Art Deco--Between the Wars


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Changing Views, Attitudes, and Activities of Women:
End 19th century, 1920s - 1930s

Art Deco crossed cultural lines to influence and be influenced by everything that was going on between the wars.
Young women went to work, to the movies, read advertisements in magazines, emulated the styles of their favorite
movie stars, "bobbed" their hair, shortened their skirts (actually quite a brief fad,) went to clubs,
danced outrageously, practiced birth control, and delighted in shocking their elders.
They flaunted their new sophistication--think Rose in Downton Abbey.
"Liberated from their pre-war carapace, women now moved easily in pared-down clothes in lightweight fabrics"
and body-caressing gowns
(Benton, et al. 261). They aspired to a boyish (à la garçonne) figure:
flat-chested with a slim silhouette that did not include Victorian curves or Edwardian voluptuousness.
In keeping with Art Deco themes, new man-made rather than natural fabrics gained prominence:
rayon, invented in 1910 and called artificial silk, helped to bring down prices in "ready to wear,"
pret à porter, as it was known in France
( Murray 101).

In the early 1920s, "inexpensive, ready-made clothing" (Pascone 1) in catalogs and department stores made the latest fashions available to a wide range of "bright young things." The tubular look, or a long straight shape/silhouette was popular for both day time and more elaborate night time wear. In addition, women wore bras (left) designed to flatten their chests. The first patented bra was designed by an American, Mary Jacobs, in 1914 (Thomas 1). To disguise unsightly bulges, women wore girdles (right)--not to be confused with corsets that enhanced curves. Vogue and wealthy New York matrons sponsored the first fashion show of all American designs in 1914 to benefit European War Relief (Murray 102).

(Images from Thomas < >

However, it was in Paris that dressmaking reached its apogee.
Paul Poiret "recognized the changing manners, modes, and attitudes of women and
swept away...restrictive design.... He cracked open the door to body freedom..."
(Murray 102).
This process was hastened by the Great War, which demanded "simpler and more functional clothing"
for women (
Murray 101). In the 1920s, processes begun before the war hastened the demise of the corset;
the famous "S" curve of the Edwardian era gave way to more natural waist lines.
"Even ankles...peek[ed] out from under shortening skirts (
Murray 102).

On a political note, suffragists and suffragettes leveraged their wartime efforts and won their battle for the vote. The groundwork done by Emmeline Pankhurst and The Women's Social and Political Union, among others, secured the franchise for women over 30 to vote in 1918, and women over the age of 21 in 1928 in Britain--not without heroic struggle. Opponents feared that women's duties would be neglected and the family would disintegrate. Christabel Pankurst and Annie Kenney campaign (left.) Social customs and mores did, in fact change in the 1920s, but not necessarily because women could vote!

image source < >

In the economic arena, women had gone to work during the Great War, especially in Britain and the United States and, as noted above, leveraged their wartime efforts into securing the vote. During the so-called "roaring 20s," 10,000,000 women "worked for wages..." in the United States in occupations such as "teaching, clerical work, domestic service and the garment trades" (Kennedy 27). My mother was a PE teacher, her sister an elementary school principal (quite an achievement back in the day.) Another sister taught Latin; all of them--and their two younger sisters--graduated from college. As daughters of immigrants, the three oldest went to normal school (as teachers' colleges were named) and the two younger ones to private university (Northwestern) paid for by the older sibs!

"The legendary 'flapper' made her debut in the post-war decade, signaling with studied theatrical flourishes a new ethos of freminie freedom and sexual parity" (Kennedy 28,) a "young modern woman who went out on dates without a chaperone, wore fashionable clothes...make-up, and possibly had a job" (Pascone 2). The term "flapper" was coined to describe the young women who walked about with their boots or shoes unfastened and they "flapped about." Bobbed hair first appeared in Paris but quickly crossed the Atlantic where it was complemented by the cloche hat (right--Benton plate 23.1). Cloche comes from the French word for bell, as you can see. Lady Mary, Season V of Downton Abbey, intentionally shocked her family (especially Lady Edith) by bobbing her hair. Knees and short hair were the last word in what was considered racy! "Actually, it was the first time in costume history that women had shown their legs" (Murray 104). It should come as no surprise that some women demanded control over their own reproductive systems. Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 (Kennedy 28).


