Women’s Fashions Of The 1920s: Guide To The Flapper Era

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

Women’s fashion trends are always an interesting topic, but one decade stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that would be the 1920s.

women in their 1920s dresses chatting at a party

Although fashion had been slowly changing since the turn of the century, the 1920s marked what many hoped was a truly new decade for all. The horror of WWI had ended, and no one believed that another war would raise its head very soon.

Because of the war, however, more women were working than ever before. This gave them newfound freedom to buy their own clothes, and buy they did!

Soldiers brought home fashions from Europe for their wives, sisters, mothers, and girlfriends, such as robe de style dresses that captivated the American women.

The African American community began creating blues and Jazz, which many young people found fun. This new music style created a slew of new dance crazes, and what young person doesn’t love that?

Today, I want to talk about exactly what American women wore during the 1920s and how was it different from their mother’s clothing styles of the early 1900s.

Understanding the Fashion Changes in the 1920s

women in 1920s vintage dresses gathered together at a party

To understand just how dramatically women’s fashion changed over this 20-year period, one needs to know what was popular before the 1920s.

At the turn of the century, most women were still stuck in the “S” shape that corsets created. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, take a look at a side view of a woman’s body from photos dated 1900. Corsets caused the breasts to jut out and appear bigger than they were and pushed the bottom out, forming an S-shaped body.

Women who were lacking in those areas often used enhancements such as bustles (a small pillow that was tied around the waist and created a fake peach). Corsets were positioned so that they pushed the breasts up and out, similar to a push-up bra but without the comfort!

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Dresses went to the floor and were often worn with several petticoats underneath. Blouses and skirts were the norm, and they were worn quite tight to accentuate the figure without showing skin. Blouses often covered women from the neck to the wrists and were tightly tucked into skirts.

Clothing such as this, as you can imagine, was quite constrictive. How in the world would one dance the Charleston wearing a floor-length skirt and a corset?

Let’s not forget the elaborate hats women wore out of the home, gloves, a parasol, and a handbag. Heavens! I can’t help but wonder if all those clothes weighed nearly as much as the women themselves!

However, all of this began to change in 1910 with the start of WWI. Men of nearly all ages (15-50) went to war, leaving many women to do the jobs done by their men. Whether it was running the farm or working in a factory, women had to do these jobs themselves, and that wasn’t possible wearing a corset.

The corset and hat were probably the first things to go. Women would pin the back of their skirt up between their legs to the front of the skirt, making Aladdin-type baggy pants to make work a bit easier.

Soon, women found themselves working in munitions factories and wearing uniforms, which were often tunics and skirts that ended just above the ankle.

Fashion began changing mostly out of necessity and then from demand. Once women discovered that clothing could be comfortable and practical, they didn’t want to go back!

What Was the Fashionable Female Shape in the 1920s

Starting in the early 1920s, women moved away from the traditional (and uncomfortable) S shape and into a more tubular shape. This means a boyish bust, virtually no hips, and a slightly rounded behind, but a flat butt would work as well.

If you’re old enough to remember Twiggy from the 1960s, you get the idea.

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Hemlines rose and waistlines dropped. While plus-sized models were still in abundance (think Mae West), many modern women turned to this more natural way of showing off their figure in these cylinder-style dresses.

What Did the Average Woman Wear in the 1920s?

The fashion of the 1920s was characterized by its simplicity, comfort, and practicality. Women’s clothing was loose-fitting and often had a dropped waistline, which allowed them to move more freely. This was in contrast to the more restrictive clothing of the previous decades. The 1920s also saw the rise of casual clothing, such as loose-fitting blouses and sweaters, which became popular among young women.

woman wearing her everyday dress in the 1920s

Some of what you would see would depend on the occasion or the occupation of the woman in question.

For the majority of women, everyday dresses (and yes, women wore dresses every day for all occasions) included skirts and sweaters or skirts with a blouse loosely tucked into the skirt.

There were tea dresses you wore when meeting friends for lunch or tea, evening gowns for formal events, and flapper dresses for those wild parties. There were business suits (skirts worn with a blazer) and everyday shirt dresses or skirts and blouses for more practical purposes.

