The 1920s brought a new freedom to women. During World War I, they had proven their mettle by tackling jobs commonly reserved for men. Now, women the world over were finally being granted the vote and even hold public office. The fashions of the day reflected this more-liberated lifestyle, as day and evening wear became less constricting and more appropriate for the active woman. Yet after the austerity of the war years, women craved beauty. The design houses of Paris filled this need by creating evening dresses that were dramatically influenced by the new Art Deco movement.
Inspired by the new industrial age, Style Moderne — later to be known as Art Deco — emphasized streamlined, geometric shapes, as evidenced in architecture and art movements such as Cubism and Futurism. Couturiers such as Coco Chanel emphasized bold colors and shimmering fabrics, in straight, shift -style dresses that seemed almost shapeless compared to earlier fashions. Stage performers such as Josephine Baker appeared in scintillating, sleek creations that were eagerly copied, while Hollywood superstars such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow epitomized what became known as the “Flapper” look.
Hemlines Varied From Low to High
Hemlines fluctuated drastically during the 1920s, as designers experimented with the new question of how much leg to show. At the beginning of the 1920s, waistlines were dropped to the hip, while hems were raised to calf length or an inch or two above, cut straight or pieced in a handkerchief style. By 1925, the true Flapper look reached its zenith when the hemline was raised to show the knee. While legs were shown, other areas of the body were minimized, and the flat, boyish look, with no hips or bust, became the defining mode of the era. Shoulder straps were often minimal, leaving arms bare to the shoulder, while necklines plunged.
While designs were simpler, evening dress fabrics were created to be showstoppers at a dance hall or party. Gone were the handmade laces and heavy embroidered brocades of the pre-war era. Evening dresses were now made of lightweight silk, georgette and crêpe de Chine with chiffon panels, while even showier models were made of silk lavished with fringe, sequins and diamanté.
More than ever before, the fashions from the great design houses of France were being copied, and artists in Paris were even hired to sneak into fashion shows and sketch designs to be produced by less-expensive vendors. These copies were mass produced, and department stores and catalog companies like Sears Roebuck offered what they called “New York Styles" at a fraction of the cost of a designer gown. Ladies who had honed their sewing skills during the war to make clothing last longer now turned to the needle once again. For war widows, dressmaking offered a way out of poverty, while savvy do-it-yourself debutantes were given the opportunity to dress à la mode, thanks to patterns by Butterick and McCall's. As dress styles became shorter and simpler, these patterns followed the reigning concept of the great fashion houses — the less there was of a dress, the better it needed to be designed.