How to Dress 1920s
At Fashion and the Automobile, we’re fond of saying “what’s old is new again”. And here we are, deep into the New Roaring 20s – the 2020s, that is – and 1920s fashions are just as popular as ever, as evidenced by all the 20s themed events happening, like the upcoming Packard Proving Grounds Great Gatsby Gala fundraiser.
So you’d like to dress 20s, but don’t know where to start? Well, you’re in luck, because you have lots of wonderful choices!
First and foremost, let me start by saying I do not recommend wearing actual 1920s vintage dresses! At 100+ years old, they are fragile and brittle. Even if the fabric seems strong, the thread could be dry-rotting, and you’d have a major wardrobe malfunction while doing the Charleston!
Fashion in the Jazz Age varied from the beginning to the end of the decade. In the early 1920s, waistlines of the dresses dip to the hips, and hemlines rise scandalously to the knees. But by the mid-1920s, shift type dresses with no waistline emerged, and hemlines begin to drop again, a precursor to the longer styles of the 1930s. You can also choose to wear either a lighter daytime dress, or the more formal beaded evening flapper style dress.
Daytime looks for the ladies were light, flowing chiffon or crepe dresses for dress up occasions like teas, usually in plain or floral prints with ruffles at the hem, or with handkerchief zigzag hemlines. The waistband was either at the hips (for an early 20s look) or with no waistband at all (for a late 20s look). They also wore long (mid-calf) pleated skirts with simple blouses and long sweaters for sporting attire (tennis or golf). The sailor look was very popular for sports too, a white sailor blouse paired with a white mid-calf skirt. Carrying an old wood tennis racket or golf club is a nice prop when wearing this look!
Daytime looks were always worn with a hat. There were the larger brim style hats to block the sun, or (as ladies began bobbing their hair), the tighter cloche (brimless) hats that fit over their new shorter hairstyles. These hats were always elaborately decorated with feathers, flowers, and soutache trim.
Ladies evening attire ran the gambit from flapper dresses (worn by the younger women) to long dresses and gowns (mid-calf or to the floor) for older women. Mature women still wore the drop waist or no waist styles, many with Art Deco or Egyptian styling on the fabric or trim (King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, and started a movement of clothing and jewelry that replicated the great boy king). The photos below feature my grandparents, with my grandmother wearing a late 20s (no waist) Egyptian style dress, and me wearing one from the 1980s when the look was rebooted (a thrift store find, I just removed the shoulder pads).
Younger women wore what has come to be known as flapper dresses. But contrary to what’s now in Halloween stores, they were not mega short. Flappers wore their dresses around knee length – that was scandalous enough in those days! Also contrary to Halloween reproductions, most were not just fringe all the way around. Most were just plain cotton, wool or satin (no polyester yet!), tubular in styling, either with a drop waist or with no waist at all, and with only modest trim like bows and belts tied loosely at the hips (women didn’t show off their curves like they do today). Wealthier ladies wore beaded dresses – there was no machine beading in those days, they were all hand-beaded, hence expensive. These dresses were very heavy, weighing up to 4-5 pounds (which is why no one should store one of these antiques on a hanger – the shoulders would eventually give way), some featuring gelatin sequins (not plastic) which melted in the hot sun! The photos below shows our authentic beaded flapper dress, with our model Kim wearing a reproduction with beaded fringe (more accurate than polyester fringe), and a plainer authentic flapper dress of black satin and velvet trim.
1920s Flapper-Style Dresses
Flappers also wore something on their hair – either it was an elegantly trimmed beaded silk cloche designed for eveningwear, or headbands made of metallic fibers and/or beads, or even just a beaded patch on the side of the head with a feather tucked in. They even took necklaces and pinned them in their hair, across the forehead, just like their favorite silent movie stars. They also wore elbow length gloves, carried long cigarette holders, and even had a flask tucked into their garter. (Tip: wear fingerless gloves, so you can take pictures with your modern phone!) In the photos below, I am wearing a beaded headpiece in my hair, as are my friends Jill and Inger, and Rita (with her incredible egret feathers).
Creating These Looks Yourself
So where do you find reproductions of these looks?
The least expensive source is probably Amazon, where a quick search brings up over 4,000 choices!
The most costumey look features the ever-popular (but period-inaccurate) fringe styles. The most period correct are the longer machine-beaded dresses, which can be reasonably priced. Just make sure to allow yourself plenty of time for delivery, as some of them are coming from the Far East and take a while to ship (also check the size charts carefully, as things from the Far East are frequently too small). This is also your best source for fingerless elbow gloves, as well as an excellent selection of cloche hats.
