The History of Fashion and Dress
Theatre 355 Online Version University of Alaska Fairbanks
Instructor, Tara Maginnis, Ph.D.

Week 14:

Step 1:

Read the online "lecture" on dress in the 20th Century below and click on any links that interest you.  You are not required to read all the material on all the links, however:

Dress from WWI to WWII

The First World War (1914-1918) had a pronounced effect on women's fashion in the Western world.  Several trends that had roots in the decades prior to the war, were rapidly accelerated by wartime conditions.  The most lasting change happened to women's hemlines.  Hems which had risen from floor length to ankle length prior to the war, rose to mid calf length by 1916, and have stayed that high, or higher, ever since.  Hobble skirts were instantly jettisoned in favor of slightly wider more practical skirts.  Several avant-garde fashions, like women's trousers, and short hair, decried before the war as sinful and ugly, were promoted as practical fashions for war work.  The Pope even issued a bull during the war declaring that short hair for women was not immoral, and was a necessity for many factory workers. Most women did not suddenly cut their hair, but once it became acceptable to do so, gradually more and more women did in the following decades.

1915cat4.jpg (25677 bytes) Women's Suits, c.1915-16

The tendency for female office workers to wear feminized versions of men's suits and shirts (common since 1900) became virtually standard by this time. 

 Soft V-necklines, considered racy in 1912-14, during a time of high boned necklines, became normal daywear after 1915.

Large numbers of women were recruited into military organizations on all sides, and put into a variety of uniforms, which also influenced the shape of fashionable dress.  (For more see Women and the First World War).

During the war, a dye shortage, and fabric shortages encouraged a certain utilitarian drabness in dress, but the most noticeable change engendered by the war was a relaxation of the formal rules of attire which had bound men and women's dress since early in the Victorian era.  Not only did women's hemlines rise to mid-calf length, but more exciting yet, ladies wore these shorter styles with sexy heeled shoes and flesh toned silk stockings, not high button boots.  Young men wore the more casual "Tuxedo" jacket to formal evening occasions, not just to men's only club functions.  Young and daring women dumped the corset in favor of brasseries.  Army officers wore Wristwatches instead of pocket watches, and soft "lingerie" shirts with soft collars attached to them.  Tail coats and frock coats began only to be worn on highly formal occasions, to be almost fully replaced by the modern sack suit.   This is why clothing after the 1914-1918 War period is instantly recognizable as "Modern" to our eyes.

Orientalist fashions continued to be popular, and were eventually stylized into a form which came to be know as Art Deco, the dominant style for fabric decoration and interior design until WWII. Notable European designers  like Erte, Poiret, Chanel, Barbier, Vionnet, Zamora and Delaunay all worked in this style through the succeeding decades.


After the War in 1918 the Suffragettes finally won the vote in the UK, and in America voting for women was won in 1920.  Fashion trends towards a more casual look continued in the 1920's.  In the aftermath of the war, people questioned the values of the older generation that had led to the conflict.  To a great extent people believed that those values were discredited, along with the generation that spawned it.   American culture in particular became very youth oriented, and fashion began to look towards teen and college-age kids for it's inspiration.  The "College Man" and "The Flapper" became the new icons of all that was young and fashionable.  Women in particular began dieting to mold their bodies into a slimmer, flatter teenage shape and dress waistlines dipped to hip length to minimize the appearance of adult curves. The Brassiere, in breast flattening styles, replaced corsets almost completely.

Evening dress showing typical "Spanish" embroidered shawl, and huge ostrich feather fan, the man is wearing "black tie" always worn with a Tuxedo c. 1925

Sex too, became a non-taboo subject.  During the war the government & military had set on campaigns to deter soldiers from contracting venereal disease.   Rubber condoms (previously hard to find and illegal in most places) were sporadically issued to soldiers along with primitive sex education lessons.  In 1920, Trojan brand condoms, began to be made and sold to the civilian population. Advances in the treatment of Syphilis also made extramarital sex less lethal than before.  The result was that returning soldiers and nurses were better informed, and better armed, for sex without consequences than before the war.  Many married couples now regularly limited family size through birth control, and young unmarried people were more likely to engage in sex before marriage.

artgoutebeaut1926b.jpg (32768 bytes)  artgoutebeaut1926c.jpg (58048 bytes) Art - Gout - Beaute 1926

Women's hemlines got shorter until 1925-6 when they peaked at just below the knee.  The influence of Hollywood Silent Pictures made makeup, particularly lipstick, increasingly fashionable.  Early versions of "permanent wave" hair curling also spawned a new industry of "Beauty Shops" where women could meet in groups while having hair cut and curled.  Western women began growing their nails long, and even painting them with colored enamels, an idea that would have seemed indescribably foreign, decadent and erotic to the previous generation.

