Read an Excerpt
Everyday Fashions of the Twenties
As Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs
By Stella Blum
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1981 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Part One: 1919—1924
In 1919, people in Europe and America, exhausted and depleted by World War I, longed to return to what they considered normalcy, to the way of life they had known before the war. Fashions reverted to those of 1913—1914, as though they had only been dropped for the duration. A new view of how women should dress had begun around 1909 and the course toward freedom, youth and equality was established even before 1914. By 1920, after a few steps backwards, the movement was accelerated by the experience and changes brought on by the war. During the next several years, the fashion ideal became younger and younger and proceeded to divest itself of many of the physical and mental trappings of the nineteenth century.
Growing urbanization, increased affluence, shorter working hours and paid vacations allowed for more leisure time and extra energy. As a result, interest in sports escalated, necessitating a whole range of special clothes designed for active and spectactor sports. Gradually this freer concept of dressing crept into daywear. Clothes became simpler and lighter in weight. Feminine curves, long a symbol of a woman's frailty, were negated by the fashion for the new streamlined vertical lines. These six years were essentially a transitional period in women's fashions. The new style was to emerge fully in 1925.
By 1919 pregnancy was no longer veiled in gowns for déshabillé or at-home robes. Maternity dresses designed in the styles of the period, along with maternity corsets, were illustrated graphically with explicit text explaining their function and virtues (page 7).
When one compares the fashions shown by Sears, Roebuck and Co. during this period with those in a French magazine such as L'Art et la Mode or with the American Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, it is interesting to note that there is only about a one-year lag in the overall aspect of the mail-order fashions. Yet, although the styles were not exactly the dernier cri or as handsomely presented as those in the high-fashion magazines, many fashions shown by Sears in 1919—24 reveal a surprising amount of chic and elegance. Not all of the clothes were inexpensive. Some coats and suits sold for almost $50, while some "better" dresses were priced over $30. Considering the purchasing power of a dollar in those days, it is apparent that those who could afford these prices were not confined to large cities and that mail-order catalogs catered not only to the rustic needs of farmers or the meager purses of the poorer classes. During these six years, the range of cost and taste was rather wide; the fashions presented must have been aimed at a broad spectrum of Americans.
The hobble skirt of the prewar period took on the "peg-top" look (pages 5 and 6) and the 1913 "barrel form" was shown along with pyramid shapes popular in 1915—16. The waistlines were either high or undefined. The bust retained the earlier low monobosom look. By our standards, the figure was quite full. The use of decorations, such as a proliferation of buttons, tassels and braid, was also a holdover from past fashions.
Although the current silhouette actually required little constriction, women, except for the most liberated, continued to wear corsets. There were even corsets for "children up to 12 years" (page 8). White cotton, trimmed with eyelet and lace, was popular for lingerie. Very pointed high shoes, laced or buttoned, with solid or spat tops and Louis or military heels were preferred. Stockings, which showed only when pumps were occasionally worn, were generally black or dark gray, although white was sometimes worn with white shoes. Hats, which had large crowns to accommodate long hair, were worn low, just above the eyebrows.
Male fashions reminiscent of the Edwardian styles are shown on models with large, square-jawed heads, and hair neatly plastered down. Their clothes had narrow shoulders and were slightly high-waisted, like the women's fashions. For sports there were Norfolk jackets and knickerbockers for golf or hiking and suits for riding.
The cosmetics available were limited to rouge, face powder and discreet lip rouge. One could buy a pencil to darken eyebrows, lashes and, for the men, beards and mustaches. For the nails there were cuticle removers, nail whites and polishing pastes.
Skirts became a little shorter, figures somewhat slimmer, bosoms smaller and the waistline was more naturally placed. Suits appeared sleeker and more tailored. Middy and over-blouses, now an important item, figured prominently in modified forms into the 1930s. Lingerie—petticoats, chemises, bloomers—were shown in a profusion of colored silks in purple, flesh, blue, green, plum and black. Bandeaux or brassieres began to displace the camisole.
Automobile dusters were included in the menswear section. Although jackets for youths and boys were similar to those for men, suits for boys 9 to 17 were shown with knickerbockers.
