Fashion Stories and Art Deco – The Magnificent Roaring 20s - Your visual diary to My Fashion Stories
In my today’s post, I will speak about the Roaring 20s fashion and the influence of Art Deco. This post is a visual complement of the corresponding My Fashion Stories Box podcast’s episode #13: Fashion Stories and Art Deco – The Magnificent Roaring 20s available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher, Deezer and many more :)
The Roaring 20s… Who never dreamt of an exuberant and magnificent life as in the Great Gatsby?
For me, the 20s are a decade synonymous with excess, craziness, freedom, hope and glamour. A decade where women were showing their legs, dancing the Charleston on the dance floor until late into the night, listening to jazz music and smoking cigarettes with these long cigarette holders, drinking cocktails, driving cars…
After the First World War saw the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman Empire and the desintegration of the Central Powers formed by Germany and Autria-Hungary, a new world seemed to appear and a wind of freedom seemed to blow on the European society.
The main winners of this period were women. After having to deal with making their countries’ economies work while men were battling on the front, women didn’t accept to come back to their pre-war routine and started to be vocal about their rights and expectations.
Art Deco and the liberalisation of women
This society’s transformation was epitomised by an artistic movement: The Art Deco.
“Art Deco” is the abbreviation of “Arts Decoratifs”, meaning “Decorative Arts”. This movement started before the First World War in France and is characteristic of the European society during the 20s and the 30s. It’s a style of visual arts, architecture and design. The appellation “Art Deco” got formalized in 1925 following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes which was held in Paris and during which the style was first shown. At the source of this movement is modernism, modernity. The items presented during this exhibition had one particularity in common, should it be luxury items, more affordable ones, fashion, furniture, accessories and so on. This particularity was to create a sleek and anti-traditional elegance, symbolizing wealth and sophistication.
This artistic movement was the translation of people’s admiration for the modernity, the machines and for the qualities people were associating with machine-made items as simplicity, symmetry. The main features of Art Deco are simple, clean shapes and lines and geometric forms. The Art Deco items mix artificial materials as plastics with natural ones as jade, silver, ivory, obsidian, chrome or rock crystals.
Art Deco was also influenced by other artistic movements as Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Fauvism, Cubism and the Ballets Russes of Sergey Diaghilev. The main decorative inspirations came from American Indian, Egyptian, Ancient civilisations, Asia and nature including patterns as female figures, animals, foliage and sun rays in a stylized way.
Some renowned names linked with the Art Deco Movement include: architect Eliel Saarinen, metalsmith Jean Puiforcat, glass and jewelry designer Rene Lalique, fashion illustrator Erte, artists-jewelers Raymond Templier, Wiwen Nilsson, graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer and fashion designer Paul Poiret.
The most famous Art Deco examples are the Chrysler Building, the interiors of the New York City’s Rockefeller center or the Empire State Building.
Art Deco had a big influence on architecture, but also on sculpture, paintings, graphic arts with beautiful fashion illustrations, interior design, furniture, design, glass art, metal art and, of course, textile and fashion.
It was more than just an artistic movement, it was the translation of the spirit of that time, of a society turned towards modernity.
Art Deco and fashion in the 20s
From a fashion point of view, the 20s were as exciting as the Art Deco movement itself where fashion and art influenced each other. One noticeable event was the Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes representations in Paris starting from 1909. One of the costume designers was Leon Bakst who, according to the Parisian fashion magazine “Art, Gout, Beaute” of March 1925 “give to the Parisian’s dresses an exotic touch. Flowers fabulously disturbing, patterns lightly reminding cubism in which enter fragments of crushed mirrors, sparkles, large sequins, everything that reminds the tackiness of the oriental bazaars.”
One designer who surfed on that “Ballets Russes” vibe was Paul Poiret. Even before Coco Chanel, Poiret is the designer credited to have freed women from the corsets. In the USA, he was known as “The King of Fashion” and in France he was nicknamed, “Le Magnifique”.
Paul Poiret is considered as a precursor of Art Deco fashion. He would put the Orient at the heart of his designs and transformed his clients into harem girls or geishas through the use of bright colors and interesting silhouettes for that time as his lampshade tunic and harem trousers. He played a lot with draping, against tailoring, and took inspiration for his designs from the chiton of Ancient Greece, the Empire high waisted dress, the Japanese kimono and caftan from North America and Middle East.
