Few 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 special 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.

But 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.

All 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.

These 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.

Men's 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.

In 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.

Women 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

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 French designers.

Beginning 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.

As 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.