The era of the “flapper” – a carefree, modern woman who rebelled against the strict, old-fashioned Victorian ways of their mothers -- started just after World War I and took hold in the 1920s. Flapper fashions included short hair under cloche hats, lingerie over corsets and loose dresses with hemlines that rose from the ankles in 1920, knee length or higher by the mid-1920s and back down to below the knee by 1930.
A 1920 magazine advertisement for the Mary Garden brand rogue from Paris. The 1920s saw an explosion in the national market for rouge, lipstick, eyelashes and other women’s cosmetics, which thanks to technological advances and mass production were available in retail stores everywhere and was no longer seen as improper for women to apply.
A crowd of hat-wearing men in the 1920s.
In an era when most man did not consider themselves fully dressed without a hat, a man’s choice of hat in the 1920s (as seen in the 1922 newspaper advertisement above) went with his preference for style and his personality. Hat designs included the fedora, bowler, boater, derby, homburg, top hat, newsboy cap, panama and, for the summer, straw hats. An added fashion statement was the design and color of brims on formal hats.

Prohibition Sparked a Women’s Fashion Revolution

Bobs, beads and higher hemlines — these are all features we conjure up about women’s fashion during Prohibition. Iconic images of flappers dancing the Charleston float through our minds as well, but what defined an “It” girl during this period? What prompted these women to abandon the styles of their Victorian-era mothers? No more restrictive dresses, corsets or floor-length gowns — fashionable women of the Prohibition era craved freedom of movement in their clothing.

Flapper fashion did not emerge suddenly. It developed as a result of gradual social and cultural changes. During this period, youth and beauty became a commodity that was valued. For the first time women were being marketed to in high volume, which boosted the sales of cosmetics and perfumes. Americans had more expendable income, so they were able to purchase more consumer goods.

During the flapper era, women wanted sheer, moveable fabric with a dropped waistline and a squared body. The mixing of fabrics for evening wear (for a date or to visit a speakeasy) became very popular. Dresses could be ornately decorated with glass beads, rhinestones, furs and fabric flowers.

The typical silhouette of a flapper was thin with bare arms and ankles, but a covered top. These women embraced the “boy body” with flat chests. Beginning in the early 20th century, women began “working out” at health and beauty clubs, which helped them slim down and achieve the fashionable slender body. Smoking also came into fashion for women during this period, as cigarettes were marketed as an appetite suppressant.

The female form was suppressed with dropped waistlines, looser fits and boxier clothing. Many women were not comfortable baring it all (their arms) so they had sheer fabric, such as early forms of rayon, as sleeves of varying length. Shawls had a resurgence throughout this period because they were practical for transportation and travel, easy to wear over typical 1920s evening wear and could keep women warm while in an open car.

Cloche hats and cropped hair were quintessential features of the flapper. Bobbing a woman’s hair was a huge change not only in fashion but as a significant form of female assertion. Women had to invade men’s space (the barber) and cut off their hair, which had been a male-imposed determinant of their sexuality. Some women did not bob their hair but pinned it up with bobby pins to be trendy. Cloche hats were important because they were worn only by women who truly had short hair.

The evolution of the hemline from long to “short”-long was one of the most interesting fashion trends during the Prohibition era. Hemlines rose to the ankle during the 1910s and held steady at calf length. Skirts were still long compared with contemporary styles, but illusion hemlines were created to make it look like a flapper was showing more leg. By the mid-1920s the hemline hit its all-time high — to the kneecap. Near the end of Prohibition skirts began to lengthen, again assisted by asymmetrical hemlines. Several different fabrics were needed to achieve this look. Semi-sheer overskirts, pleats and scalloped skirts assisted with hemline deception. To complement the different hemlines young women wore flesh-colored stockings to give the illusion of a bare leg. It was also fashionable to wear patterned stockings.

Men of the era typically wore three-piece suits — vests were required. Men’s suits were mostly thick materials such as wool or flannel, but still lighter material than common in previous decades. Suits were known for having three to four buttons, the top of which rested on the man’s heart and gave the suit a higher lapel than in previous decades. Toward the end of Prohibition, men’s suits, like women’s dresses, became boxy and looser, moving away from the tailored male silhouette. To complete the ensemble, men wore thin bowties, a fedora or gambler hat, and wingtip shoes.

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