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Pleated skirts or skirts with ruffles were very popular and often paired with sweaters, cardigans, or button-up blouses that were much looser than in the previous decade.

What Were the Fashion Trends of the 1920s?

The fashion trends of the 1920s were characterized by their simplicity, comfort, and practicality. Women’s clothing was loose-fitting and often had a dropped waistline, which allowed them to move more freely. This was in contrast to the restrictive clothing of the previous decades. The 1920s also saw the rise of casual clothing, such as T-shirts and sweaters, which became popular among young women.

Here are some of the most popular fashion trends of the 1920s:

a woman dressed as a flapper, with multi-layered fringes and accessories

  • Flapper dresses: These short, loose-fitting dresses were named after the young women who wore them. They were typically made of jersey or other jersey-like fabrics and had a dropped waistline. Flapper dresses were often decorated with fringe, beads, or other embellishments.
  • Cloche hats: These close-fitting hats were named after the bell-shaped flower they resembled. They were made of felt or straw and were often decorated with feathers or other accessories.

vintage woman wearing cloche hat and heavy overcoat

  • Baggy sweaters: Baggy sweaters were a comfortable and stylish option for cold weather. They were typically made of wool or cashmere and could be either crew-neck or turtleneck.
  • Pleated skirts: Pleated skirts were a popular choice for both day and evening wear. They were typically made of wool or silk and could be either knee-length or longer.

In addition to these specific styles, women in the 1920s also wore a variety of other clothing, including:

  • Dresses: Dresses were a popular choice for all occasions, from work to play. They came in a variety of styles, including day dresses, evening dresses, and sports dresses.

1920s woman wearing day clothes, two-tones pumps and wide brimmed hat

  • Blouses: Blouses were a versatile piece of clothing that could be dressed up or down. They were typically made of cotton or silk and could be either short-sleeved or long-sleeved.
  • Skirts: Skirts were another popular choice for women in the 1920s. They came in a variety of lengths, from ankle-length to knee-length.
  • Pants: Pants were not as common as dresses or skirts in the 1920s, but they were becoming more popular, especially among women who worked outside the home.

a lady wearing a sailor-inspired blouse and pants, and posing with a dog

  • Gloves: Due to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, many people were frightened of contracting it. Whenever a woman left home, she frequently wore gloves, which were only removed for smoking, eating, or using the ladies’ room. Day gloves often stopped at the wrist or half way up the arm while evening gloves covered the elbows and were secured with a small pearl button.

The fashion of the 1920s was a reflection of the changing role of women in society. Women were becoming more independent and active, and their clothing reflected this new freedom.

a woman in retro flapper style costume, complete with faux fur, cigar holder, and fascinator

Other fashion trends included:

  • Beading, Sequins, and Fringe: For every day wear, these decorative items weren’t appropriate unless they were small in size (think of a small beaded rose on a blouse, for example), but for flappers, heavy beading, fringe, and sequins were all the rage.
  • Feathers: Ostrich feathers were particularly fashionable, but almost any type of feather would do. Some shawls, boas, and jackets were completely covered in dyed feathers.
  • Costume Jewelry: Women began to see that they could afford costume jewelry and almost no one would know that it wasn’t real. This allowed women to wear multiple layers of pearls, necklaces, long earrings, bracelets, and chokers.
  • Pearls: Freshwater pearls or regular pearls, fake or real pearls were in high fashion during the 1920s.
  • Headbands: Most women had ditched their waist-length hair for bobbed hairstyles. This shorter hair meant that it often needed a bit of help in keeping it out of your face and eyes. Decorated headbands and barrettes were very popular styles to wear to parties or other events. Day wear meant wearing a cloche hat.

The 1920s was a seismic change in fashion history, moving from corsets and floor-length skirts to sleeveless dresses and just-below-the-knee hemlines.

Did Fashion Styles Change Because of the First World War?

woman in her 1920s flapper dress, holding a wineglass and a fan

World War I, known as the Great War, was one big reason women’s fashions changed so dramatically during this time period.