The oriental cuts launched by Poiret would be at the origins of the “Flapper style” of the 20s.
After the war, women didn’t want to come back to their pre war routine and rejected the very constrained dresses and corsets. They were fighting for their new rights and wanted their clothes to reflect their new freedom.
It was the first time in modern history that women’s dress became that short. Not only did you see the feet and ankles, but you could also see the calf.
The style of that era was the contrary of the pre war style which celebrated sculptural women with forms that would be exaggerated with corsets or paniers, these underskirt structures added to give volume. The 20s were the celebration of androgyny.
The lines were straight with no parts of the body emphasized one way or the other. The breast and waist weren’t marked and the hips were underlined with a belt effect on the dress, thus dropping the line of the natural waist.
No corset, easy to wear and comfortable underwears, rising hems revealing the legs, stockings from lighter colors, this flapper style was a celebration of the new woman: a young, androgyne and free spirit.
To this emancipation of women which influenced the style of dresses they would wear, you also need to add the rise of sports practice such as swimming, tennis. People needed to have clothes not only for business, work or official purposes but also for casual and sport ones. This is the rise of casualwear. This new trend saw the appearance of pyjamas , inspired by the Ballets Russes costumes and Paul Poiret’s harem pants as the perfect beach outfit and the chic and original eveningwear to have. Sportswear inspiration would open the door for casualwear and the simplification of the dress, thanks to soft fabrics as silk, jerseys and “kasha”, a fabrics obtained out of wool and goat hair.
The first designer to translate this casualwear and sportswear trend in fashion was Jean Patou. He would make comfortable dresses and ensembles out of jersey to be worn at the beach, Deauville and Biarritz being the place to be at that time, and to the mountain.
But Jean Patou would be known also for the first collaboration between a fashion designer and a sportsman, here a sportswoman: Suzanne Lenglen. She was a famous tennis player and would be spotted wearing a white ensemble by Jean Patou on the tennis court in Wimbledon in 1922. In 1925, Jean Patou would open the first sportswear fashion line in haute couture, “Le Coin des Sports”, the corner of sports.
His main competitor on that market segment was, you may have guessed, Coco Chanel. For her, simplicity and comfort were at the heart of true fashion and elegance. She is often credited to have freed women from corsets and to have launched the casualwear fashion even if, as we just saw, it was not enterely the case, I mean, she was not the only one, but I guess she was very good in marketing to make people forget about Paul Poiret and Jean Patou... This being said, her legacy on fashion is not to minimize. She did popularize the sporty and casual chic as the feminine style post 1st war. Not to forget about the little black dress every woman has to have in her wardrobe…
Thanks to her active social life and many lovers, she would take inspiration from their environment and make mainstream some items as jersey or menswear inspired cuts and outfits for women.
Her romance with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov made her look at the traditional Russian costume and at the embroideries. They inspired her for some dresses’ embellishments. Her fascination for embroideries would lead her to open an embroidery studio, Kitmir, led by the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova Romanova, sister of the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, in which aristocrat Russian women who fled the Communism and who learnt to embroider during their childhood, were able to find jobs.
But not everybody was fan of this androgyne, “a la garconne” style. Some people wanted feminine cuts. The anti-flapper movement was incarnated by designers as Jeanne Lanvin and the robe de style.
A robe de style was characterized by a very full skirt, which was inspired by the 18th century gowns and crinolines. It would sometimes required side-hoops, underskirt structures shaped like small baskets and worn at the hips’ level. The top of the dress itself was quite fitted to the body and the waist was at its natural level. The complete opposite of the flapper’s dress! This type of dress was considered as more feminine and romantic. Robes de style were usually worn for formal occasions as weddings, garden parties, balls… The designer usually associated to the robe de style style is Jeanne Lanvin. She created this type of dress for her own daughter which was then adopted by young women and older women alike.
Madeleine Vionnet offered a good compromise between the robe de style and the flapper dress. Her signature style was draping and playing origami with pieces of fabrics. She also invented the biais cut, a way to cut fabrics on the biais to make it more fitted to the curves of the body. Her sources of inspiration were Ancient Greece and Japan.