For day wear, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel introduced the ubiquitous "little black dress" in 1926. Murray calls her "the most significant designer of the 20th century" (126). Her la garçonne look "summed up the androgynous, bustless, hipless boyish shape that became the goal of so many young...women.... She introduced...uncluttered costumes in easy to wear jersey...and...developed daywear that combined neat, clean cut lines with comfort.... [she was also]...influenced by the practicalities of the occupational..." needs of the modern woman (Benton, et al. 264). America's Vogue magazine called her little black dress the Chanel Ford--"the frock that all the world will wear" (Benton 264; Image plate 23.7) and "the dress of the decade..." (Murray 127).

Coco Chanel created fashion icons and was herself one between
the wars: according to Judith Warner, she "...took Jazz Age Paris by storm,
liberating women from their corsets, draping them in jersey and long strings of pearls and
dousing them with the scent of modernity, Chanel No. 5" (21). Coco Chanel hung out with
Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev. Hal Vaughan's recent biography
(Sleeping with the Enemy) suggests a darker side to this doyenne of fashion.
He describes her outspoken anti-semitism, her collaborationist activities
during World War II, including an affair with a German intelligence agent.

Actually, the "bright young things" did not display that much knee, though their skirts were certainly shorter than those of their mothers and/or grandmothers. Even at the heighth of flapperdom, skirts stopped below the knee. Most hemlines fell several inches below that. Neverthless, what they wore and did seemed outrageous to their elders. When Lady Mary cut her hair in Downton Abbey (season V,) it was partly for its shock value, especially "in your face" to her sister, Lady Edith.

(Left--Chicago Historical Society; right--Thomas)
In the United States, Mrs. Calvin Coolidge (Grace Goodhue Coolidge)--quite the opposite of her taciturn husband--embodied the look. She "adapted herself to the flapper style" and was admired by French couturier Charles Worth. A beautiful woman and charming hostess, she worked hard at maintaining her "lean frame" by indulging her "passions for hiking and swimming" (Bellafante C20). The 1920s legitimatized the entrance of women into the work force, society, athletics--Gertude Ederle swam the English Channel, the first woman to accomplish this feat! (Bellafante C20). Mrs. Coolidge closely followed the dictates of Parisian fashion (left image.) The Flapper Look reigned supreme at the 1925 Paris Exhibition. There, the mannequins "were remarkable for their lanquid sophistication." French designers such as Patou, Lanvin, Paquin popularized the extravagant, cylindrical line(Benton, et al. 261-262; Bellafante C20).
Jazz, for Art Deco devotées, embodied the rhythms of Africa as did no other medium, and was "an integral component of the vogue for l'art nègre" (Benton, et al. 135). Born of the fusion of European musical forms, complex West African rhythms and syncopation, American blues and ragtime, jazz came to...symbolize the exotic and modern urban living. The parallels between the complex patterns of jazz and the energetic forms of Art Deco were clear... (Benton, et al. 135). Jazz had an enormous impact on popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, Harlem night spots such as the Cotton Club played to a racially mixed clientele, as did the Savoy Ballroom. Duke Ellington earned a following at home, but other black artists such as Sydney Bechet, Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes sought the friendlier environment of Europe.

(far left, plate 11.15; middle, < > )
Listen to Sydney Bechet < >

Josephine Baker shocked and charmed Parisian audiences with her "Danse sauvage" in La Revue nègree in 1925. Critics described her as a "black Venus," photographers took her picture, the Folies Bergère created a whole review for her in 1926. For this production, Baker wore what became her trademark "banana skirt" (Benton, et al. 137). Artist Paul Coulin created a book of Josephine Baker's costumes.

image source Benton, et al. plate 11.14

Visit < > for a 1952 reunion
of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and Django Reinhardt--Very cool!
Bechet, afficianado of the soprano sax < >

In 1926, my Aunt Jo married my Uncle George. Here she is, a type specimen of a young woman of the flapper era surrounded by her bridesmaids. My mother is on her left. All of the women pictured have a Marcel hair style, the short cut with waved hair.