There was a further simplicity this year. Dresses on page 38 were designed to fall in an unbroken line from shoulder to hem. Worn loose, slightly belted at the normal waist, this was to be the silhouette of most of the decade. Although dresses remained below calf length, coats became shorter. Heavy trimming began to disappear. Some hair was obviously cut but was kept soft-looking with side curls (page 38). High shoes and spats were still worn but there was in increase in the popularity of pumps and oxfords. Stockings remained dark. The Japanese-style kimono as well as sleeping suits (pajamas for women) made their appearance. Men's outerwear included chesterfields, town ulsters and reversible rubber interlined raincoats. Shirts with detachable collars were popular. The separate collars could be either stiff or soft, and some, called "rubber collars," were made of celluloid.
Skirts reached mid-calf length. Coats continued to hold to the earlier style with full or dolman sleeves and were trimmed with some braid, tassels, embroidery and buttons. Suits, however, generally had a more male look. They were worn either beltless or with belts placed a little below the waist. Dresses showed the effects of the styles by the French designer, Paul Poiret—especially his use of peasant-type embroidery (page 50). Touches of Jeanne Lanvin can also be detected in the dresses worn by the two center figures on page 50. The echoes of Chanel's designs are too numerous to mention since much of the knitwear and classically simple clothes of the 1920s must be attributed to her influence.
Moving toward the new slimness, foundations began to accent hip and bust flattening. As hemlines rose, footwear became decorative: T-strap slippers and fashions for gaiters, galoshes and "arctics." Stockings, though still on the dark side, developed clocks and fancy heels. Rayon stockings made the silken look for legs available at a low price (78¢ as opposed to $2.69 for a pair of silk stockings with clocks.)
Sweaters for men were featured in a wide range of colors, patterns and details, such as shawl collars and turtlenecks. Sports clothes received added attention. For bathing, men were offered one piece knit suits with attached skirts while women could choose from several dressmaker-type costumes that were worn over an undergarment. There were also suits for football, hockey, skiing, golf and shooting. Underwear for men took on an athletic tone in the form of boxer shorts.
The waistline now has slipped down to the top of the hips. But, as though there was still some doubt or uneasiness about the future, this year's fashions harked back not so much to those of 1913 but all the way to those of 1909. A matronly silhouette—with wide sleeves, tassel and braid trimming, lower hemlines nearly ankle length—seems to have come back. In dresses, Lanvin's robe de style, with its low-waisted bodice and long full skirt, was shown in many adopted versions (page 69, right figure). Accessories now included mesh purses and silver-plated compacts.
Fashions this year were a blend of the old and the new (page 78). The waistline descended to the hips. There was a hint of the surface decoration and geometric insertions that would serve to break up the stark simplicity of the coming rectangular silhouette (page 77). Beltless jackets were shorter and worn with slim untrimmed skirts. Page 83 shows sports pants outfits; page 82 advertises "Bob" hats for women with bobbed hair.CHAPTER 2
Part Two: 1925-1931
Beginning in 1925, the standards and range of women's fashions offered in mail-order catalogs started to decline. The available selection diminished. The most expensive coats and dresses offered were nearly half the price of those offered in 1919. The same was true of men's dress clothes. One of the reasons for this, although by no means the only one, was the lure of the automobile.
In the mid-1920s, through technological advances and because of an unprecedented growth of prosperity, the automobile came within the reach of the average middle-class American. Quite naturally it was a class symbol to own a car. What was more important was the freedom of movement it provided. Within a short time America was in the grip of a full-blown love affair with the car. No sacrifice seemed too great for this new infatuation. Installment buying had become an accepted practice and now millions of Americans were buying automobiles on time. The impact of this development was enormous and touched every facet of life in America, including fashions and the way they were marketed.
Since many of their rural customers could now drive into town to shop, mail-order houses found themselves in competition with city stores. The larger organizations tried to meet this challenge by opening up their own retail stores. The catalogs of the latter part of the 1920s reveal, however, that in the area of wearing apparel, this move met with limited success. Articles such as denim coveralls, long woolen underwear, corsets for older women who from habit found them indispensable, remained fairly constant throughout the decade. But for the fashion-minded, there was less variety, generally duller-looking offerings with a strong accent on economy. Profitable sales in mail orders now lay primarily in their appeal to the isolated, the thrifty or the poor. Those with money, the more discriminating customers, preferred buying in department stores or in specialty shops which had mushroomed all over the country. Not only did they find a richer selection there, but they could also try on and examine the clothes and, having paid for them or charged them, walk out of the store with their purchases. For a great many Americans this was an attractive new experience.
