Fashions of the (Not So) Roaring Twenties

Flapper. Roaring Twenties. Speakeasy. Bootlegging.



Say these words and a magical world flashes through most people’s minds of young ladies in short beaded dress, bobbed hair, feathered head pieces engaged in wild parties filled with Jazz Music, gaspers (cigarettes), and scandalous behavior. These images are reinforced by decades of movies and shows.

Did this come to mind?

Did this come to mind?

In truth, these visions represent a brief period of the late 20’s. To discuss all the misrepresentations and misconceptions would be overwhelming. So I’ll briefly (really briefly) stick to one subject: Women’s dress fashions. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how to sew a period dress – at least not yet!)

Both originally set in 1922, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967 movie and the 2002 Broadway production) and The Great Gatsby (1949 directed by Elliot Nugent, and the arguably fascinating but bloated 2013 Baz Luhrmann version) have reinforced this false reality of fashions to the modern audience. The 1974 movie (newly set in 1926) directed by Jack Clayton is the more accurate in regard to the women’s wardrobe of the time – allowing hemlines to be a bit fashion forward. A reported exception may be the lost 1926 movie (also newly set in 1926) by Herbert Brenon noted to be the most faithful adaptation and period accurate movie. This would make sense as it was shot fairly contemporary to the time. I’ll use these as examples.

2013 The Great Gatsby costumes by Catherine Martin

2013 The Great Gatsby costumes by Catherine Martin

The early 1920’s found women less confined by their restrictive and body contorting corsets. Influenced by the war in 1917, steel, a major component in corset construction, was conscripted for the war effort. According to Wikipedia, enough steel was saved to build two battleships. Talk about freedom! Still, the new fashion demanded a flat chested boyish silhouette, and “binders” (undergarments that essentially bandaged the breasts down) was popular. Despite this, it was also a period of adaption as women began wearing separate brassiere and panties. And showing just a bit of skin!


Lingerie made of the finest silks and satins, expensive lace and fine embroidery were the envy of women and their admirers.

1922 Lingerie - free from corsets at last

1922 Lingerie – free from corsets at last

Outerwear also transformed from restrictive and multi-layered (and undoubtedly hot), to loose (almost shapeless) and comfortable (for the time).   Styles became more body conscience as the decade progressed.

1920-1929 the shape of things to come.

1920-1929 the shape of things to come.

As you can see, both The Great Gatsby and Thoroughly Modern Millie lean toward the 1926 -1928 hem lengths and silhouettes.



Most articles I’ve read for research tend to lump the progression of fashion of this time together as “the ’20’s style”.  I read an article (which I cannot locate) about an interview with Broadway costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz, for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  He admitted that the costumes were incorrect for the period (1922) but did not want to disappoint the audience expectations as the fashions of 1922 were not what was expected.  Can you imagine the “Modern Millie” above being “modern” in one of the styles below?

You can see from the illustrations, the reality of the decade as a whole versus the artificial world ingrained in many of us will always be in conflict. To some extent, I can forgive the big screen/Broadway period inaccuracies. In hindsight for so many, that flash of glitter so associated with (and as) the Roaring Twenties was a brief and welcome  spark before darker days yet to come.



Yes, I know this was hardly an in depth  article, not even a scratch on the surface. I am just giving you something to think about the next time you hear of, think of, or see a movie/show depicting the Roaring Twenties.  Coming soon I will be entertaining you with my vintage pattern collection.  (Maybe I WILL show you how to sew a vintage dress.)



Half of the “The Freakin’, ‘Tiquen Guys”

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