture. Trouser suits, which in a few years would be worn on any occasion, were the alternative to the minis.

Midis made an unsuccessful appearance, and the maxi coat was the longest day length since 1914. Fashion had become less positive again, it was the freewheeling 60's, a time of an entire revolution in fashion.

New fashion got off to a bad start in the 1970's, lacking any positive change. The midi had added 'instant age' so people carried on wearing minis.

Women no longer accepted new designs unless they liked them and felt ready for change. Fashions had to be suggestions and not directives.

Hot pants came in but for only those with the right shape. Flared trousers, wide and full around the hem, fitted tightly over the seat and thighs but widened below the knees into bell bottomed fullness.

Neat jeans became a way of life and were substituted instead of tailored skirts or trousers. Jeans and denim garments were the mass selling clothes of this age. Loose legged trousers with front pleats worn in 20's and 30's were back but fitting more closely over the seat. Longer gathered or flared skirts and dresses were the new line, and ethnic clothes layered with strong peasant influences.

The childlike simplicity of the fashionable woman of the mid 60's was replaced in the mid-70's by baggy pants, corduroy, denim, biege or khaki cotton twills, and white cotton dungarees over colourful T shirts.

In the second half of the decade, trouser shapes altered to narrow legged styles and slimmer, straighter lines.

It was the time of the 'punk-rockers' wearing printed T shirts with slogans, messages, etc. and bondage trousers joined together at the back with loose dangling straps, lengths finished well above the ankle to show bright socks and high laced rubber or leather combat boots. Both sexes wore similar outfits but the girls sometimes wore mini skirts with brightly coloured footless tights and pointed toe, stiletto heeled court shoes or ankle boots.

Active sports were now important, and both sexes were jogging to keep fit, so sport clothes improved and developed. In 1979, broader shoulders and less bulky body lines with shorter skirts, were worn.

The 1980's, which most of us can clearly remember, was all about dressing for power. Women asserted themselves by wearing very structured suits based on men's tailoring with Dynasty/Dallas shoulder pads as seen on television, even for formal wear. Evening dresses had a bit of the "costume" and playfulness was mixed with a great deal of fantasy. The 80's were times of exhilarating excesses.

In the early 80's, body-consciousness became extremely important in fashion. Elastic clothes gave freedom of expression as it did with sexuality. By October 87 and the stockmarket crash, the extravagance was definitely over.

The 1990's were much more relaxed as women did not need to dress to show how powerful they are, and for almost any occasion people dressed casually.

Every fashion designer has returned at one time or another to the 60's and 70's. But no longer is a designer bound to put a specified number of inches below the knee as fashion going into the new century is all about options. Designers are here merely to suggest trend. it is up to the individual to have longer dresses or skirts or very luxurious trousers. Fashion designers are no longer dictating. Once a woman has found her style and colours of the time, that woman has to see what really suits her or adapt what the designers are saying to suit her style.


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