As the price level dropped, mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
In the fashions of the second half of the 1920s, in the silhouette, the hair styles, hats, shoes, gloves and the jewelry, as in the paintings of Picasso, Braque, Léger and Matisse, the accent was on the hard edge of geometric forms and the clean beauty of pure line. In clothing design, to relieve the monotony of the spacial forms of rectangles, squares and circles and simple linear outlines, inner planes were broken up with abstract rhythmic patterns of appliques, piecings, tucks and formalized embroidered patterns.
The focus now was on "the slender mode of youth." The boyish look, totally flat, rectangular, mid-calf in length had arrived. Advertisements for foundations claiming "new freedom in corsetry" actually implied freedom primarily for the waistline. Women endowed with what were formerly considered feminine charms—a full bosom and wide hips—could now correct these "faults" with bust and hip constrictors.
As clothes became more casual, there was less restriction on what was to be worn at different times of the day or for special occasions. Many pieces of apparel once considered purely i men's wear and some that were looked on as work clothes were absorbed into women's fashions. Sears, Roebuck copy said, "Being exceedingly smart and practical from every standpoint, the men's wear and some that were looked on as work clothes were absorbed into women's fashions. Sears, Roebuck copy said, "Being exceedingly smart and practical from every standpoint, the 'Collegiate' slicker or 'Fisherman's Oilskin' has become one of the most popular models in raincoats. It comes in the attractive natural yellow shade and is absolutely waterproof."
Primarily through the influence of the movies, cosmetics were now offering a wide range of powders, rouges, lipsticks, black and brown mascaras and eyelash curlers. Although liquid nail polish "for highly tinted brilliance" was for sale, the average American woman did not sport scarlet nails until the next decade.
1927-2 (pages 99-120)
There were no dramatic changes this year. Coats remained the same as before. The belts on dresses tightened at the hips to produce a blousing above. Skirt portions, diminished in size, were designed for the swinging motion of easy movement through pleats, gathers, shirrings and insets.
The quest to look like an underdeveloped youth continued—so much so that, except for the fact that they were scaled for smaller figures, fashions for schoolgirls were much the same as those designed for their mothers.
Rayon had become an accepted substitute for silk in hosiery, women's dresses and underwear. Now artificial effects such as alligator patterned rubber and synthetic materials such as leatherette were also used. "New automatic fasteners" (zippers) appeared on overshoes. Footwear in general became more imaginative. Even some sneakers were decorated. Women who wished to elongate their legs and to look taller and more slender could buy shoes with spike heels. Gloves and other accessories grew in variety and embellishment, and were an important part of a total ensemble.
In men's wear, suits, although reflecting the new slimness and straighter lines, retained traditional styles. Informal and work clothes, however, showed a new burst of creativity and design.
1928-29 (pages 121-134)
In Paris, hemlines had begun to dip downwards and waistlines started to climb up to the natural level. This step toward a new cycle in fashion was not yet in evidence in mail-order catalogs where the cresting of the hem at the top of the knee that was seen in the haute couture of 1927 finally occurred. Except for further detailed treatment of flat planes and the addition of asymmetry, the styles differed little from the year before.
This year, however, more adventuresome young men could buy "Broadway's favorite" or "Collegiate" style suits. Made of boldly striped wool, some had contrasting waistcoats. Others had double-breasted vests that were either collared or collarless. "Black bottom" cuffs on trousers could also be ordered.
"The trend is toward femininity." The adult female figure returned to fashion. Hemlines dropped below the knee and the waistline became defined at its normal position. In France, Madeleine Vionnet, by using material cut on the bias, was creating beautiful figure-molding gowns. However, because bias construction, or using fabric on the cross, was expensive and called for great skill in handling, its interpretation was limited and relegated mainly to skirts and minor details.
For this new silhouette, foundation garments and underclothes were shaped to conform to the body. Reflecting the stress on natural form, men's suits also began to curve in at the waist.
The inclusion of slacks or "gob outfits," as they were called, anticipated the oncoming popularity of long pants for women. Shorts were listed, but only for little girls. Pumps became fashionable again and were available with different heels, including four-inch spike heels. The men's section added tuxedos to the selection of suits. Trimmings and surface decorations in most clothes began to fall away as the lure of a totally different look came on the horizon.
With the end of the 1920s came the end of the reign of the preadolescent ideal. The Depression and changing times were forging new fashions.
Excerpted from Everyday Fashions of the Twenties by Stella Blum. Copyright © 1981 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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