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Flapper Fashion

The Origin Story: Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, with the way we live, with what's happening.

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s with some of the notes I made for an article in the Ladies section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sherilyn’s books are all set in the 1920s, so she makes a point of asking for my advice on what the dames are wearing these days.

Of course, what you wear is how you present yourself to the world. Fashion is instant language, and in the 20s the conversation around women has really changed.

And you can see it in what we’re wearing. Hemlines are up, hair is cut short, make-up is put on, and the shoes! Oh, the shoes! The Roaring Twenties have an instantly recognizable style.

The roots of flapper fashion

What was hanging in women’s closets is a mirror to what was happening in society. At the turn of the century, women were laced into tight corsets to achieve that perfect hourglass figure. Luxurious hair was piled high and elaborately. Everything was formal and bound by rules.

Women were seen as adornments and dressed for it. Movement was restricted by the length of the skirts, the tightness of the waist, and by layers of petticoats. Going into World War I, women were adored, cherished, cared for, and cosseted. For the most part, they were animate objects; pretty, silent, useless.

The Twenties changed all that. Old-fashioned torture devices like the corset and the crinoline no longer served a purpose for young women who wanted to dance, go to work, hop into cars, and walk around town.

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. -Coco Chanel

World War I

There’s nothing like cataclysmic destruction and carnage to shake things up. ‘Things’, of course, being a euphemism for the world as we know it. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.

Following World War I, class structures were reduced to rubble and with them the rules of society. While the men were away, women moved out of the home and into the workplace, sometimes to support the war effort and often to put groceries on the table. Gender-specific clothing began to fall by the wayside after women worked in munitions factories during the Great War. You couldn’t comfortably spend long days standing at an assembly line counter in a corset and hobbled skirt. And those Edwardian hats had to go!

The restlessness approached hysteria. The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not minister much delight.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

The devastation of the War shadowed everything- there was urgency in the music, in dancing, in literature, in art. People were trying to express the despair, the futility of life, the broken psyches that littered the battlefields following the War and what death and destruction caused.

I’ve never been sure whether the Twenties are roaring in rage or roaring drunk, but lordy we do roar!

And if society thought that they might get a chance to catch their collective breath and get steady again after World War I, the Flu Pandemic that impacted almost every family, was a one-two punch. It infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide–about one-third of the planet’s population at the time–and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims.

Mortality was definitely on everyone’s minds.

Live for today

A kind of cynicism that came in the aftermath of the World War I and the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 created a youth culture that glorified fast living, dancing, and the exciting sounds of syncopated jazz described by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald as the Lost Generation. Live for today! was the defining maxim.

Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love. -Lois Long

Economic Reality

Prior to World War I, (Sherilyn says think Downton Abbey), fashion was all about exclusivity. It was complicated and could only be created by skilled seamstresses toiling away in small boutiques. Everything was bespoke and handmade. Then came the War, and just as importantly, the sewing machine!

Less tailoring, as well as the availability of the sewing machine, meant that women could easily make fashionable clothing at home so that high fashion was no longer restricted to the elite. It was easy-peasy, the cat’s pajamas, to produce the simple flapper shift dresses from Butterwick sewing patterns at home.

Women Get Their Vote On

Winning the right to vote in the early Twenties gave women a platform to launch themselves from rigid domestic roles and pave the way for independence and equality. (Still being paved!)

Young women could look beyond what had been the established norms and see a life focused on individual pursuits and passions. Which created a whole culture of getting out and enjoying themselves.

e·man·ci·pa·tion (ee-man-si-pay-shun)
1. the fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation.
“the emancipation of feminist ideas”
o the freeing of someone from slavery.
“the early struggle for emancipation from slavery”


When someone tells you you can’t, you instantly want to do it. Prohibition made breaking the law cool. The social mores that defined who a respectable woman was turned upside down during the Twenties. Women smoked in public. Women drank in public. Women went on dates without chaperones. Women put their make-up on in public. There was a certain “in your face” about all the flapper carryings-on.

The youth drank in carefree disregard of Prohibition (which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol but not its consumption) and lost respect for authority and traditional morals. Young women smoked cigarettes and danced the Charleston and Blackbottom, typified by fast, jerky movements. Short skirts allowed greater freedom to dance, and plunging necklines and low backs put more of the female body on display than ever before.

Prohibition also gave rise to some of the most famous, fashionable and dangerous people of the decade; the gangsters, bootleggers, and notorious characters who owned the nightclubs and speakeasies.

People will stare. Make it worth their while.

The defining mood of the Roaring Twenties was speed. Everything moved faster; partly because people were running from the past, and partly they were racing toward a bright new future. And they felt they didn’t have much time!


  1. JazzFeathers says:

    Great instroduction to the 1920s!
    It’s a great decade that has so much in common with ours, I always think.
    The role of women is particularly intersting, in my opinion. But studying now 1920s Europe (which is so similar and yet so different from 1920s America) I’m becoming more and more interested in the lasting influence on WWI on our society. We often don’t realise this. In so many ways, and despite the centennial, WWI is still a forgotten war.

    1. I agree! I just finished reading Nicola Upson’s book and was stuck with how pervasive the impact of the War was on all the characters. That’s missing in my book and I hope to blend it in during the editing process. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Kevin Collier says:

    Very informative and fun read! Please feel free to post any of the blog posts about this era in AZSA, American Zoot Shooters Association on FB. I’m known as the Deacon there.

    1. Thanks! I’ll certainly take you up on that offer.

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