In the throes of the revolutionary war, the United States of America turned to France for some economic encouragement. With a strong distaste for everything English, and eager to see England embarrassed, France gleefully sent money and troops to assist. In Versailles, where the royalty spent their days in indulgent fashions, a new style cropped up; a large ship was fixed upon the hair pieces ladies wore. In addition to large feathers and opulent trimmings, this latest trend was not just a ridiculous style, but a way to show pride for France, showing pride for the ships sent to aid in the American Revolution. Later, as the kingdom collapsed in on itself, the expensive fashions of the Queen were quoted as a major economic drain, one of the catalysts of the French Revolution. Why does this matter? Because history effects fashion, and as the French proved with Marie Antoinette, fashion effects history. Let’s take a look at the history of fashion, and of the world, in the 20th century, and how you can take those styles into your wardrobe today.
This will be a look into 20th century and history, focusing mainly on the fashion and styles of the western world, i.e. styles of Europe and America. Although many state that fashion is no longer original, those people are forgetting the fact that fashion has always looked to the past to move forward. We don’t recreate the styles of the fifties, we’re inspired by them and utilize certain elements to fit in with our more modern lifestyle, just as they did then. Our obsession with a particular decade changes based on what’s going on in the world around us, as it always has.
The 20th century started fresh, as the first Nobel prizes were awarded and Queen Victoria died in 1901. Queen Victoria was the fashion influencer of the 19th century, and her period is commonly referred to as the Victorian Era. The residuals of her style lasted until about 1905, meaning fashions during the early 1900s featured stiff collars, big sleeves, and corsets. Wool and cotton were used widely, with silk reserved for functions and the upper class. Lace was also rather big during this period, especially as trimming or appliques. Women wore wide-brimmed hats and idealized The Gibson Girl, a popular drawing of the time that emulated an hourglass figure.
The Gibson Girl style is often seen as the first major beauty standard for American women and is what most people think of when they remember the women of the 1900s. Long coats and embellished hats were worn in the winter, while lacy parasols were sported in the summer. This is a period of small steps forward that dictated the century, as the Wright brothers made their first successful attempt at flight, Einstein discovered the Formula of Relativity, and in 1907, Europe granted universal suffrage to women. With these small steps in technology, science, and culture, came small steps in style, as the corset started to fade from fashion and garments stepped away from the dowdy looks of the Victorian era, opting for more sleek styles. In 1908, the Model T car was invented by Ford, and the 20th century started to take off.
This decade saw major changes in fashion, and around the world. In 1911, a major factory fire killed 146 in NYC, called the Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which led to major workplace reform. Although the shirtwaist was on its way out of style, these sweatshops were everywhere in Manhattan, and this particular fire struck the American fashion industry at its core. Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, and Arizona was admitted into the United States. Early on, opulent styles took center stage. The feminine figure was fleshed out, and as the ballet based on One Thousand and One Nights became more popular, Eastern influences made their way into American fashions. The flowing pantaloons of harem girls and Geisha style kimonos could be seen paired with full tunics and narrow skirts, styled famously by major designer Paul Poiret, well-known for freeing women of the corset. Influenced by the stylings of Turkey and Japan, he also brought the classic lampshade tunic, made of chiffon with feather trimmings, and sultana skirts to the height of fashion in the United States and Europe. Along with these Eastern influences, hats were big statement pieces, as well as fur stoles and gloves. Satin, taffeta, chiffon, and other lightweight silks were very popular during this period.
This time of opulent styles and lavish spending ended bluntly, as WWI began in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, Europe’s fashion industry was ravished, which had a major impact on American markets. Fashion became more somber and functional, and hemlines were raised to the calf. Darker colors and tailored skirt suits became the most popular styles, not just for their functionality, but because the rising death toll required people to be prepared to mourn for their neighbors, family, and fellow citizens at any time. In 1916, the first use of tanks signaled a new era in wartime, and Europe was hit with further disaster as the Easter Rising in Ireland was staged, and the Russian Civil War began in 1917.
Coco Chanel made her initial mark in this era, bringing costume jewelry to center stage as women searched for a cheaper way to accessorize. The war ended in 1918, ending the somber tone in fashion and culture. The early signs of the art deco movement began as waistlines became lower and less defined. Tango shoes were popular, as many turned to dance as their social activity of choice. Corset companies, clinging desperately to the market Poiret had eloquently stolen, attempted to change with the times and created dancing corsets for the woman on the go. Silhouettes and styles often associated with the twenties first made their appearances here, as the world celebrated the end of the war. The League of Nations was founded in Paris, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, bringing a brief bit of order to Eastern Europe, although it is now seen as a major contributing factor to WWII.
