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1920's Fashion and the Relationship Between Women's Liberation and their Changing Role in Society.

Following votes for women in 1918, the 1920s were a pivotal decade in the emancipation of women, reflected in fashion, personified by the Flappers and Bright Young Things – such as the progressive Barbara (Baba) Beaton who was photographed by her brother, the famous photographer Cecil Beaton - with their androgynous shape which has reverberated down fashion history. Aspirational silhouettes moved away from the ‘hourglass’ form to a boyish figure as the progressive Flappers pioneered a new look with shorter hemlines, lowered waistlines and comfort replacing structure. I will evaluate the effect of the changes in women’s fashion down the decades and how this was reflected in their changing role in society.

Before the Roaring 20s, women’s fashions had not significantly changed in centuries. Restricting corsets, long skirts and bustles drastically changed to below and above the knee dress lengths, simple cuts, slender silhouettes and cropped haircuts, fast-tracking changes in fashion and reflecting a change in social behaviour and the development of women’s liberation. Rejection of formality and the development of a comfortable wardrobe by these sub- culture groups allowed a gradual change in women’s behaviour, dress and place in mainstream society. The Flappers brought fashion to the heart of social rebellion, with their iconic styles as a symbol of the broader changes that were happening. Post-WWI came a change in social freedom; the Flappers drank alcohol, danced to jazz, smoked cigarettes and socialised freely, with more relaxed sexual morals than their predecessors. Many women lived how they wanted to and due to the lift on war regulations, Flapper women explored the new era of prosperity, urbanism and consumerism. Necessity became minor to desire and women started to establish control in their fashion sense and projecting their new outward persona became important. Women reinvented themselves and used their new voice in the changing, previously male- dominated society. As clothes had previously been used as a symbol of rank, profession or trade, fashion styles reflected women’s new behaviour. As the class system started to dissipate, women used clothes more to define themselves.

Barbara Beaton photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1925

Original 1920s fashion illustrations by Heritage Auctions

Dancing was a crucial element of social fun for the Flapper, reflected in fashion design. Coco Chanel, was at the forefront of changing women’s wear design, creating garments with free-flowing silhouettes, less internal structure, dropped waistlines and a higher hemline (Jessa Krick - The Costume Institute, 2004). Chanel developed the ‘garçonne look’ allowing women to live and dress freely, bringing easy-wearing clothing – including popularising trousers - into the limelight. One of the first designers to use a men’s underwear fabric, jersey, for female outerwear, (Australia, 2010) Chanel adapted the use of a male worn fabric to break the mould for combining men’s and women’s fashion. Chanel also adapted sportswear to daily life and capitalised on the ‘feminising of masculine fashion’ (Wilson, 2003).

Original Art Deco Flapper illustration: “The Garçonne”

Vogue covers such as the 15th December 1927 issue (Archive, 2018) showed a woman wearing sportswear and taking part in physical exercise - which were deemed as ‘masculine’ activities. Also articles in the 1928 issue of Tatler written by M.E. Brookes said ‘Sports clothes have been developed to such an extent that they may go to lunch at the fashionable restaurants; as a matter of fact they are often worn until the hour of cocktail’ (Tatler, 1928), showed a sense of acceptance and love behind the style, illustrating a clear insight into the times and how these styles were worn at every occasion, establishing their worth and promise for the future.

We see this adaptation of gender fluidity down the decades, from the introduction of trousers for women in the 1920/30s to wearing boiler suits, pants and braces when working during WWII in the 1940s. Elizabeth Wilson writes ‘...since women entered the labour force in even larger numbers, at least fashions have been designed to muffle eroticism and rather embody efficiency.’ (Wilson, 2003) This collaborative relationship between women’s liberation and the designers of the time aided women in their fight for their status and position, assisting them to prosper.

The 1950s saw the romanticism of women’s fashion, with Dior’s New Look launched in 1947 – after men returned from war and assumed their previous positions in the economy – making sensibility and reform fashionable again. Many women didn’t want to lose their sense of momentum in their movement towards freedom and liberation, realising they could be a reliable and functioning part of society. Elizabeth Wilson writes ‘Although the new look was supposed to be feminine, there was a weird masculinity about it’ (Wilson, 2003) demonstrating Chanel’s previous fashion development triumphing over Dior’s, in the development of the modern women’s style.

