IntroductionThe following article was written by my friend Jeannie Whited and is reproduced with her permission (thanks Jeannie). It is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Spring 98 Issue of Metagame (Volume 1, No. 1) and includes elements of the costume guide for the XPI: Horror game (also written by Jeannie). Note that it was written for an American audience, but re-written in (British) English (much to Jeannie's horror).
On the Street at NoonWhen we, as gamers and costumers, speak of costuming for the 1920s, the image we have is actually of someone from mid- to late decade. The early '20s tend to look more like the '10s, just as the last two years tend to look more like the '30s. While this is true of most twentieth century decades, fashion in the '20s was more fleeting, almost faddish, than it normally is. With that in mind, then, here are some tips to dress the part of an average person on an average day in the 1920s.
The two simplest ways to costume for the 1920s are to adapt modern clothing or wear actual clothing of the time. The '20s is the first period that has left us wearable clothing in modern sizes, much to the delight of costumers. However, it is cheaper and easier to adapt modern clothes to the styles of the decade. Some of these clothes you may well already own, and the rest are generally available at thrift and consignment shops.
Women's CostumeThe "natural" silhouette - a streamlined, curveless figure - was the ideal throughout the decade. Early in the decade, suits with somewhat full, long skirts at a natural waistline were common. Bodices and blouses were loose-fitting, or even baggy. In 1924, the waistline began to drop, ending at the hips by mid-decade, at which point straight dresses with no waistline began to appear. Knife-pleated skirts ending about one inch below the knee were also popular by mid-decade.
Women should look for one-piece dresses with dropped, straight waists. Many cuts of skirts were popular, from pleated to straight, and indeed most any modern cut but a hobble (inverted A-line) will do. The skirt should fall to about mid-calf. Knee-length skirts, aside from looking too short with a dropped waist, were mostly worn by the scandalously highly fashionable. Short and 3/4 length sleeves were popular, with sleeveless dresses generally reserved for fancier occasions.
Woven fabrics are preferable to knits, but the usual rule of "no artificial fibers in historic costumes" may finally be dropped. The 1920s saw massive experimentation with artificial fibers, most of which made their way into mass-produced clothing.
Pastels and lively colours were worn, but neutral grays, browns, and blues were more common. Solid colours and tight or subtle prints were preferable to large garish prints: small checks, figures, or floral patterns were all in vogue. American Indian and Egyptian themes were popular for trims, ornaments, and jewelry. The Art Deco movement, with its streamlined designs, was at its high point.
Dropped waist dresses were fairly popular in the United States in the 1980s and are still made today. Dresses from that time tend to have a puffy sleeve cap (where the sleeve joins the bodice), but so long as it is not overwhelming, a dropped waist is more important. Kathie Lee Gifford, for all of her saccharine sweetness, produces some 1920s-styled dresses on her clothing label, available at Wal-Mart and probably elsewhere.
Jacket and skirt combinations were also worn, following the same lines as dresses. Jackets fell to just above the crotch - about the same point as a dropped waist on a dress. They also buttoned up to the neck. Modern jackets of the right length can often be modified to button higher by simply unfolding the lapels and adding buttons or pinning them shut. Jackets may have any sleeve length, so long as it hides the sleeve of the blouse worn beneath. The blouse should be conservative and a solid, light colour. A simple Oxford or even a tank top (especially if you can find one that is not knit) work well. In any event, no cleavage should be showing.
Women first began wearing pants in the 1920s, though mostly for sporting activities. It was in this decade that Coco Chanel designed and wore riding pants for women, a fashion which quickly caught on, displacing the "skirted" riding habits of earlier years. Female aviators also donned the clothing of their male counterparts.
Women also first began wearing their hair short in the 1920s. While bobs and pageboy haircuts were all the rage, other hairstyles existed, including long hair. However, women with long hair wore it up, either in small nets (snoods), French rolls, buns, or other ways. The idea was to show off the shoulders and neck. Regardless, a hat and gloves were mandatory for true fashion: the tight-fitting, undecorated, felt cloche that covers most of the head was most popular. Also popular were cloche hats with brims which were more practical outside, along with turban-like hats.
However, it is difficult to find a decent 1920s hat today, especially if you care anything for colour coordination with the rest of your outfit or are shopping on a budget. I have always found it easier to pin up my long hair than find a hat. Still, it is worth keeping your eyes open as you search for other things. A good hat is always a matter of luck.
The proper popular style of shoe is a sort of pump that always reminds me of bowling shoes if they had high heels. However they are simply not available today. I recommend a plain, round toed, 1 1/2" to 2" black or colour-coordinated heel. Better still, a pair of black or brown laced flats (trouser shoes), especially if they have something of that "bowling shoe" look to them.
Stiletto heels, sandals, and exposed toes are the least desirable shoes. Stockings, with the development of synthetic fibers and the exposure of more leg, became more varied in the 1920s. The simplest ones were sheer, much like today's nylons, but they also were coloured, patterned, and textured. Today's coloured and patterned nylons (geometric designs, not tigers or daisies), and ribbed tights will easily pass muster.
In the 1920s, decent, proper women were for the first time permitted (and even encouraged by advertisements) to smoke, drink, and wear makeup in public. The consequential space for cosmetics and cigarettes required a larger handbag. The accent of nearly every outfit is the long pearl necklace, though short strings are appropriate for casual wear.