A great reproduction store is Unique Vintage in California, where you can shop by era. Unique Vintage offers beautiful day and evening attire, as well as accessories (shoes, purses, headbands, gloves, and jewelry). Just avoid the Nataya dresses that they “claim” to be 1920s (they aren’t). They also have jackets (to dress up a plain dress) and capelets (to help hide forearms). They also offer plus sizes. And don’t forget to check their Sale tab for some great deals! This is your best source for 20s hats – their tan straw cloche and beaded flapper cap are both right on the money, as far as period correctness goes!
Another good reproduction store is Retro Stage, also located in California. They have some beautiful, affordable choices, even longer Art Deco styles.
Locally, try the Peacock Room, with two locations in downtown Detroit, the Fisher Building (in the New Center area), as well as the Park Shelton (across from the Detroit Historical Museum). Rachel Lutz carries a wide variety of retro-inspired dresses and accessories in her beautiful restored showroom, ranging from size 0 to size 22. Just be sure to stay with 1920s era looks, as she also carries things into the 50s and 60s. (Her beaded purses are to die for!)
But hands down, my favorite go-to retro store is Recollections in Alpena, Michigan. Recollections features beautiful period clothing handmade by Michigan women (no Far East imports here), where you can even choose the fabric and the color. They’ll also tailor it to your specific body type, if you let them know your actual measurements (not just the size offered). They also offer accessories to complete your look. Just be sure to order well in advance of your event, as they need time to make the outfit (give them the date of your event, so they can schedule production accordingly). Also, be sure to shop their Sale and Clearance tab for some great deals! Tip: subscribe to their newsletter. Not only will you be informed about upcoming sales, you’ll also read great stories in their blog posts about historical women throughout history. Here I am, wearing one of their great dresses!
A word about shoes! As you see in the photo above, I have a pair of reproduction strap shoes that I found in a regular department store years ago. Keep your eye out for this design, as it works for multiple eras, Edwardian to 1920s and beyond. There are also excellent shoe reproductions at the websites I mention above, though some of them may be pricey for limited wearing. One of the finest (and most expensive) is American Duchess. The strapped, tied, and Oxford styles are all period correct for the 1920s (women stopped wearing boot styles by this time). But the best (and least expensive) alternative is to wear character shoes from a dance store. Black or beige, they’re perfect for a multitude of eras (I’m wearing a pair in the car photo above). Just visit your local dance store (which supplies leotards, tights, and shoes for dance studios) or find them online at Amazon or Discount Dance. Tip: buy beige or suntan dance tights with the back seam, to be period correct in your shoes!
Not to leave the gentlemen behind – menswear is the easiest to replicate, as men’s attire has been virtually unchanged for over 100 years. The only difference between a 1920s tuxedo and a modern tuxedo is the waistcoat, or vest – men wore vests under the suit coat, not cummerbunds (wide belts). Regular or cutaway tuxedos, worn with a bow tie, was the height of formal fashion. Daytime was almost just as formal. Even industrial workers would wear a suit to the job, usually tan corduroy or tweed jackets, trousers (with or without suspenders), vests, bow ties, and either a straw boater hat or a racing bill cap. The 1920s is when men’s shirts discarded the old stiff detachable collars in favor of attached collars made of the same shirt fabric, which was more comfortable to wear. So you needn’t worry about wearing a current shirt with your outfit. Just match a formal shirt with a tuxedo, or a regular shirt (usually plain or vertical striped) under your daytime outfit. Sporting outfits (hunting or golf) were tweed sport coats or sweaters, worn with ties, knickers, argyle socks, and racing bill caps.
Historical Emporium is a great source for reproduction menswear. They carry longer frock coat jackets, which can be used toward a zoot suit look, which actually started in the 1930s but could be pulled off for a 1920s look, especially if worn with an Art Deco patterned tie. They also carry shorter sack coats and tweed suits, along with a variety of waistcoats/vests. But you’d be best just looking in thrift stores for a tweed jacket, then pairing it with matching solid trousers. There are also great used tuxedos available on sites like eBay and Etsy, but if this is just a one-time party, you might want to consider renting one and pairing it with a formal vest. The photo to the left shows my husband and I at one of our 20s parties. He’s wearing a frock coat like a zoot suit, with a fedora, an Art Deco tie, a watch chain, and spats. I’m wearing a reproduction beaded flapper dress, with a feather boa (also a great accessory).
As always, Google is your friend. Do your research on a multitude of sites, found by Googling 1920s women’s or men’s fashion. Everything is out there, but your best research is found on valid historical websites (not costuming sites), or by looking at actual period images and catalog pages. If you have any specific questions, or wonder if a particular outfit is correct, feel free to email me at email@example.com. You’ll be the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees!