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Beauty through the ages - the Roaring Twenties

A look at an era of rising hemlines, bobs, and Coco Chanel

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky February 5 2008

Roaring Twenties flapper girl

Those of us who grew up in the 60’s probably took quite a lot of abuse from our parents for our wayward lifestyles. Although I never took to the idea of “free love” or “flower power,” I admit to wearing those micro-mini skirts that bordered on indecency.

I always thought it odd that my grandmother was more open to some of my style changes than was my mother. That was, of course, until I realized that my grandmother grew up in another scandalous time - that of the Roaring Twenties.

If you haven’t already done so, you might want to check into my article on this site that deals with the fashion trends at the turn of the century. Women had already begun to do away with some of the uncomfortable fashions that had plagued them for years, but nothing on the scale of what would be seen in the 1920’s.

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By 1918, the average woman’s hemline had already risen to just below the calf. That length didn’t change right away. What did change, however, was the garment waistline, which dropped severely to as low as mid-hip.

Fashion designers were clever in their gradual change of the hemline. They first introduced scalloped and handkerchief cuts that confused the human eye into thinking that skirts were still long. But, by 1925, the average skirt hemline had risen as much as sixteen inches. Still, it was 1926 before they reached the scandalous length that actually dared to show a woman’s knees.

Fashion moved from sumptuous velvets, ladylike laces, and rich, draping satins that covered a woman from head to toe, to the sometimes baggy and often fringed flapper dress that barely covered her at all. She not only allowed her legs to show, but her arms were often uncovered as well.

Even men became more fashion-savvy during this era. Many copied silver-screen idols and slicked back their hair with an oily hairdressing. Some even sported Panama hats, Skimmers, English driving caps and felt fedoras. Suits gave way to sport coats, and colors other than the traditional black, navy, or gray were finally finding a place in the men’s fashion world.

But the attention of the 20’s was definitely on the flapper; the wild child of my grandmother’s age much like the flower child of my own. She was cute, sassy, somewhat independent, and absolutely brazen; certainly a drastic change from the more staid women of the past.

This girl liked to party, loved to dance, and wasn’t afraid to defy the accepted norm of the day. She smoked and drank and took all kinds of risks. She dared to use slang and was more sexually promiscuous. Grown-ups detested her and every little girl wanted to be her.

World War I had changed not only the men who fought it, but the women that they left behind as well. With many fewer men available for marriage, the 20’s woman wasn’t about to sit back like her mother and wait for a gentleman to come knocking at her door. She was going out in search of one, all on her own. The war had proven that life could be short and the 20’s woman wasn’t going to waste a minute of it.

Coco Chanel introduced the little boy look that became so identifiable with that era of fashion. Waistlines were dropped in order to help achieve the overall look and women went so far as to bind their chests with strips of cloth in order to get the highly desired flattened look. It was an era where women didn’t want to look like women at all.

Outerwear like coats and jackets had severe shoulder padding to make their shoulders look broader, like those of a man. While evening dresses were definitely shorter in length, daytime dresses and coats generally maintained a much longer hemline.

Coats were often wrapped and fastened to one side. Many featured shawl collars, some in fur and others in feathers or other decorative trims. The wealthy often matched their coat linings to their dresses in order to present a fully coordinated look, which would set them apart from the more “common” people.

Flappers were happy to give up their corsets in favor of the less restricting elastic webbed girdles, which often had suspenders attached to them for holding up stockings. These new, longer length girdles helped women achieve a flatter abdomen, which was an absolute must for anyone who wanted the boyish figure.

For the first time in history, women’s underwear became sheer. Gone were heavy cotton bloomers, and in their place were lighter weight knickers, chemises, and petticoats. Stockings also became more sheer and often barely covered the knee. Gone was the black wool that thoroughly covered a woman’s legs. The newest models made it appear as though she wasn’t wear stockings at all; a highly provocative trend for that era in history.

To make stockings even more provocative, embroidery was added around the ankles, up to the knees. Pastel colors were sometimes used to dye stockings to match the woman’s dress.

Perhaps one of the biggest trends in fashion in the 20’s was the change in fashion concept overall. Prior to that time, many of the fashions of the day were well out of the reach of the common woman. However, with the simple construction of a flapper shift, women were able to sew their own clothes at home using dress patterns offered by an innovative company named Butterick. While the wealthy could still afford the best fabrics, at least now the common woman could dress in the same style. It went a long way to help close the gaps between the classes, at least with regard to fashion.

Cloche hats became very popular in the 20’s. They became a signature statement of the flapper, as well as feathered headbands. They fit close to the head and covered most of the hair; women of this era did not like to show their foreheads.

Mary Janes and T-bar strappy shoes featuring buckles, bows, and even sequins were the shoe to wear in the 20’s. Because footwear was now more visible, shoes became more of an accessory item than ever before. Heels were generally two inches in height or higher.

Jewelry during the flapper era was bold and flashy, much like the flapper herself. Women wore long beads or pearls, which they sometimes piled on in multiple layers. Earrings, which were previously dainty and less visible under longer hair, became a focal point for shorter hairstyles.

Jewelry designs were also bold, with art deco shapes and colors making brooches distinct and a major accent for outerwear and even handbags. Rhinestones and sequins made jewelry pieces flash with unequalled brilliance on the dance floors where flappers often seemed to live.

One of the biggest trends of the Roaring 20’s was, of course, the hair bob. Up until that time, most women kept their hair long and wore it in purely feminine designs. Now bobbed and often even shingled, the flapper’s hair seemed to scream “I’m no longer a virgin and I don’t care who knows it”, a sentiment that wasn’t at all pleasing to the older generation.

As though the drastic change in clothing and hairstyle weren’t enough, the flapper also threw out all the old rules with regard to makeup. She donned rouge, powder, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, in other words many items which had previously been reserved for women of loose morals.

Rouge, as a rule, was still worn with discretion but lips were often painted a bright, vibrant red. Powder was applied until the skin looked as pale as possible in a kind of Oriental pallor.

Mascara, which was by no means perfected during this time, was applied to lashes thickly with an orange stick. Eyebrows were tweezed to a thin arch and then were penciled back in, lifting the brows higher than they were naturally. Kohl was used around the eyes as liner, for a highly dramatic look.

Women no longer excused themselves to go to the lady’s room to powder their noses. Instead, they pulled out their powder compacts and lipstick and did their repairs right at the table. This trend began a new accessory industry with compacts and lipstick tubes being made from metals and embellished with jewels.

Even though by the 30’s the styles - and the women - had returned somewhat to the more feminine characteristics of the past, the Roaring Twenties ushered in a whole new ideology. Never again would women be pushed into a certain box or held at arms length. The flapper had unleashed her spirit, proving that the fairer sex had gumption, courage, and an independent nature that could take her anywhere she wanted to go.

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