Fashion Flashback: The Roaring, Rebellious 1920s

To the surprise of zero people who have read the Frost & Filigree trilogy — or, let’s be honest, pretty much anything I’ve published — fashion is a big deal when it comes to my imagination. Vivienne du Lac, the darling sylph of said series, lives among humankind as a very desirable designer, and her understanding of the world is enhanced by fabrics and textures and colors.

The “octopus gown” designed by Clare West and worn by Bebe Daniels in The Affairs of Anatol – Public Domain

I argue that fashion is one of the bedrocks of world-building, that how a culture creates fabric and items of clothing and how that plays out in privilege and performance is central to making said culture believable. In this post-polyester world we now live in, it’s easy to forget that everything from the weft and warp of a fabric to the color and the cut was once considered a symbol of who you were, how important you were, and what you were worth.

As we are now officially in the 2020s, and I’ve just finished a series that goes from the 1911s to the 1930s, I’ve been thinking a lot about 1920 fashion. In Masks & Malevolence, Christabel extolls the joy of trousers, but that’s just one of the many things about 1920s fashion that is truly revolutionary.

When I was in the third grade, in the “Gifted” class, I had to create my own project. I ended up doing a poster presentation of the fashion of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. To my defense, I hadn’t yet discovered the late Victorian period of my heart, but it was a good start. Still, of all those decades it was the 1920s that really moved me.

By This file was donated by Nordiska museet as part of the Europeana Fashion collaboration., Public Domain,
Public Domain

Why? It’s true, it’s hard to see just how much changed and how fast. Fashion has slowed, in many ways, in the last half of the 20th and into the 21st century. But the 1920s broke all the rules. All of them. And then broke some of the rules no one realized they still had. It was a period of liberation from corsets in some cases, from stifling fabrics, from a color narrative that was engrained in women from a young age. Gone was the hair, gone were the hemlines, gone were the SLEEVES. Although the late Edwardian period had hints of these — and certainly a rebirth of comfort fabrics and a bit more roominess — women’s fashion in the 1920s exploded with a sense of rebellion, color, and technological advances.

Not only were fabrics we now know as standard — like Rayon and cotton (which was not typically used as frequently) — brought to the forefront, but women of all stipes could afford dresses. But it was still big fashion houses, and especially Chanel, that was setting these new trends. No longer were dresses obsessed with presenting an exaggerated female form; androgyny was in (sometimes)! And in a big way. And for every “rule” there was a new exception. Like this “alien” cloche, for instance.

Beadwork isn’t new, but the 1920s, coupled with the art movements of the day, embraced abstract design and unusual materials: metals and glass, adding a sense of sound to clothing! And the reflective nature of new materials meant that, in addition to the way things looked during the day, at night it was a whole other story.

Perhaps it’s the underlying chaos of the fashion of the 1920s that gets me. Pattern, no material, no design out of bounds. Yes, I love the symmetrical starkness of the Victorian Era, and the fairy-like simplicity of the Edwardian Period, but I think I want a little more gender-flipping, norm-subverting, loud and proud 1920s fashion in my life moving forward.

Below are some images, mostly from the Met’s Digital Collection, that I found particularly inspiring.

There is simply a sense of freedom, a lack of restraint, that came to the forefront 100 years ago. And so many mainstays — asymmetry, sequins, hemlines, etc — are with us still, there is a certain freshness that I just can’t shake.

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  1. Fashion and art over the last couple of decades have been boring, bring back style, fabric and color.

  2. Wonderful article. I am also a fan of the 20s since childhood. I discovered Erte at 12 years old and never looked back.

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