New Drexel Exhibit Highlights 10 Ways The 1920s Was Fashion’s Best Decade
PHILADELPHIA – The 1920s marked the end of the corset. That’s reason enough to celebrate the Roaring Twenties look.
But the history of fashion owes much more to this decadent decade. That’s when the little black dress became a wardrobe staple. Sequins and fringe made their sartorial debut 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 stores and dime stores.
Can you tell who is life changing?
“There’s a big cultural shift happening in the 1920s,” said Clare Sauro, director of Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historical Costume Collection and curator of her new fashion exhibit, Venus & Diana. : Fashioning the Jazz Age. “The promotion of fashion as a pastime for the American woman arose because department stores not only imported French designs and sold ready-made clothes, they held fashion shows and luncheons, and women were socializing while shopping,” Sauro said.
“Venus & Diana” features 44 garments, many of which came straight from the closets of 1920 deans, including Amanda “Minnie” Drexel Fell Cassatt, the granddaughter of Drexel University founder AJ Drexel. The collection dates to the 1890s, Sauro said. “In the 1950s, it was just old clothes,” Sauro said. “We amassed a spectacular group of clothes at a time when vintage was not valued.”
Sauro included a rare Coco Chanel fringed evening gown. There’s a trio of dresses from the equally talented, but lesser-known Callot sisters, that speak to early global influences as the designs are Japanese, Chinese and Persian. Menswear-inspired tweed pantsuits produced by a Philadelphia tailor were considered outrageous, but are now wardrobe staples.
“The women who wore these pieces were the children and grandchildren of the Golden Age robber barons,” Sauro said. “It was a generation of young people who escaped teenagers with their lives: their boyfriends and younger brothers didn’t come back from World War I. They lost friends to the Spanish flu.” In other words, they didn’t care 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 crushed that idea. Now, having lived through such a tumultuous time in American history herself, she better understands the feeling of only living the 1920s once.
“The Roaring 20s was 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 were fashion’s best decade
We get to wear sequins
Young people started going to nightclubs and dancing in the 1910s, but by the 1920s it was a trend. Sequins, sequins and rhinestones were now acceptable in good company. In earlier periods, ornate beads served as an accent. By the 1920s, electric lights, still a relatively new technology, became ubiquitous in nightclubs, restaurants, and other fashionable venues. The revelers, who wanted to be seen, wore glittering clothes.
Underwear becomes easy to wear
The disappearance of boned underwear gave way to silk jersey tank tops and tap shoes. (Today we call them boy shorts.) They replaced ruffles and ribbons and offered a smooth canvas under skin-tight Chanel dresses. In this group, Sauro included an icy pink silk knit one-piece underwear that she purchased on Etsy. The garment dates from around 1927. “I was able to date it because the hang tag said the garment should be washed in ivory flakes, which were commonly used in the 1920s,” Sauro said.
Loungewear becomes glamorous
In the 1920s, women began to wear pajamas for more than just sleeping. They wore them at home and beach parties. “The silhouettes were loose, they draped and it was very comfortable, relaxed glamour,” Sauro said. Prior to the 1920s, it was risky for women to wear pajamas, even at home, as pants were considered men’s clothing.
Androgyny is practical
Women began to wear men’s clothing to participate in sports such as tennis, golf, horseback riding, piloting airplanes and racing cars. This feature made androgyny cool. “We wouldn’t have had Marlene Dietrich or Josephine Baker in their white ties and tails in the 1930s if not for that period,” Sauro said. Some women even borrowed clothes from men’s wardrobes until designers like Chanel and Jean Patou started adding ties, blazers and cardigans to their women’s collections.
Shopping off the beaten track
The wives of American business moguls wanted fashion on their own terms – and fast. 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 in department stores and boutiques. “It paved the way for the success of American designers like Clare McCardell in the 1950s and Calvin Klein in the 1970s,” Sauro said.
The influences are Egyptian
The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 inspired European and American designers to add hieroglyphic designs to evening pumps and dance dresses. There was a demand for imported Egyptian shawls made from white or black cotton and adorned with silver bands. “These matching shawls are typical of the Egyptian scene of this period,” Sauro said.
More pearls, more texture
The streamlined structure of 1920s clothing provided a perfect vehicle for embellishment, resulting in opulent textiles, heavy beading, sequins and fringe on evening wear, Sauro said. “It was bad taste to throw a lavish party when there was a war and it was bad taste to enjoy life when people were in mourning, so the 1920s became a time when people s were having fun again. There is a festive feel to the textiles.
The Charleston, the Shimmy, the Black Bottom were popular 1920s jazz dances. These dances involved cutting a carpet, so the flowing dresses appropriate for waltzes were replaced by streamlined fringed sheaths. These silhouettes remain popular in the city today.
hello little black dress
Before the 1920s, a fashionable woman changed her clothes throughout the day. She ate breakfast in a morning dress, went shopping in a day dress, went sightseeing in an afternoon dress, and dined in an evening dress. The radical little black dress, popularized by Chanel, offered women the option of wearing the same dress all day and simply changing accessories. “It gives women the freedom to live their lives and not change clothes all the time,” Sauro said.
Cosmetics are becoming mainstream
In the late 1920s, cosmetics were not only socially acceptable, they were necessary for a properly dressed woman, Sauro said. Mass production of foundation, mascara, lipstick and blusher gave the everyday woman access to glamour. “Cosmetics is one of those things that is explicitly tied to female independence in the 1920s,” Sauro said. “Like smoking, drinking and driving cars, wearing cosmetics is considered 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 through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call ahead for admission: 215-571-3504. Please wear a mask. Admission to the exhibition is free.
Men’s fashion-inspired women’s sportswear was all the rage in the 1920s, as evidenced by “Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” from Drexel University in Philadelphia.
An ornate evening coat on display in the ‘Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age’ exhibit, in Philadelphia.
A sparkling evening headdress is on display in the “Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibit at Drexel University in Philadelphia.