During the 20s, she would experiment a lot with draping technics, cutting and geometry. She would literally create sculptures out of pieces of fabrics by sewing together squares, triangles or circles. A bit a la Iris von Herpen if you like. Contrary to Coco Chanel who created the modern woman’s wardrobe based on the men’s wardrode, Madeleine Vionnet would only take into consideration the curves of the female body and see how the fabrics could complement it.
Fashion and inspiration during the 20s
The creation of the young USSR following the First World War would lead to the exodus to European countries and USA of the White Russians, the aristocrat families who fled the Communist regime. This Russian immigration would have a major role to play in the European 20s fashion and would be the biggest influence of that era.
I already mentioned the Russian influence and inspiration with the embroideries for Chanel. The Russian traditional costume itself would be westernized with cuts of dresses reminding the rubachka, which was a tunic worn by men in the countryside, which would be worn on the top of a long skirt by fashionistas.
The kokoshnik, a traditional Russian headwear, would also inspired jewelers and milliners in their creations. And, finally, the mixing of fabrics and fur was also a 20s classics coming from Russia.
Artists Stepanova, Popova and Rodchenko who started to design clothes and patterns corresponding to their visions of the future and the rationalization of the production.
Natalia Goncharova is another interesting Russian figure in Paris. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and embroidered dresses inspired by her Slavic heritage and mixing abstract patterns inspired by the avant-garde.
And a last name for this Russian vibe is Sonia Delaunay. Born in Ukraine, she married the French painter Robert Delaunay. Sonia started to create fabrics by sewing together parts of smaller pieces of fabrics, reminding a bit the patchwork process mixed with embroidery process. She would play with colors and geometric forms to create gradients, visual effects and movement.
Japan was also a source of inspiration, particularly the kimono and the geishas, which would inspired beautiful evening coats and lean silhouettes.
Ancient Greece with the draping of the dresses, Ancient Egypt with hieroglyphs motives embroidered on the fabrics for coats or clutchs, Native American, African motives…
It gives this idea of the 20s being an inclusive decade, where different cultures and inspirations were mixed together. Today, we would scream of cultural appropriation. However, for me, I see in it the will of this new society opened for a better future, inclusive of all cultures and celebrating them.
Party hard during the 20s
People were partying hard during that time! And, of course, you needed to have the right dress to sparkle on the dance floor and to dance all night long on these frenzied rhythms!
At the beginning of the decade, evening dresses were long and lean, usually without sleeves. They would be embellished with embroideries or draping effects. By 1925, they became shorter, brighter, sparklier. Beads, sequins and feather. Everything was thought to enhance the movement of the dancer. Everything had to glitter!
Jean Patou even noticed that it was the taste for dancing that determined the line of evening gowns and influenced their decoration. The beaded fringes at the bottom of the dress and feathers attached to thin fabrics were swaying at the rhythm of jazz and Charleston.
These sparkling dresses were accessorized with feather scarves, tiaras, headbands and heeled shoes.
And, as these dresses were usually sleeveless, you would see the whole arm and underarm. Nature has it that we grow hairs under the arms and it wasn’t that elegant, right? So women started to shave their underarm. Add to this, that, dancing as crazy on the dance floor makes you sweat and you didn’t want to smell bad, right, especially if you were dancing with your date or crush. And the 2nd revolution was using deodorants to diminish body smells. When I told you this decade was extraordinary!
On their naked arms, women would wear bracelets and cuffs and one fashion of that time was to wear arm cuff, worn high on the arm, as well as ankle chains. No, we didn’t invent anything with our ankle chains on the beach during summer…
If you wanted to stand out from the crowd, you could even wear beautiful silk painted pajamas. Yes, right! Straight to bed after dancing without needing to change.
On the top of these magnificent evening outfits, you would wear a sumptuous long coat, looking like a kimono, with a fur collar and in which you would feel like in a cocoon. At least, this is the feeling I have when I see pictures or illustrations of women of that time in such coats.
Fashion accessories during the 20s
After the war, corsets disappeared. The new dressing style revolutionized the type of underwears women needed to wear. And it simplified it too. The corset was replaced by the first bras.
The traditional underwears were a combination in silk or artificial silk in nude tones, including a top and panties.
Stockings also changed colors. When the dresses were longer and you wouldn’t see the legs, stockings were usually of dark colors. But, with the hems rising and the legs being shown, stockings came into the spotlight. The colors used were more nude, natural colors. They could be embroidered, in cotton, silk, wool or artificial silk. And they would be fixed on the legs with garters.
