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FASHION IN THE PROHIBITION ERA


 

Evan Casey and Allen Linnabary

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The stereotypical flapper creates a misleading monolith for historians, the American public, and Hollywood directors alike. Feather-clad caricatures abound in both modern portrayals and our cultural memory. Yet upon inspection, the flapper is a useful lens to examine broader shifts in fashion and sexuality.

What remains essential in understanding the flapper is the all-important historical context. The flapper’s clothes must be considered as the embodiment of an era. The lower waist and higher hemline did not appear overnight, nor did they achieve the ‘heights’ portrayed in popular interpretations. Her boxy dress, exposed ankles and arms, and cropped coif did in fact challenge long-standing notions of femininity and public propriety. Such fashions allowed women more mobility to work, to play, and, or course, to dance. When viewed as a culmination of the changing silhouette of the first two decades of the century, the shortened hemlines and body exposure seem less abrupt and more in keeping with evolving social and cultural mores.

After the Great War, opportunities for women to enter the work force and higher education improved significantly.[1] Many women began making their own money and making their own decisions. This change allowed for consumer culture to flourish. American women used their purchasing power to diversify their wardrobes via department store shopping, which represented a fundamental shift in “how” and “where” materials and goods were bought. Face-framing cloche hats accented bobbed hairstyles, and shoes became more ornate in their newly visible state. Women’s clothing featured intricate beading, complex needlework, and vibrate colors made from recently developed synthetic dyes. Interest in archeological discoveries, such as King Tut’s Tomb in the early 1920s, and ancient civilizations influenced many Prohibition-era garments, and designers borrowed motifs and styles from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

As hemlines dropped at the behest of French couturier, Jean Patou in 1927, the flapper, her clothing, and the ideas she embodied faded into our cultural memory. Fortunately though she is not forgotten. Her memory is revived by fashion designers and film-makers every few years, and this allows the student of history to look critically at a woman we thought we already knew.


[1] Kalagher, Katherine D., "The Invasion of the Flapper: How the College Women of the 1920s Transformed the American College Experience" (2014). Faculty Publications. Paper 14.