Rayon (acetate) invented by Briton Charles Frederick Cross in 1895 (and first manufactured in the US in 1910) began to be commonly available in the 1920's, and was a staple fabric for stockings and women's dresses by the end of the decade. 

 Shorter hair styles necessitated hat shapes that held to the head without benefit of hatpins, so the head hugging cloche was popular.

clochehats1.jpg (43289 bytes) clochehats2.jpg (42761 bytes)  c. 1928 Cloche hats

Short skirts and college fashions reigned in a booming US economy that kept wildly spending and expanding on credit until the Great Stock market Crash of 1929 put a halt to the prosperity and the fun.


As soon as the great Stock Market Crash of 1929 hit the US economy, fashion took a more conservative turn.  Women's hemlines dipped back down to mid calf length for day wear, and full length for evening wear.  Waistlines moved back to the waist and adult female curves again became fashionable. "White tie" full dress with a tailcoat popped back into men's evening fashion.  It is as if the world felt that the Great Depression  was a judgment on the fast times and youth culture of the 1920's, and prepared to grow up and do penance in the 1930's .

spring1934cottondresses2.JPG (148883 bytes) Spring 1934 Sears Catalog Selected Fashions

Men's suits became sharper edged, with more shoulder padding, looking less youthful and more masculine, a style trend that continued through the 1940's. 

 1937chicagowoolen_small.jpg (3567 bytes) Chicago Woolen Mills 1937 Catalog
  30smanssuit.jpg (19849 bytes) late 1930's suit

African American tailors in Harlem even revived the long frock coat,  re-cut and re-invented as the "Zoot suit".   This modernized version had a colorful spin, and was popularly made of brighter suitings, and light cottons in summer.  This style swept jazz and swing clubs in major cities, was worn out in California by Hispanics, and eventually by disaffected and musically daring teens of all races in the US and Europe. c1930hats2.jpg (36941 bytes)  
c.1930 hats. Images kindly provided by ACarter of eBay, seller of Antique prints and Magazines

Women's Hairstyles got longer, and fuller, due to the increased popularity and availability of permanent Marcel Waves.  Women's hats grew less substantial and more feminine and impractical throughout the 1930's. Ruffles, banished from female fashion in the mid 1920's, returned with a vengeance, and were combined with Bias cut gowns (first made popular in the late 1920's by Madeleine Vionnet) to make clinging ultra feminine frocks. 

1938cover_small.JPG (3687 bytes) La Familia Magazine Fashion Illustrations of 1938

1939-1945 (WWII)

War broke out in Europe in 1939, the same year the first true artificial fiber, Nylon, was introduced at the World's Fair in New York.  For the duration (1939-1945), fashion veered between exiting innovations like this, and the shortages, price controls and rationing created by war.  Often,  shortages directly created the innovations:  Men's suits bought before the war typically came with jacket, vest and two pairs of matching trousers.  During the war this dropped to just a jacket and one pair of trousers, where it has stayed ever since.  Leather and rubber shortages caused shoe makers to experiment with wood and cork soled, stylishly elevated, Platform shoes.

WPByardstick.JPG (97865 bytes) War Production Board guidelines for garment manufacture 1942

Women's clothing went through the greatest changes in this era, both due to shortages, and due to large numbers of women engaging in work outside the home during the war. Bias cutting was promptly dropped as a waste of fabric, and "Make Do And Mend", wartime advice centered on sewing old clothes in to new ones. Men's suits were re-cut into women's suits, complete with the tailored details and shoulder padding previously found in the garments. Shoulder pads quickly became stylish in all women's garments, not only suits, and stayed in fashion until 1949. 

c1945pattern.JPG (40329 bytes) 1945 pattern 

suitthatboughtbond.jpg (64028 bytes) "The suit that bought a bond": Woman's suit made from an old man's suit. 1942