Men's costumeMen's costume is easier to assemble than women's. A conservative modern suit and matching tie with a white shirt does the trick. colours such as brown, grey, navy, and, of course, black were common. Linen and wool are the best fabrics, and you are best off to avoid polyester. White linen suits are stereotypical summer suits. Pinstripes and other patterns were worn by average men, but to our movie-trained eyes, they scream "gangster!" so you may want to avoid them. Tweed and flannel were also very popular. However, only common laborers wore denim at all.
Some things will help make your suit look less modern, such as suspenders (braces for the British, unless you're Malk of course), making certain you have a neatly folded handkerchief in the breast pocket, and a packet of cigarettes (you can still find candy ones in some shops) about your person.
Shirts are white or a light colour such as blue-gray, peach, cedar, or putty. Generally they were starched and ironed, though trendy dressers later in the decade were not so stiff, and often have detachable collars. High-collar shirts and ties of the previous decade (quite unlike modern ones) were still frequently seen.
A suit was, of course, accompanied by a tie, dark shoes, and socks. Modern dress shoes pass well as '20s everyday shoes. If you do not have comfortable dress shoes, try other lace-up work shoes or, as a last resort, loafers. Socks should likewise be conservative. It was not unusual to see a man in perfect health carrying a walking stick or cane.
Hairstyles for men were similar to today's conservative (ie short) hairstyles. Some men slicked back their hair. A well-dressed man was never outside without a hat and gloves: felt Fedoras, Panama hats or bowlers were the preferred headgear. A man would never wear hat and gloves indoors for long. Fedoras are sometimes seen in thrift stores and Halloween costume shops (though these tend to be poorly made). However, a good fedora can be found for around $40 in the men's department of such stores as Sears or JC Penny's come the fall and winter seasons. Normally I would not recommend spending so much on a single costume piece, but not only will it be of use for costuming from the 1920s on, you will also find it a good addition to your everyday cool and cold weather wardrobe.
Casual clothing reflected the nation's growing interest in sports. Loose garments that provide for ease of movement were growing more and more commonplace. The casual, trendy young man mid- to late decade might wear Oxford bags, baggy pants with cuffs ranging from 20 to even 40 inches around. Usually made in flannel, they came in light tans and off-grays. V-necked sweaters and knit shirts without stiff collars are also acceptable casual wear. Shoes for casual wear were often two-toned, or Oxfords. In the home, men express their interest in colour through the house robe or lounge jacket in outrageous colours.
Truly formal clothing remained the tailcoat, vest (waistcoat), starched pleated shirt, and top hat. Tuxedos were only slowly gaining popularity.
For outdoor wear, coats were long and loose. The raccoon coat, so popular for football games, was a short-lived fad that gave way to less bulky coats early in the '20s.
Closing remarksThe general rule of thumb, for men and women, when assembling a 1920s costume, is to be conservative. A surprising rule for a time often thought of as decadent, but it is a truism that the conservative clothing of one time is the common dress of the previous. The other rule is to be neat. Wrinkles are definitely out in the 1920s, so be certain to have your clothes freshly ironed or pressed, stains removed, and colours coordinated.
As fun as it is to scrounge about, mixing and matching the perfect outfit, nothing quite looks like the original. While the '20s have left us with much clothing, most of it is unwearable for one reason or another. Further, as an historian and a museum professional, I must advise strongly against wearing original clothing. Wear weakens material and subjects clothing to stress, stains, snags, and the hazards of daily use, all of which weaken or destroy the antique garment. But if you are going to wear an original piece, consider these recommendations.
First, choose garments with little or no historical value. Most pieces at antique shops are in this category. Your grandmother's dress has what we call provenance, that is, you know about the person who wore it. Perhaps you have family stories about the dance she went to in that dress, or have pictures of her in it. This historical context is priceless to a researcher. Besides, would you rather spill Kool-aid on something from the antique store, or a family heirloom?
Second, protect the garments by wearing the appropriate underclothes. 1920s clothing was not cut for a modern fashionable figure. Women, consider binding your chest down by wearing a sports bra or other flattening device. Men as well as women may need to flatten their stomachs with the aid of a girdle or other supportive underwear. To protect the garments from sweat, perfumes, and deodorants, women should wear slips and camisoles, men undershirts, and possibly long johns. Silk undergarments can be inexpensive and are light enough to wear at average room temperatures while still protecting the antique you are wearing.
Third, if the garment doesn't fit, alter it or don't wear it. Yes, it may be beautiful. However, it is bad for the clothing and potentially mortally embarrassing for you if a seam splits, buttons pop, or fabric tears. You may think you'll remember to not move your arms too much because the shoulders are tight, but one hug or a grab for a gun can irreparably damage the costume.
My last recommendation for wearing vintage clothing is to move carefully. Be aware of potential snags (like watches and jewelry), stains (walking about with a drink or eating Italian food), and other hazards. Remember that experimental fabrics were used, especially in women's dresses, and these are extremely fragile today. Even a plain wearable 1920s dress can easily cost $60-100 today. Treat it like you would any other expensive clothing, and it may serve you well.
Many thanks to Stephanie Olmstead-Dean for allowing me to use the information she compiled for The Four Aces.