PHILADELPHIA — The 1920s marked the end of the corset. That’s reason enough to celebrate the looks of the Roaring ’20s.
But fashion history owes so much more to this decadent decade. It’s when the little black dress became a wardrobe staple. Glitter and fringe made their clothing debuts thanks to the popularity of nightlife and dancing. Beauty products and underwear were mass-produced for the first time and were sold in both department and five-and-dime stores.
Can you say life-changing?
“There is a big cultural shift that takes place in the 1920s,” said Clare Sauro, director of Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection and the curator of its newest fashion exhibit, Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age. “The promotion of fashion as a pastime for the American woman is born because department stores were not only importing French designs and selling clothes off the rack, they were hosting fashion shows and luncheons, and women were socializing while they shopped,” Sauro said.
“Venus & Diana” features 44 garments, many of which came directly from the closets of 1920 doyennes, including Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt, the granddaughter of Drexel University’s founder, A.J. Drexel. The collection dates to the 1890s, Sauro said. “In the 1950s, these were just old clothes,” Sauro said. “We’ve amassed a spectacular group of clothing during a time when vintage wasn’t valued.”
Sauro included a rare fringed evening dress from the house of Coco Chanel. There’s a trio of frocks from the equally talented, but lesser-known Callot Soeurs that speak to early global influences as the designs are Japanese, Chinese, and Persian. The menswear-inspired tweed pantsuits produced by a Philadelphia tailor were considered scandalous, yet are wardrobe staples today.
“The women who wore these pieces were the children and grandchildren of the robber barons of the gilded age,” Sauro said. “This was a generation of young people who escaped the teens with their lives: Their boyfriends and younger brothers didn’t come back from World War I. They lost friends to the Spanish influenza.” In other words, they didn’t care about what the old biddies thought of their new sense of style.
Sauro planned to open “Venus & Diana” in 2020 as a 100-year retrospective, but the pandemic squashed that idea. Now, after living through such a tumultuous time herself in American history, she better understands the you-only-live-once sentiment of the 1920s.
“The Roaring ’20s were a big party, but there was a lot of pain behind it,” Sauro said. “That’s why the exhibition will resonate.”
Here are 10 more reasons why the 1920s is fashion’s best decade
We get to wear glitter
Young people started going to nightclubs and dancing in the 1910s, but by the 1920s it was a trend. Glitter, sequins, and rhinestones were now acceptable in polite company. In earlier periods, ornate beading served as an accent. In the 1920s, electric lights, still a fairly new technology, became ubiquitous in nightclubs, restaurants and other fashionable locations. Revelers, who wanted to be seen, wore clothing that shimmered.
Underwear becomes easy-to-wear
The disappearance of boned undergarments made way for silk jersey tanks and tap pants. (Today we call them boy shorts.) They replaced the ruffles and ribbons and offered a smooth canvas underneath close-fitting Chanel dresses. In this grouping, Sauro included an icy pink, silk knit one-piece undergarment she purchased on Etsy. The garment is circa 1927. “I was able to date it because the hang tag said the garment should be washed in Ivory flakes, typically used in the 1920s,” Sauro said.
Loungewear goes glam
In the 1920s women started wearing pajamas for more than just sleeping. They wore them when entertaining at home and on the beach. “The silhouettes were loose, they were draped and it was very comfortable, relaxed glamour,” Sauro said. Before the 1920s, it was risqué for women to wear pajamas, even in their homes because trousers were considered menswear.
Androgyny is practicality
Women began wearing men’s clothes to participate in sports like tennis, golf, horseback riding, flying airplanes, and racing cars. This practicality made androgyny cool. “We wouldn’t have had Marlene Dietrich or Josephine Baker in their white tie and tails in the 1930s without this period,” Sauro said. Some women even borrowed clothing from men’s wardrobes until designers like Chanel and Jean Patou began adding neckties, blazers, and cardigans to their women’s collections.
Shopping goes off-the-rack
The wives of American business tycoons wanted fashion on their own terms — and quickly. Instead of sitting through long fittings for couture day dresses, the see-now, buy-now concept was introduced and flourished as cardigans, pleated skirts, and jersey knits were sold off the rack at department stores and boutiques. “This paves the way for the success of American designers like Clare McCardell in the 1950s and Calvin Klein in the 1970s,” Sauro said.
Influences are Egyptian
The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 inspired European and American designers to add hieroglyphic motifs to evening pumps and dancing frocks. There was a demand for imported Egyptian shawls fashioned from white or black cotton and embellished with strips of silver. “These assuit shawls are typical of the Egyptomania scene in this period,” Sauro said.
More beadings, more texture
The simplified structure of 1920s garments provided a perfect vehicle for embellishment, resulting in opulent textiles, heavy beading, sequins and fringe on evening wear, Sauro said. “It was in poor taste to have a lavish party when there was a war going on and it was in poor taste to enjoy life when people were mourning, so the 1920s became a time where people enjoyed themselves again. There is a celebratory feel to the textiles.”
The Charleston, the Shimmy, the Black Bottom were popular dances during the 1920s done to jazz. These dances were all about cutting a rug, so flowing dresses appropriate for waltzes were replaced with streamlined sheaths with fringe. These silhouettes remain popular on-the-town looks today.
Hello, Little Black Dress
Before the 1920s, a fashionable woman would change her clothes throughout the day. She had breakfast in a morning dress, went shopping in a day dress, went visiting in an afternoon dress and had dinner in an evening dress. The radical little black dress, popularized by Chanel, gave women the option to wear the same dress all day and simply change her accessories. “It gives women the freedom to live their lives and not change their clothes all of the time,” Sauro said.
Cosmetics become everyday fare
By the end of the 1920s, cosmetics weren’t just socially acceptable they were required for a properly dressed woman, Sauro said. The mass production of foundation powder, mascara, lipstick and rouge gave the everyday woman access to glamour. “Cosmetics are one of those things that are explicitly linked to feminine independence in the 1920s,” Sauro said. “Just like smoking, drinking and driving cars, wearing cosmetics is seen as a symbol of social freedom.”
“Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” is open through May 6 and is located at Drexel University’s URBN Center, 3501 Market Street. Hours are Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call ahead for admission: 215-571-3504. Please wear a mask. Entrance into the exhibit is free.