A Brief History of 20th Century Women’s Fashion

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Fashion experienced dramatic changes in the 20th century. The hemline rose and fell, and economics played a big part in what women wore.

In the 20th century, fashion changed more rapidly than ever before. Fashion magazines, and later the movies, disseminated information more quickly. As we entered the 20th century, major fashion changes were on the horizon.

The following sections highlight typical styles of each decade, from the 1910s through the 1950s.

Women’s Fashion in the 1910s

In the 1910, notable fashion designer Paul Poiret of Paris began to advocate for no corset in women’s fashion. This was an important step in liberating women from the confines of a metal or bone cage that caused them to disfigure their bodies. We began to see fashion soften a bit. Necklines finally lowered after several years of high collars.

This decade also saw extremely slim skirts all the way down to the floor. Some skirts were so tight, it was difficult from women to walk! Soon the skirts featured slits in the back or side, allowing for freer movement. For the first time in history, women’s ankles were showing. Previously women’s fashion had dictated that the hemline should touch the floor. With their feet showing, women’s shoe fashion begins to evolve from a utilitarian boot that no one saw under layers of skirt, to a fashion statement of its own.

Women’s Fashion in the 1920s

Although the hemline had already crept up a few inches, it was nothing short of scandalous when the 1920s Flapper began wearing skirts that exposed her knee!

The 1920s was a fashion revolution. The ideal figure was no longer the graceful hourglass shape. Women began to tape their breasts down to create a flat chest look. Flappers wanted to minimize their hips and favored styles that emphasized a “boyish” look. A dropped waistline helped to achieve this look.

Fashion firsts included the handkerchief hemline, introduced by Coco Chanel, and the sleeveless dress.

Women’s Fashion in the 1930s

During the bleak days of the Great Depression, a more serious, feminine style eclipsed the boyish Flapper look, as the young women of the ‘20s matured and faced the hardships of the ‘30s.

The waistline returned to normal. By the end of 1930s, the “hour glass figure” returned. Waists were “nipped in” with elastic “foundation garments,” reminiscent of the corset.

The hemline dropped back down. With less money to keep up with fashion, many home dressmakers added fabric or fur to their 1920s skirts to make them longer. They would also trim the cuffs and collars to create a “put together” appearance. Women also used patterns in Vogue or McCall’s to make their own dresses.

Women’s Fashion in the 1940s

During World War II, fabrics were rationed, just like food and gasoline, so keeping up with fashion during wartime was not easy. Clothes became much plainer, and took on a “boxy” look, with large padded shoulders and shorter skirts, but still below the knee.

Many women found themselves thrust into the workplace, where they were performing industrial jobs previously held by men. Practical clothing, like pants and overalls, became necessary work attire for Rosie the Riveter.

After the end of World War II, Christian Dior electrified the fashion world with his “New Look.” Introduced in 1947, the “New Look” featured a return to femininity – a curvaceous bustline, a tiny waist, and longer skirts made of yards of fabric that swished around when a women walked.

The new style was the polar opposite of the utilitarian clothes that had helped win the war. Special bras were needed to lift the bustline, and boned “corselettes” were used to minimize the waist. Petticoats and sometimes even hip pads were used to keep the skirt full.

Women’s Fashion in the 1950s

Christian Dior’s “New Look” continued to dominate fashion into the 1950s. His favorite styles were the tight sheath dress and the full skirted shirtwaist.

Full circle skirts became popular with younger women, with crinolines to maximize their fullness. Cardigans and Peter Pan collars were all the rage. Cocktail dresses, with pretty feminine details, dominated fashion in the 1950s.