Most governments issued either construction guidelines, or rationing to curtail fabric use, yet even in Europe men and women managed ways to  stay fashionable during the conflict.  "The Little Black Dress" was a popular method suggested by style magazines:  Having a simple, short (knee length) black dress, which one varied each day and evening with sets of color-matched accessories. Fashion that was not rationed, like hats, and hairstyles, grew creatively elaborate. Women and girls were actively encouraged to wear pants, both for war work and warmth.

made1942.JPG (32545 bytes) 1942

pickenalterations.GIF (16686 bytes) Fabric conserving alterations to make small old dresses fit a larger figure 1946

Men's clothing, when out of uniform, was increasingly casual.  In addition to dropping vests from suits, ties became wildly festive in pattern, color and style.  Aloha Shirts for casual wear came to the mainland with servicemen returning from the Pacific theatre.  Suit wearing increasingly was confined to work in offices, going to church, and formal occasions.  

Step 2:

Write a rough draft of your final report on your study garment, and post it to your web page by May 3rd  The report should contain the following:

  1. A brief description of the garment.
  2. Photos of the garment.
  3. An estimated "date" of the garment, with a description of the reasons/sources you used to arrive at this date.
  4. An estimated "story" of the garment, describing when it was probably worn (parties, work, wedding?), what price range it represents (custom tailored, expensive, home-made, mass produced cheaply?), and any other important information you have been able to deduce.
  5. A list of sources of information: This may include family stories, hyperlinks, or bibliography.

Get Extra Credit if you include any of the following (You can lift your grade in this class by a full letter if you are an over-achiever and include all these):  

  1. Pattern
  2. Detail drawings
  3. Long, detailed, web page on the social/historical/fashion background of the era of the garment.
Step 3:

Read the reports of at least two of your fellow students, and post constructive comments for them to the message board by May 6. After this, work on revisions for the second draft of your report, due next week.

 This Concludes Week #14's Lesson

Return to Class Index

American Women's Fashions 1913-1920
The Great War : Styles & Patterns of the 1910s

1916a.jpg (52449 bytes) 1916  1917sears1.jpg (22380 bytes) 1917

Gimbel's Illustrated 1915 Fashion Catalog

American Red Cross Uniforms of 1918

margotasquith1920.jpg (33715 bytes) Margot Asquith, wife of the British prime Minister in 1920

Everyday Fashions 1909-1920 As Pictured in Sears Catalogs

20smenssuits.gif (82547 bytes) 1920's men's sack suits in "college" style.

1920Bonton1.jpg (11414 bytes) Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, higher hems and flesh toned stockings.

Women's Wear of the 1920's: With Complete Patterns

Art Deco Hair: Hairstyles of the 1920s and 1930s


Everyday Fashions of the Twenties As Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs

An English "Court" shoe of 1920.

Permanent Waves : The Making of the American Beauty Shop

Hat of 1925

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel : Gay Men's Dress in the Twentieth Century

beauty1929.jpg (27903 bytes) Cosmetics and Hairstyle of 1929

    Bernard-Hewitt & Co. Summer 1928 Apparel Sale Catalog

1929mccall5739.jpg (36635 bytes) chicmailorder1929.jpg (63150 bytes) 1929

Authentic 1940s Hairstyles : Tips and Tricks For Creating Authentic 1940s Hairstyles
Uplift : The Bra in America

1930fashserv.jpg (92002 bytes) 1930fashserv.jpg (92002 bytes) 1930-31


Everyday Fashions of the Thirties As Pictured in Sears Catalogs

1931group.jpg (47354 bytes) George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, 1931

Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood

1940garycooper.jpg (83292 bytes) Gary Cooper, 1940

Fashions of a Decade : The 1940s 
Everyday Fashions of the Forties As Pictured in Sears Catalogs
Links for Further Study: 1910's, 1920's, 1930's 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, 1970's, 1980's & 1990's Timeline Images for Study: 1910's, 1920's, 1930's 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, & 1970's


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This Page is part of The Costumer's Manifesto by Tara Maginnis, Ph.D.  Copyright 1996-2006.   You may print out any of these pages for non-profit educational use such as school papers, teacher handouts, or wall displays.  You may link to any page in my site.