Jewelry was also an important accessory for the 20s women. Bracelets, arm cuffs, even Suzanne Lenglen was wearing one during her Wimbledon match together with her Patou dress, ankle chains, necklaces, earrings, rings…
If we look at pictures and illustrations of the 20s, we notice a variety of jewelry and quite massive ones reflecting the Art Deco influence in the forms and type of materials used. We also notice the now famous Chanel’s strings of pearls. During the 20s, Chanel would popularize the fantasy jewelry, understand jewelry not made from precious metals as gold or silver.
When it comes to bags, they were a must have accessories for the now active women. Bags needed to be big enough to carry out their essentials, meaning their lipsticks and cigarettes, but not too big. For the day, they would have a clutch bag they would have under their arm or in their hand and for the evenings, their clutch bags would be done to match their evening dresses.
Bags were almost a piece of art women were wearing and you would see beautifully decorated bags inspired by the Art Deco favorite patterns.
With the rise of the dresses, shoes were another source of attention. The main type of shoes was a slipper type with heels and stripes (as the Mary Jane or heeled Oxford shoes). They could be in leather or satin or even silk, in bright colors and beautifully decorated with embroidery, pearls and rhinestones. I even read that heels could be removable to fit the occasion. Famous footwear designers came to fame at that time, such as Perugia and Salvatore Ferragamo.
And, under the influence of sportswear and casual wear, the 20s saw the appearance of the sandals, which could be worn on the beach or for daily occasions with small heels, the Cuban heel, or with higher heels for more evening occasions.
At that time, a woman wouldn’t go outside without a hat. And the hat of the 20s was the cloche hat, or bell hat. This hat would entirely cover the hairs and the front side of it would even hide your eyes, or at least, would come at the same level as your eyebrows.
You had a large variety of hats inspiration for the 20s: Chinese hats, turbans, hats inspired by the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs’ headpiece and the kokoshnik.
I already mentioned but the kokoshnik was a real furor during the 20s! It would inspire day and evening hats and the tiaras that would be worn for weddings, balls or any other official events. Why such a big enthusiasm, passion for the kokoshnik? Well, because, the kokoshnik is worn low on the forehead and put the emphasis on the eyes. It creates a dramatic look and, during the 20s, everything was about being dramatic!
To emphasis the drama, you needed to have the right make-up. And here, full light on the eyes! Thin eyebrow lines, eyes underlined by a line of black eyeliner and black mascara, all completed with white powder and red lipsticks. Some women would also put Vaseline on their eyelids to reflect the light.
Not only did the hems of the dresses became shorter, but so did the hairs. Fashionable women would cut their hair short, a sort of carre, a bit higher than the jaw line. They would have bangs and would style their hairs with wave effects. The “a la garconne” haircut so emblematic of the 20s was popularized by the actress Louise Brooks.
The 20s were the decade of women and for women. The Art Deco movement put women at its center of creation and fashion designers created dresses reflecting the new active way of life of women, dresses adapted to this new life and enabling them to freely move, jump and enjoy themselves.
For me, this period of time is an important one, not just for this unprecedented freedom women obtained but also from a personal side. My grandmother Renee was born in 1916 and, by the end of the 20s, she was a teenager. So, she’s been influenced by these 20s craziness, even if she was living in the countryside. She went to school, not something common when you were the daughter of a farmer in the 20s, she studied sewing as her mother. She had a hair cut short. She married late for her generation, had my father also late. But, for me, she represented the strong and free woman of the 20s. She was a kind of feminist, always pushed us to be the best at school in order to find a good job and not a wealthy husband. It was the priority. The priority was to be a free and independent woman. She was elegant, always had a small accessories, a scarf, a pair of gloves, a hat. She may not have worn any Chanel, Lanvin or Vionnet, but she still had this elegance, this minimalist one, this true elegance dear to Coco which made her say that the true elegance is the one we don’t notice.
Thank you very much! I hope you liked this post on the Roaring 20s fashion! Feel free to follow the podcast My Fashion Stories Box on your favorite podcast platform, on social media and on the blog for a visual diary alongside with each episode.
See you there!
To go further...
- Art Deco Fashion by Suzanne Lussier
- Art Deco by Markus Hattstein
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Fashion History at the Fashion Institute of Technology
- Who What Wear
- Business of Fashion