Two major things happened in 1920 that set the stage for fashion in this decade; American women got the right to vote, and prohibition was implemented. Here, we see the boyish silhouette become popular, as garments became looser and waistlines dipped even lower. The corset was completely dropped by now, and post-war optimism led to a loosening of social customs. Women showed off more skin, and as people started to ignore the restraining laws of prohibition in the later part of the decade, fashion started to ignore the rigid structures of how people should dress. Major breakthroughs were big in 1927, as the first talkie, The Jazz Singer was published, the world population reached 2 billion, and Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris. Opulent styles became the norm, and the lavish spending helped bring the cloche hat and aesthetically clean jewelry into fashion. Many dresses featured a pleated skirt well below the waist, and the Flapper aesthetic reigned supreme. Because these skirts were shorter than before, shoes became a major fashion accessory, and it was customary to own several pairs adorned with lavish trimmings. Surrealism was the height of fashion, possibly a reason why women without waists were so in style.
Velvets in rich colors, with luxurious furs, are the fabrics of the time when it came to going out; but many styles utilized cotton, wool, georgette, and linen. Fashion made its own personal technological discoveries, as the hook-and-eye was invented, along with rayon and artificial silk. Madeleine Vionnet was a big designer of the time, as she was particularly good at the bias cut dress. The twenties were a time of movement, and the garments needed to reflect that. Bias cut dresses allowed the fabric to cling to the body while moving and stretching with it. Adorned with rich rhinestones and jewel appliques, feathers, and fur, bias cut dresses were the ideal garment for heading to your local speakeasy or underground jazz club. It’s important to note these lavish styles, this aim to look opulent and over the top, as the period ended abruptly with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the start of the Great Depression.
1930 was marred by the Great Depression, as it made its way around the world. It was felt in Germany, as they struggled to pay war reparations, in America as citizens fought to get by, and in Paris, where couturiers and fashion houses laid off staff en masse. The Empire State Building was constructed, and in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Synthetic, man-made fabrics were being produced and the waistline returned to its usual place, at the waist. A major move towards conservatism in the early years of the thirties was a turn from the opulent styles of the twenties, and hemlines lowered. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, as the rumblings of war made their way across Europe. Although the new synthetic fabrics and slashing of designer prices made fashion available to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, women in the upper class worried much less about what they would be eating and whether they could afford clothes. This meant that they were able to emulate the screen sirens and their lavish fashions, while women in the workforce opted for more functional and feminine fashions. Berets, the slouch hat, and oxford shoes were popular accessories during this period.
The designer of the time was Elsa Schiaparelli, who was quite adept at using silk and synthetics and utilized zippers. Schiaparelli took the feminine silhouette and made it more defined. Garments of the time, especially for the lower and middle classes, were also made of wool, crepe, linen, and cotton. During this time, a major upset in the cultural world came in the form of a divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson. Wallis captured the heart of Edward VIII, who became King of England briefly in 1936, and then quickly abdicated the throne to marry Wallis. This allowed George VI, father of Elizabeth II, to become king. Wallis, at the heart of gossip on both sides of the pond, affected fashion in her own right. This didn’t last long, though, and by the end of the 1930s, the most popular royal was Princess Elizabeth II, who brought gloves and all white outfits to the forefront of fashion, leading the world into the forties. As all this went on, war loomed. Kristallnacht happened in Germany, and soon after, the Nazi invasion of Poland triggered the start of WWII in 1939. The Great Depression ended, but fashion would not recover for several more years.
Although the depression had ended, the world was at war again. This meant that fashions in the early to mid-forties were a continuation of the thirties. The hourglass figure was back in full swing, with high waists and knee-length skirts the main focus of many. Headscarves became a major fashion accessory, as they were (and still are, I might add) a simple way to accessorize. For a time, Paris was no longer the fashion influence it once was. Invaded by Germany, Paris took a back seat to American Cinema. Gone with the Wind had come out in 1939, bringing with it some neo-Victorian styles of the early 1900s. But textiles were still being rationed, so hem lengths stayed high, paired with A-line skirts and broad shoulders. Puff sleeves, organdy dresses, and velvet hats were on the rise. This was also when the bikini become popular, as it used much less fabric than traditional swimwear.
WWII ended in 1945, bringing an end to rationing. Synthetics stayed popular with the help of Elsa Schiaparelli, who continued to utilize manmade fabrics, zippers, and defined silhouettes, although she could not adapt to the changing scenery of fashion in the post-war era and closed her doors soon after. Mixing different hues of the same color was a very popular trend (and one that’s currently making its rounds on the runway), and the end of the war brings back haute couture, as most fashion houses reopened in Paris by 1947. In addition to movies and magazines, television became a major influencer of style. Princess Elizabeth II maintained her reign over fashion, even if she was not yet queen, and Christian Dior forever changed the silhouette with his “New Look” collection. This style featured full midi skirts, fitted waists, and rounded shoulders, the essential fifties housewife style we’ve all come to know and love. Linen, wool, cotton, rayon, acetate, and nylon were all highly utilized fabrics for these styles, and pastels made their way into the closet.
The first half of the 20th century was tumultuous. Wars were fought, the first talking movies were made, and technology forced fashion forward. From Poiret to Dior, and every designer in between, fashion changed the times and with the times. Eager to know what the second half of the century had in store? Check back next Tuesday for Fashion Through the Decades 1950-1999!