War and social conflict are often the drivers behind women’s fashion. Consider that before WWI, the average stay-at-home wife and mother would often change clothes 3-5 times per day. There was the nightgown, and when women awoke they changed into a “dressing” gown to have coffee.

They then dressed for the day and whatever that may have entailed, if they had to leave home, they changed clothes yet again and changed back into their everyday clothing when they returned.

They had to change to more formal clothing for dinner, and then they often changed back into a dressing gown unless they were going out for the evening.

When men left to fight the war, this change of clothing became quite impractical.

The material women’s clothing was made from also changed. Most clothing was made from wool, but after France became occupied, wool was too difficult to obtain. Manufacturers began making clothing out of jersey and silk.

Corsets went out the window and bras became the norm, but girdles were still available. Women who didn’t fit the fashion mold of thin and flat used girdles to look more fashionable.

Women who found themselves working in factories or assembly lines often used their husband’s or brother’s clothing and tailored it to work for them. it was not uncommon between 1915-1921 to see women wearing overalls, coveralls, pants, and shirts with rolled-up cuffs and sleeves, combined with a long apron and hair tied up in a scarf.

This war also brought many European fashion designers to the attention of young Americans who liked the casual wear that they were offering.

Did Women Start Wearing Pants in the 1920s?

The answer here is yes and no.

Yes, women started wearing pants in the 1920s. However, it was not until the late 1940s and 1950s that pants became more widely accepted as everyday wear for women.

Vintage Woman wearing pants

In the early 1920s, pants were still considered to be men’s clothing, and women who wore them were often seen as being scandalous or unfeminine. However, as women’s roles in society began to change, so did their fashion choices.

Women who worked outside the home, such as factory workers and aviators, began to wear pants for practical reasons. Pants or trousers, as they were called then, were also seen as a symbol of women’s independence and freedom.

By the 1940s, pants had become more widely accepted as everyday wear for women. This was due in part to the fact that many women were working in factories during World War II, and pants were more practical than skirts or dresses.

Pants also became more popular in the 1940s because of the rise of the “New Look,” which emphasized a more feminine silhouette. Pants were seen as a way to balance the curves of the New Look, and they became a popular choice for women who wanted to look both fashionable and feminine.

In 1972, the United States government passed a law stating that women and girls could no longer be forced to wear dresses as uniforms or as a mandatory dress code for teachers and workers.

Today, pants are a staple item of clothing for women of all ages. They are worn for work, play, and everything in between. Pants are no longer seen as being controversial or unfeminine, and they are a symbol of women’s empowerment and equality.

What Did Bathing Suits Look Like in the 1920s?

Women’s swimwear changed significantly between 1915 and 1929. In 1915, women’s swimwear was very modest, consisting of a long one-piece suit that covered the entire body. The suit was made of heavy fabric, such as wool or cotton.

a group of women posing by the beach, wearing 1920s swimsuits

By 1929, women’s swimwear had become much more revealing. The one-piece suit had become shorter and more form-fitting. It was also made of lighter fabrics, such as silk or rayon.

This change in swimwear reflected the changing social norms of the time. In 1915, women were still expected to be modest in their dress. However, by 1929, women were more interested in showing off their bodies and having more freedom of movement. This change was also reflected in the fashion of the time. In 1915, women’s clothing was still very conservative. However, by 1929, women’s clothing had become much more revealing.

Here are some of the specific changes in women’s swimwear between 1915 and 1929:

  • The overall length of the suit decreased. In 1915, the suit typically reached the ankles. By 1929, the suit was often only knee-length or shorter.
  • The fit of the suit became more form-fitting. In 1915, the suit was loose and baggy. By 1929, the suit was often tight-fitting and accentuated the body.
  • The fabric of the suit became lighter. In 1915, the suit was made of heavy fabrics, such as wool or cotton. By 1929, the suit was often made of lighter fabrics, such as silk or rayon.
  • The neckline of the suit became lower. In 1915, the neckline of the suit was high and covered the chest. By 1929, the neckline of the suit was often low-cut and revealed some cleavage.

