Here’s a debate for your fashion clique: the 1920s—fashion’s greatest decade? The S/S 18 collections may be paying homage to a 1980s style revival, while nostalgia for the best (and worst) trends of the nineties and noughties refuses to rest. But when it comes to the revolutionary power and decadent style of Gatsby-era fashion, you just can’t deny the allure of all that freedom-fuelled razzle-dazzle.
Flapper dresses with string pearls, feather boas and cloche hats (worn without a hint of irony), Chanel’s then-radical androgynous “garçonne” silhouette; it was a time of wild abandon, empowering new cuts, shorter hemlines and unabashed party dressing. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Zelda Fitzgerald (née Sayre) ruled the style scene, and we’re only just getting started on why this is the decade our wardrobes should be really celebrating.
Have we got you hooked? Keep scrolling for the complete Who What Wear UK guide to 1920s style, including the trends we’d still wear today, plus the fashion icons who remain total #OOTD goals.
1920s Fashion: The Cultural Context
To really appreciate the huge shifts in fashion that came with the roaring twenties, it’s important to first set the scene. After the end of the World War I in 1918, women in the UK were finally granted the right to vote (although even that was still caveated with restrictions, such as needing to be at least 30 years old) with the same happening stateside in 1920. After the gloom of the war years, economies started to boom, women embraced a bolder, more flamboyant approach to life (cue the short and sassy bob haircuts), and the Jazz Age gave birth to high-octane parties filled with ragtime dancing. Speakeasy bars rebelled against U.S. prohibition, and the art scene exploded with the talents of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. Naturally, fashion was at the heart of the social rebellion, with Parisian couturiers—most notably Coco Chanel—all embracing the youth of the era.
The Trends That Defined the Decade
After swapping belle epoque frocks for men’s overalls to contribute to the war effort (you can’t do much heavy lifting in a tightly laced corset, after all), women shifted radically in the clothes they were willing to wear following World War I. Boned corsets and full skirts were out, and sleek shapes and relaxed fits were in. Naturally, it’s the knee-skimming flapper dress that remains the ultimate symbol of 1920s fashion, with dropped waistlines, pleated skirts and Art Deco embellishments adding serious glamour to cocktail hour.
Coco Chanel, of course, played a huge role in transforming wardrobes throughout the decade. The Parisian switched heavy fabrics for sports-luxe jersey and boxy cuts, ignited the trend for statement costume jewellery (hello, fake pearls and jewelled pendants), delivered the classic LBD in 1926 and sparked “fashionable” women’s trousers while wearing a pair herself on holiday in Deauville.
But it wasn’t just the Chanel show. Competition came from contemporaries including Jeanne Lanvin, known for her embellished chemise dresses (see an above illustration of Lanvin’s stunning eveningwear), Paul Poiret, credited with introducing bohemian harem pants to the artsy style set, and Elsa Schiaparelli—Chanel’s greatest rival—who famously designed the speakeasy soirée dress—a party frock with hidden pockets that could cleverly hide a hip flask.
Thanks to shorter hemlines and advances in fabric technology, hosiery became a huge trend among the Bright Young Things, with sales of stockings and decorative tights going through the roof. Swimwear got skimpier, heels got higher, and voluminous wrap coats with real fur trims became a signature of high society.
The Muses: 1920s Style Icons
When it comes to inspirational fashion muses, the twenties doesn’t disappoint. From Josephine Baker, the showgirl said to have inspired some of Beyoncé’s stage moves, to Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Zelda Fitzgerald, here are the style icons that still inspire our own wardrobes today.
Marlene Dietrich became one of the most famous silent movie actresses of the time and epitomised the height of fashion through the ’20s and ’30s. Later on, her fame continued (well into the era of the talkies), and her fashion choices become even bolder. Talk about suiting on women and you'll always come across a Marlene reference.
Silent movie actress Marie Prevost typified flapper style and became especially revered after starring in the movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.
Hollywood’s first Asian-American actress was Anna May Wong, who was crowned the world’s best-dressed woman and is credited with introducing the cheongsam to Western fashion circles.
Blues singer Bessie Smith was one of the best-selling artists of her generation but became as equally known for her extravagant stage costumes.
A total boss, Evelyn Brent (pictured here in trousers, which were still considered controversial even in 1929) was a bold actress who starred in Hollywood’s first-ever “gangster” film. Off-screen, she was known for her cloche hats, feather embellishments and ice-cold stare.
Comedy actress Colleen Moore was one of the first to chop her hair into a short bob, initially for her role in 1923 film Flaming Youth. The film would go on to cement the term “flapper” and push for acceptance of women’s newfound freedom.
A woman who needs no introduction, though you might not recognise in this picture: Coco Chanel. Even in the 1920s, Coco was creating the clothes we still want to wear now—see her two-toned shoes, slouchy knits, strings of pearls and mismatched prints. The designer’s look just doesn’t date.
Greta Garbo’s style saw women everywhere scrambling to re-create her sartorial magic. Her popularity as a silent-era actress was so powerful, studio MGM actually delayed introducing sound to their productions.
Even F. Scott Fitzgerald conceded Joan Crawford’s status as “the best example of the flapper.” She was a lover of Art Deco glitz by night and Chanel’s somewhat controversial menswear-inspired shapes by day, and her style was imitated by countless women.
Josephine Baker was famed for her then-risqué performances and considered one of the true flapper fashion icons by her fans. If you thought what modern-day pop stars do on stage is revolutionary, think again.
Louise Brooks may not have been first with the short and sharp bob, but she certainly became a poster girl for the cut. Her style was bold and often daring—just like her career as a silent movie star.
Clara Bow was one of the few talented silent movie actresses who managed to hold onto their status once the “talkies” were introduced to the movie business. Her cheeky demeanour, comic timing and enthusiastic nature were particularly loved by directors, but her hardcore partying ways and fragile mental health put her in a vulnerable position during Hollywood’s wildest years. She was considered one of the first-ever It girls and blazed a trail for flapper fashion, her Cupid’s bow being her most-talked-about asset.
The most famous ’20s girl of all was arguably Zelda Fitzgerald. Her wardrobe and extravagant party lifestyle made for a hot topic while her vivacious personality captured the mood of the era.
Anyone else in the mood to go vintage shopping now?
Opening Image: Shutterstock