The 1920s is one of my favourite periods of both fashion and literary history. Artistic movements, including fashion, both influenced and mirrored women’s growing emancipation at the time. The dawn of the dropped waist dress, abandoning of corsets, embracing of new technical fabrics such as jersey, rising hemlines, loose cuts and gamine haircuts all represented the freeing of the female form from the constraints of the patriarchy’s pre-war clutches. The rise of the New Woman – more colloquially known as ‘the flapper’ – and her representation in modernist literature was the subject of my Master’s thesis a few years ago, and she is still a figure that fascinates me. While many (male) literary representations of the flapper are problematic, I read her – through the words of the New Women modernists themselves, and their more complex portraits – as liberating. She signalled a newfound, more complex identity through a deliberately crafted image, of which fashion and style were a key part.
The cuts were simple and the decade’s shift dresses were popularised by pattern companies such as Butterick, meaning more women could recreate the look in their own homes, in cheaper manmade fabrics such as rayon. This was the beginning of fashion becoming that bit more democratic, and – heavy beading and Tiffany diamonds aside – meant style became a more accessible means of expression, bridging the class divide. Although Hollywood might paint a different picture, it certainly wasn’t just about eveningwear and decadent dresses: for the first time, one-piece day dresses were acceptable day-to-day wear. They were cut to hang from the shoulder to the hem, with a seam or decoration at the hips and fullness in the skirt (usually made with pleats or panels) allowing for ease of movement – walking, getting in and out of cars and dancing. As Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion is to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.’
Sadly these days it’s incredibly rare (and not to mention expensive) to find the real deal in terms of 1920s vintage, but there are still some later takes on the look in ’70s and ’80s interpretations that offer at least some of the style nostalgia. This St. Michael 1920s style sailor dress is one such example – a nautical retro day dress in cream and navy, complete with dropped waist, gold buttons and the odd sailor stripe or two. It could even pass for elegant ’20s tennis attire, with its colour, fabric and braiding. I couldn’t resist wearing it on our recent day trip to the seaside in St Andrews, and while I may have got the odd funny look and comment thanks to my attire, I like to think I channelled just a wee bit of the New Woman’s sass.
What do you think of ’20s style?
What I’m wearing: vintage St. Michael dress, Clarks sandals, John Lewis Boater, vintage basket and jewellery, satchel c/o Cambridge Satchel.