Chanel’s incorporation of casual styles and menswear-inspired garments, might have helped kickstart the thought process which allowed women to demand a respected position in society and demand more than motherhood and marriage, driving the revolutionary movement forward. Men started to recognise women’s increasingly liberated role in society and not just a stay-at-home wife. Through the decades the fight for women’s rights, supported by the fashion industry and reflected in styles, wasn’t an easy ride. Many regarded the styles and trends that the Flappers introduced as near naked, reckless and unintelligent, with American newspaper headlines reading ‘Mother Not to Blame for Flapper’s Flapping – Whilst Flappers Flap, Mothers Mourn’ (Times, 1926) a view mainly shared amongst the previously conservative generations. It was an age where ‘at one period breasts are bared’ and now ‘at another a V-neck is daring’. (Wilson, 2003) Elizabeth Wilson writes that the perception of women’s fashion had always been washed over by the male rule. Now that women dressed for themselves and were taking control of their lives in terms of economic status, work, sexuality and position out of the home, they were critiqued once again, even though fashions before then – such as corsets for a tiny waist and breasts pushed up – were deemed respectable, only because they were made for a man’s approval.

As more women abandoned fashion previously dictated by what men wanted to see, and what women abided by to please men, there was a shift in styles and trends which were chosen and worn by women, for women. This courage and flamboyancy was born in the 1920s and has assisted future women in their clothing and approach to the modernising world. Women felt more empowered dressing for themselves and in a way that embodied a masculine silhouette. Influential female stars such as Katherine Hepburn in the 1940s/50s, wore men’s trousers and shirts, driving tailored clothing forward, adapting men’s fashion for inspiration for women’s clothing whilst maintaining femininity.

Fashion designer Mary Quant, 1967. ©

The 60s also saw another style revolution with Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo, designed for women, adjusting the trousers to elongate the leg and making the collar more feminine. These suits, like the Flappers, again promoted androgynous styles for women and brought the pantsuit into modern-day society.

During the 1970s we saw we saw the hemlines drop but for fashion purposes with maxi and midi lengths becoming popular from renowned retailers such as Biba. Alongside flares, platform shoes and the birth of unisex fashion, towards the end of the 1970s women again adopted men’s styles, such as seen in Woody Allen’s film ‘Annie Hall’, with Diane Keaton showcasing men’s fashions as ‘must-wear’ for women. (Annie Hall, 1977)

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977

The 1980s brought power dressing, with shoulder pads and suits being the staple of women’s wardrobes, creating the inverted ‘V’ form, typically a stylised male shape. The suit was widely worn by women and the androgyny of clothes grew in popularity through the years – such as baggy pants, inspired by the hip- hop culture at the time. Today we see the popularity of sportswear from the 1920s, reflected in loungewear and the casual approach to women’s fashion such as the popularity of jeans and pants rather than formal wear. With a nod to the influential #METOO movement in 2019, Lady Gaga wore a Marc Jacobs ‘power’ suit to ELLE’s 2018 Women In Hollywood evening, reminding us of the power dressing days in the 1980s and echoing the styles from previous decades and their influential stars, that developed the liberation of women and their fashion to what it is today.

Lady Gaga at ELLE's Women of Hollywood evening

Women’s rights are evolving – there’s still a difference in pay and equality between the sexes, but the modern woman faces fewer problems than the ones before her. Now a century on, in 2020, we can thank our sisters from the 1920s who pioneered women’s changing role in society through fashion, acting with bravery to break the norm, which has reverberated down the decades to today’s modern woman.

Bibliography Annie Hall. 1977. [Film] Directed by Woody Allen. United States of America, New York: Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe Production / Distributed by United Artists. Archive, V., 2018. Vogue Archive : Issue December 1927. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26th March 2020]. Australia, V., 2010. Coco Chanel Was The Original Jersey Girl. [Online] Available at: jersey-girl/news-story/805ae884ab158711852cf19ee817ceed [Accessed 26th March 2020]. fheoshfff, ewfwe. ffew. ef: efqw. Gallery, N. P., 2004. Beaton Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications. Jessa Krick - The Costume Institute, T. M. M. o. A., 2004. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel(1883-1971) and The House of Chanel. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 31st March 2020]. Prof.Herman Horne, N. U., 1926. Mothers Not to Blame For Flappers Flapping - Newspaper Headline. New York: s.n. Quant, M., 1960. "The fashionable woman wears clothes. The clothes don't wear her.". s.l.:s.n. Tatler, 1928. "The Highway of Fashion", M.E. Brooke. s.l.:Tatler, Feburary 1928. Times, N. Y., 1926. 'Mother Not to Blame For Flapper's Flapping'. New York: Prof Herman Horne, N.Y. University. Wilson, E., 2003. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. In: Wilson, ed. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, p. 40. Wilson, E., 2003. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. In: Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, p. 46. Wilson, E., 2003. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. In: Wilson, ed. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B.Tauris, p. 94. Wilson, E., 2003. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity, New Edition. In: Wilson, ed. Adorned in Dreams, Fashion and Modernity, New Edition. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, p. 6.

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