Evening wear in the 1920s was glamorous to the max. Necklines plunged, beads, fringes and feathers decorated the gowns.
Think Lady Rose of Downton Abbey
Strings of pearls became fashionable; make up was obvious and dramatic.

A fashion critic wrote, "...Evening gowns of silver tissue have their brilliance increased by
embroideries of silvered crystal beads and small discs of mirror..."
(Benton, et al. 276).
The cocktail dress was designed in "exquisite lamés and beaded chiffons,...often sporting pointed hemlines,
known as 'handkerchief' hems"
(Murray 105). To complete their ensemble, women donned a
T-strap shoe, worn with beige rather than black silk or rayon hose.

If you are interested in vintage shoes from the 1920s, visit
< >

(Images from Vintage Vixen Clothing Co)


In the 1920s, night life, including jazz clubs, night clubs, dance halls, the cocktail party (speakeasies in the United States) created fashion demands for "the bright young things." Evening dresses had to accommodate not only the two-step, Charleston, and shimmy, but also the newly popular tango, rhumba, samba, and conga. Dancing to live music, the new elites also owned gramophones and victrolas to play records of the newest dance crazes. They danced at clubs, at tea dances, at home. The sensuous tango required the loose, corsetless, swingy fabrics of the 1920s. (Image left, Thomas)

The Charlston, including instructions < >
Charlston, in combo with the "shimmy" < >
or this one < >
The "Shimmy" < >
Richard Gere gets a tango lesson from Jennifer Lopez in the movie Shall We Dance
< >

For Americans, the quintessential novel that evokes the Jazz Age remains F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Like other famous, or infamous "flappers," Zelda Fitzgerald and her ilk did everything they could to "shock and awe" their society. These ''dangerous, debauched, and desperate" women, according J.K. Jenkins, broke the rules "...just for the sake of it" and others seemed "hell-bent on ruination" (11). They ran the risks of their independence and enjoyed "its pleasures." BTW, they voted!

image source < >
If you are interested in how women were portrayed in 1920s cinema, follow link [ Film ]



As the the 1920s wound down and the 1930s began, hemlines lengthened and waist lines reappeared. The long lean look continued to dominate, especially as the bias cut became more popular and the fabric became more clingy. Glamor was the operative concept of the decade. As the Depression worsened on both sides of the Atlantic, women's evening wear became more sophisticated, emulating the slinky look of Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo on the "silver screen." Indeed the prevalence of silk and satin (and the synthetics that approximated them) was related to the elegant way that movie lighting played upon the lights and shadows of the shiny materials. The bias cut, introduced by Paris designer MadeleineVionnet, produced a clinging, figure-revealing silhouette. A bare backed evening gown might be incongruously accented with puffy sleeves; the bare midriff made its appearance. The 1930s gown shown here is of "sumptuous ivory silk charmeuse...bias cut in a beautiful, figure enhancing drape" (Retrodress).



"Vionnet's sleek, easy cuts followed the natural lines of the body, clinging and elegant" (Murray 129). My mother was married in 1934, a decade after her sister Josephine, but the styles had changed significantly in that time. Mother's dress was long and satin, cut on the bias, and elegant, especially with its long train and super long veil.


In the 1930s, fashion designs by such as Jean Patou (left) Jeanne Lanvin (center) and Vionnet (right)
abandoned the la garçonne look and the chemises of the Jazz Age. Instead of and despite the Depression,
they specialized in sinuous, ultra-sophisticated styles; their gowns were more than "tubes,"
they insisted, and could not be run off in twenty-four hours. As in other areas of Art Deco, streamlining was the goal.
Designers on both sides of the Atlantic copied styles from the increasingly popular Hollywood movies.
Everyone wanted to look like and dress like the stars. Knock-offs sold by Sears and Montgomery Ward
made it possible for many to do so.

(Benton, et al. plates 23.8, 23.9, 23.10).


Macy's Department Store claimed to sell 500,000 copies of the slinky dress Joan Crawford wore in her hit black and white 1932 movie, Letty Lynton. Gilbert Adrian designed such Art Deco dresses and gowns for movies, but also for celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard; the "Letty Lynton" dress was made of white silk crepe with black bugle beads. (Image from Artnet)


Art Deco accessories, characterized by the exotic, "streamlining," and fantasy, completed the fashion statement of the trend-setters of the 1920s and 1930s. Again as in all areas of Art Deco, the changes in the world and in women's lives made their transformative impact on jewelry. The same streamlined angularity of fashion could be seen in the accessories women wore or carried. The Paris 1925 Exhibition guidelines specified that jewelry on display should reflect "...modern inspiration and...originality." (Benton, et al. 273) Flamboyant earrings for bobbed hairstyles competed with the more traditional tiara. The very short, shingled hair style could not support a tiara or jeweled combs. Heavy, old-fashioned ornate brooches did not go well on the chemise-type dresses of the 1920s, so women pinned elaborate brooches on their cloche hats.

Bracelets, increasingly ornate, replaced the long evening gloves of the turn of the century. In 1925, Raymond Templier designed the confection to your left of silver, platinum, gold, onyx, and diamonds. (Benton, et al. 280 plate 24.13) To your right a bracelet of white and yellow gold inlaid with onyx designed by Jean Fouquet. (Benton, et al. 280 plate 24.14) Either of these bracelets could be worn on the wrist or over long gloves.


Women carried small beaded or otherwise decorated small bags as accessories to their evening wear in the 1920s and 1930s. The bag to your left reflects the "Egyptomania" that accompanied the discovery of King Tut's tomb. This one combines stylized heiroglyphic figures in a French evening bag of satin, leather, gold, and lapis lazuli` with brass fittings. (Benton, et al. 269 plate 23.14)


The evening bag of a "bright young thing" had to hold her compact, lipstick, and cigarettes. Elaborate make-up required portable cosmetics for a touch up; the acceptance of smoking in public for women necessitated a compartment in the vanity case for cigarettes and perhaps a holder and/or lighter. Smoking was the ultimate in chic. In America, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden produced an endless supply of paints and powders to achieve the tanned athletic look that replaced the white skin so prized in the 19th century. Lacloche Frères designed this vanity case of jade, diamonds, and onyx in 1925. (Benton, et al. 276 plate 24.7)



Art Deco 1910-1939. Edited by Charlotte Benton, et al. London: V&A Publications, 2003.

Artnet Worldwide Corporation. "Letty Lynton." Artnet. Online Available.
< >

(Background--Benton, et al. plate 23.1)

Bellafante, Ginia. "It Didn't Start with Jackie: First Lady Style Makes Waves." The New York Times, August 3, 2004.

Chicago Historical Society. "Fashion, Flappers, and all that Jazz." Chicago To Go. Online Available.
< http://www.chicagoto >

"Feminism and Antifeminism." Sources of the Western Tradition. Ed. by Marvin Perry, et al.
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.

Jenkins, Jessica Kerwin. "Women of a Certain Era." The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 2014.

Kennedy, David. Freedom from Fear
. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Murray, Maggie Pexton. Changing Styles in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1989.

Pascone, Christine. "Early Twenties." Christy's Fashion Pages. Online Available.
< >

Retrodress. "1930s Ivory Silk Bias Cut Gown." Retrodress. Online Available.
< >

Warner, Judith. "Captivating Collaborator." The New York Times Book Review,
September 4, 2011.

Thomas, Pauline Weston and Guy Thomas. Fashion-Era. Online Available.
< >

Vintage Clothing Co. "Attire for 1920s-1930s Events." Grand Traditions Vintage Dance. Online Available.
< >



McKee, Peggy. "Fashion." Art Deco--Between the Wars. March 17, 2015 . Online Available.
< >

(McKee. "Fashion")