The 1920s body ideal
Let’s look at the 1920s body ideal. Some people claim that in the 1920s women were very skinny but this was not necessarily the case. Infact, women were just short. Yes they were skinny, but squaty and flat chested. They had no waist and laid all emphasis on the hips.
The 1920s beauty ideal
The 1920s beauty ideal was perhaps, in reality, also slightly different to what you may imagine it to have been based on contemporary magazine editorials that you see nowadays. The cosmetic industry really took off in the ‘20s and made beauty ideals in this decade and all subsequent decades achievable.
If I would describe the 1920s beauty ideal in only one word it would be: sad. Not because the women were actually sad but because the makeup made it look like they were. Instead of everything being focused more upwards like we do nowadays, everything was sloping downwards on the typical 20s face.
Women would make their skin more pale and draw these very short, thin, and down pointed eyebrows. On the eyes they would use very dark colors which would again be going downwards to give you the effect like you were tired and you had been out all night partying. Rouge would also be sloping down the face and then as a finishing touch they had these tiny little lips. Sophisticated women would only put lipstick on the front part of their lips which was called “the Bee Stung Lip”. To complete this look women took the plunge and cut off their hair into a stylish bob.
Before I’m going to tell you about the fashion of the 1920s we need to talk about a style called Art Deco first. It was mostly about geometry and it was the absolute opposite to Art Nouveau which was all about organic shapes. Art Deco despised all that and was all about straight lines. It was about industry and modernity; it took inspiration from everything like architecture, furniture, graphic and commercial art. A few buildings inspired by this style were e.g. the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center.
Fashion of the 1920s
Twenties fashion echoed the Art Deco aesthetic, which in its turn threw away all old ideas in the wake of WWI and embraced modernity with clean lines and geometric common sense. Female fashion also spoke directly to ‘The New Woman’, a woman who could vote, work and enjoy the 20th Century.
This aesthetic was not about looking feminine at all. First of all, the clothing had a very streamlined silhouette. It was very flat chested and it had no waistline and no curves. Curves were old fashioned and this was a modern woman. Women for the first time in history were feeling involved with the modern world.
So what were women wearing exactly. Well, the women would wear these shift dresses with fully bare arms. And note that we haven’t seen this anymore since ancient Greece. This kind of dress with a very low waistline on the hips was called a drop waist. Hemline to knees or mid-knees, depending on how daring one was and because of that, visible legs for the first time ever. Underneath their dress they would wear a bandeau, which is basically a kind of bra that sort of flattens your breasts out but still kept them supported. One would also wear stays, a sort of corset, that kept you looking geometric. They kept their torso firm and smooth. And to complete this outfit they would wear a little hat and some other accessories like pearls.
This also brings us to Flappers.
Note that there were actually a very few real Flappers in the ‘20s; the phenomenon of the ‘20s Flapper was amplified and exaggerated during The Deco Revival of the 1970s. Most women in the 1920s certainly were not Flappers. Yet the handful of genuine Flappers were quite something else. They were outrageous, shocking, daring, loud, obnoxious and they showed more than a little leg. But why were they called Flappers?
Well the general belief is that they earned this moniker based on the unbuckled galoshes they wore so that the tongue would ‘flap’ as they walked). But this was not t actually the reason why they were called Flappers. The term Flapper dates back as early as the 1890s, likening ‘modern’ young women to baby birds, flapping their wing as they learn to fly. So basically it was a term used for modern women, who would do new daring things in society like smoking in public, fool around with men or drinking.
The color palette of the 1920s was mostly colors like crimson, scarlet, a lot of gold, blues and yellows. It was bold, it was dramatic and most of all confident. It was picked up right from what Paul Poiret had started in the previous decade. And for the very first time, metallic colors were introduced.
And what about men? Men were having fun with fashion too. There was a craze to wear “plus fours” aka. golfing pants. On top of that they would wear V-neck sweaters. And for the men at Oxford there was another craze called the “Oxford Bags”, these were outrageously massive trousers. Another beloved item for men were raccoon coats, especially among students.
Designer of the Decade
The designer of the decade this time is somebody most certainly know. Her name was Gabrielle Coco Chanel. If anyone understood that fashion was not an island, but a response it was Coco Chanel. She believed clothing should be both comfortable and practical. That women should be able to work, travel and have adventures in them. She revolutionized the understanding of clothing; that you could be fashionable and minimal at the same time.
Coco Chanel was also the one who invented the little black dress. One day she was looking at her maid and thought to herself: “That would be a great dress for me to go to a cocktail party in”. We’d have to lose lacy cuffs, the collar, the apron and the little maids cap. Sawed up that hair for a chic cloche, add a string of pearls, maybe a boa, ‘20s makeup and a glass of champagne. And just like that she transformed a maids costume into a stylish outfit that would set the tone for future era’s.
It was without doubt that Coco Chanel was one of the most brilliant designers who ever lived. But although she was a brilliant designer, she was definitely a far less incredible human being. At the time of WWII Coco Chanel was practically sleeping with the enemy and she worked as a, shortly speaking, a Nazi agent.
“Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road.” – Coco Chanel
Our style icon of this decade is Louise Brooks. She was a silent movie star and a Flapper who would always play the role of the naughty girl. Extraordinarily pretty , luminescent and charismatic and had a that look that everybody wanted. She was extremely fashionable as well, but always at the cutting edge of fashion.
“A well-dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world.” – Louise Brooks
Another style icon was Rudolph Valentino; he was also a silent movie star and the world’s first male sex icon. A true sex symbol. He was known as the Latin Lover and women loved him for his brooding looks as he always played very exotic roles, e.g. Arabian sheiks.
“I am beginning to look more and more like my miserable imitators.” – Rudolph Valentino
The last icon is Josephine Baker. A dancer, singer and entertainer, who came up with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She was exotic, funny, charismatic. Often times she danced bare breasted wearing some incredible costumes with lots of feathers for example. She realized that for her career to go to greater heights she couldn’t stay in America. In the 1920s America was still horribly segregated and terribly racist, and her being a woman of color, she moved to France where she became the absolute smash hit of Paris. She was one of the first celebrities to franchise and market her name and with that she earned loads of money. At one point she had earned so much, she was able to buy Chanel (the brand).
When WWII broke out and Germany occupied France, Josephine (who was still American and not even French), became a spy for the French Resistance rather than become a traitor, like Coco Chanel had done. She was incredibly brave, which is why the French awarded her the Legion of Honor, which is the highest honor that the French can bestowed to a civilian. If that wasn’t incredible enough she later became part of the American Civil Rights Movement. And she would also use her wealth to adopt around 12 children from different orphanages.
“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.” – Josephine Baker
Thank you for reading!
If you are interrested in more Fashion History, make sure to click here and discover the 1930’s!