This change in swimwear was also influenced by the rise of Hollywood and the popularity of stars, like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks who often wore revealing swimwear in films.

The changes in women’s swimwear between 1915 and 1929 were significant and helped pave the way for the more revealing swimwear that we see today.

Are 1920s Fashions Coming Back?

ladies wearing 1920s flapper outfits, with a black car behind them

This is a big yes, and it gets a big round of applause from me.

While I have yet to see men’s fashions changing (and I really wish they would. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing men’s underwear and ski caps), what goes around comes around, especially when talking about women’s fashions.

Simple slip dresses with lots of embellishments are returning to stores, as are pearls, headbands, and the bob haircut.

I’m not sure you’ll be seeing much of the pleated skirt or pleated tennis dress, but skirt lengths at or just below the knee are returning and I’ve even seen a few dropped waist dresses!

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I do wish hats would make a comeback. I’m a huge fan of hats of all sorts, and while I often wear some type of headband or barrettes, even I must admit that I only wear a hat for special occasions, as much as I love them.

The need for comfort still prevails. I think simple lines, low-waisted dresses, cropped hair, or short hairstyles are always something that appeals to women of all ages.

New fashion has to start somewhere, so why not start a trend? Let’s go back to Jazz Age when clothing was fun! Let’s get our Coco Chanel on and wear hats, boas, shrugs, and slip dresses with dropped waists. I’ve already seen people doing the Charleston (or some version of it) on TikTok, so maybe it’s time to make the 1920s the fashionable look for the 2020s. It’s not too late!

Are Men’s 1920s Fashions Coming Back?

thomas Shelby peaky blinders suit

I think that Peaky Blinders has done more to draw attention to fashion styles from this era than anything else, but even this popular program doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on young men.

Perhaps when the movie comes out and becomes a huge success, we will see fashion change for the better for men.

While it’s hard to imagine men wanting to wear those hot three-piece suits everywhere, why not wear them at least for business or formal events?

A tweed suit combined with those gorgeous oxford boots and the long overcoat is so good-looking- well, as ZZ Top said “Every girl’s crazy about a sharp-dressed man.”

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I’ve seen some weddings and costume parties where the men all wore Peaky Blinders style of suit, but I have yet to see any real change in everyday wear.

Let’s hope this changes sooner rather than later.

Final Thoughts

Due in part to the Great War, the 1920s was a time of great change for women, and this was reflected in their fashion. The flapper look, with its short skirts, bobbed hair, and androgynous style, was a symbol of women’s newfound freedom and independence.

There were many factors that contributed to the changes in women’s fashion in the 1920s. The end of World War I led to a new sense of optimism and freedom. Having cash of their own, women were eager to express their newfound independence through their clothing. The rise of Hollywood also played a role, as stars like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks popularized the flapper look.

In a nutshell, here are some of the specific changes in women’s fashion in the 1920s:

  • Shorter skirts: Skirt lengths rose from the ankles in 1920 to knee-length or higher by the mid-1920s.
  • Bobbed hair: Short hair became popular, symbolizing women’s newfound freedom and independence.
  • Androgynous style: Women’s fashion became more androgynous, with the use of ties, high-waisted trousers, and tailored dresses that resembled suits.
  • Comfort and simplicity: Fashion became more comfortable and simple, reflecting the changing social norms of the time.

The changes in women’s fashion in the 1920s were a reflection of the changing social and cultural landscape of the time. As women gained more rights and freedoms, they began to express themselves through their clothing in new ways.

I hope to see a return to some of the styles, especially for men, that were popular during this era, including shift dresses, art deco jewelry, tubular dresses, scalloped skirts, and T-strap shoes, not to mention hats, hats, and more hats!

Women's Fashions Of The 1920s: Guide To The Flapper Era
Women's Fashions Of The 1920s: Guide To The Flapper Era
There is so much to learn about women’s fashion in the 1920s. Everyone knows the flapper dress but there were so many other important changes during this era.
Gatsby Flapper Girl