periods demonstrate with such clarity the way fashions
reflect their own times as do the 1920s. It was a period
focused on social realignments and youth, and feminine
liberation. War and technological
developments produced rapid changes that led to a
quest for excitement, to restlessness and even to violence
and destruction. Improved production methods enabled a
rapidly growing middle class--even those at its lower
level--to participate in the world of fashion that previously
had been the realm of a privileged few. Another important
factor in the democratization of fashions came as a result
of the interest among the members of the leisure group
in more casual daytime wear. Growing urbanization, increased
affluence, shorter working hours and paid vacations allowed
for more leisure time and extra energy. As a result, interest
in sports escalated, necessitating a whole range of
clothes designed for active and spectator sports.
Gradually this freer concept of dressing crept into daywear.
To fit into the pattern of this new version of the good
life, fashions became more informal and less complicated.
Clothing manufacturers could now easily produce cheap
versions that were within the price range of their fashion-hungry
customers who had to work
for a living. All fashions reflected the new spirit
as youthful, more care-free
ideals gradually replaced the earlier, more staid, models.
it was in fashions for women that the changes were most
obvious. Feminine liberation found freedom in discarding
the corset. For the first time in centuries women's
legs were exposed and freed for mobility and action. To
gain equality with men and to resemble them, women flattened
their breasts and hips and cut their hair. The 1920s bob
and boyish ideal were the period's own version of unisex.
this was totally sympathetic with an era of pulsating dynamism bent
on breaking down remaining restrictions based on the social, economic,
political and moral concepts of the past century.
were the forces that helped to create the fashions of the twenties.
Yet, for all the flamboyance and excesses we have come to associate
with the Jazz Age, as one looks through the pages of mail-order
catalogs one finds that--although the changes are there--the progression
is smooth and orderly. Long hair gave way to bobbed
hair. Skirts gradually rose to the knees. Underwear
diminished to accommodate the new mood and look. More and more
space was devoted to cosmetics, and here and there pants
for women were featured. Nowhere are there examples of the
revealing, extravagantly low-cut gowns tantalizingly covered with
fringes or sparkling beading. The few party dresses shown are
very modest and demure, pictures of naive innocence. The "flapper"
dresses are merely a timid, decorous reflection of the sophisticated
sexuality of the so-called "Roaring Twenties," only
a muted echo of the ragtime rhythms of the Jazz Age.
coats and suits on the whole remained fairly conservative,
only occasionally showing the collegiate "rah-rah" or
the "razzmatazz" flashiness we have come to associate
with the decade. The new concept found expression mainly in casual
and sports clothes, accessories and in a wider range of designs
available in work clothes. Apparently revolution was the choice
and privilege of a minority. The majority chose the safer path
and course of evolution.
to the staffs responsible for the fashions to be featured in the
catalogs. References to movie stars were primarily to such details
as hats and shoes. The bulk of the fashion merchandise, coats, suits
and dresses claim to have their origins in New
York or Paris. This is probably quite true because a well-trained
eye can readily spot elements of the inventive creations of various
the 1920s motion pictures exerted an ever-increasing impact
on the American scene. Movie stars brought the viewers adventure,
success, beauty and romance. Films gave a semblance of reality
to fantasies and aroused the public to new hopes, tastes
and appetites. Sensing this, Sears, Roebuck and Co. began
to include fashions
endorsed by such stars as Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson
and Joan Crawford. For men there were Western-style
hats and boots; little boys could play in cowboy
and Indian costumes. Although the movies during this
decade kept their audiences informed of the latest fashions,
the female stars' most significant influence was on the
face and figure, coiffure, posture and grooming. As a result
beauty parlors and reducing regimens abounded, and the field
of cosmetics became a major industry.
may have looked to Hollywood for goddesses to emulate, but
the direction of fashion was set in Paris. As glamorous
as the clothes appeared in the movies, they were in the
main versions of what the French couture had proposed. This
seems to have been no mystery
in 1925, the standards and range of women's fashions offered in
mail-order catalogs started to decline and the available selection
diminished. The most expensive coats and dresses offered were
nearly half the price of those offered in 1919. The same was true
of men's dress clothes. One of the reasons for this, although
by no means the only one, was the lure of the automobile. Since
many of their rural customers could now drive into town to shop,
mail-order houses found themselves in competition with city stores.
The larger organizations tried to meet this challenge by opening
up their own retail stores. The catalogs of the latter part of
the 1920s reveal, however, that in the area of wearing apparel,
this move met with limited success. Articles such as denim coveralls,
long woolen underwear, corsets for older women who from habit
found them indispensable, remained fairly constant throughout
the decade. But for the fashion-minded, there was less variety,
generally duller-looking offerings with a strong accent on economy.
Profitable sales in mail orders now lay primarily in their appeal
to the isolated, the thrifty or the poor. Those with money, the
more discriminating customers, preferred buying in department
stores or in specialty shops which had mushroomed all over the
country. Not only did they find a richer selection there, but
they could also try on and examine the clothes and, having paid
for them or charged them, walk out of the store with their purchases.
For a great many Americans this was an attractive new experience.
the price level dropped, mail-order fashions began to fall behind
those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years.
Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless
touched even the cheapest wearing apparel.
Blum, Stella. Everyday Fashions of the Twenties As Pictured
in Sears and Other Catalogs.