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Clothing of the 20th Century


Rosie Browning

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     Looking at the clothing of today it is difficult to see how it evolved from the corsets and bustles of the 1900's to t-shirts and jeans. The 20th century saw many great changes and as they changed the shape of society the shape of clothing changed to suit it. Clothing is not only a personal statement; it expresses the feelings and change of the era in which it is a part. At the turn of the century the look of the 1800's was still visible, but was making way for some radical new ideas. Women's dresses were still heavily shaped. Bustles began to be left of in favor of a more natural line, with corsets allowing more freedom and placing less emphasis on tiny waists. This was a relief from the S-corsets where ribs had been cracked and spines malformed in an attempt to produce a more slender figure. Walking sticks had become a fashion because women could no longer support themselves while so overbalanced.

    No lady would go outside without a hat and gloves. Hats were very decorative, with wide brims and decorations such as bows, feathers, ribbon or stuffed birds. Gloves were made of sued, kid, doe, reindeer or gazelle and were specific to certain activities such as walking, cycling, sleeping or driving (Yarwood, p29).

    The invention of the automobile called for a whole new array of clothing to be worn while driving. Long heavy jackets were created, generally in beige, to protect a lady or gentleman's clothing from being ruined by the dust on the road. Hoods and goggles protected any skin or clothing that might be showing from the dirt roads as the cars raced along at 15 miles an hour. Activities such as driving and bicycling created new styles and began a thought of practicality and freedom of movement that would be necessary in the coming war.

    High fashion and extravagance all but disappeared with the beginning of World War One. Women now had to take on the tasks that had traditionally been men's and clothing had to accommodate that. Women's skirts came above the ankle for thee first time in over a hundred years. Corsets were still present, but with much less boning and greater freedom of movement. Gloves and hats were still a must when out of doors and all uniforms included a hat (McCord Museum).

    Uniforms were the fashion of the 1910's as men and women enlisted. Women's uniforms were often fairly rough, made out of cheaper fabric and without decoration. Canadian men's uniforms were the same khaki of the British uniforms. It was during WW1 that Canada began to make a name separate from the Britain and began a move away from the monarchy. The 1920's started a slow revival of fashion. It took several years for the war to fade in memory and elegance to return. After the way women, especially young women, were determined to explore the freedom they had been given. Skirts began getting shorter, usually worn at mid calf by older women but becoming even shorter on younger and more daring women. The corset was rejected as the 'flapper' fashion of straight dresses with waists dropped to the hips became all the rage. The flat chested look of the 20's had no need of corsets and made way for corselets and camisoles, designed to smooth but not confine a body (Herald, p28-29).

    The hair and hats of the 20's also stand out. Women wore their hair short in a bob, shingle or perm. The cloche (bell) hat became I incredibly popular. This hat was very fitted to the head and resembled a bell with its slightly flared brim. Men's clothing also loosened up, showing the first defined change since the turn of the century. Everyday wear for young men was a fitted blazer and long loose trousers. This was worn with a shirt that could be left unbuttoned at the top and a hat, which was still a must. The Oxford bags, a trouser first seen on the Oxford campus, was considered the extreme of this fashion and resembled the wide legged jeans worn by the male teenager of today. The 1930's brought the effects of the New York stock market crash and a calmer, less showy outlook on life. Evening wear was still beautifully ornamented with beads and trimmings, but everyday clothes became plainer (Riberio & Cumming p206-213).

    Women's skirts returned to the mid calf length from the mini skirts of the 20's and the corset came back. Although not as stiff as before, it was firm enough to create a smooth line under the long elegant dresses of the period. Hats were still worn, although remained small and simple. The pillbox hat appeared and small veils became a common addition to the brims of hats. World War Two was the determining factor on the clothing of the 40's, as people and governments did everything they could to save money. Metal fasteners and steel boning disappeared as all metal was used for the war effort. Most countries had a point system where you could only buy clothing up to the allotted amount of points a year. Clothing was preserved and remade into the newer fashions, even old knitting was unraveled and re-knitted into something new (Baker 40's, p9)

    The war also brought the Utility suit. These were ready made suits for men and women with simple cuts and almost no trimming. These suits could be bought quite cheap, although the public began to look as uniformed as the army. Men's clothing did not have a large market because many men between 18 and 40 were at war. Those who did stay behind saw a few cost cutting changes in the traditional suit. Waistcoats were left behind and sometimes replaced by a sleeveless knitted pullover. These were often reversible to get two colours for the price of one. Shirts began to have collars attached although for formal occasions the traditional separate starched collar held together with a tie stud was still used. Women Began to wear pants as a regular and unscandalous thing, although skirts were still the most common.

    The war ended in 1945 and by the 1950's people were more than ready to put the elegance back into clothing. Evening wear returned with narrow waists and big skirts. Silks and rayon replaced wooland beading and decorations came back in abundance. Dancing was hugely popular at the time causing most women to have one dress to go out in. (Herald) Blue jeans were patented by Levi in 1873 and had been worn by farm hands and cowboys in North America since, however they did not become popular in main stream society until the late 40's and 50's. James Dean was the first to wear jeans in the movie 'Rebel Without a Cause' and they became hugely popular. Jeans were worn tight in the leg with widely rolled up cuffs. Although growing in respectability, it was rare to see older adults wearing jeans and they were never worn in official or high class gatherings (Baker 50's, p56-57).

    The 1960's saw huge changes and generally belonged to the young people. The Vietnam War and threats of nuclear war brought huge protests and revolts against the norms of society. This was expressed in the clothing worn by the protesters. Bright prints were combined with jeans, which were now worn low on the hips and flared to bell bottoms. Big skirts were popular among the 'hippies', along with any used clothing or old military wear. More mainstream clothing showed big bright patterns, mini skirts and hot pants (Selbie, p134-137).

    The 1970's followed in the traditions of the 60's adding new elements as it went. The peasant shirts and long hair continued among the hippies, but other styles were emerging. The disco craze introduced frilly shirts and crushed velvet jackets in elaborate costumes for men. Platform shoes also gained popularity, with some soles reaching over a foot tall. Shirts were left open and the tie was left off much of the time. Big shirt collars with exaggerated collar points added to the overemphasis. Romantic costumes of old jackets and ruffled ascots also appeared, with long dresses and flowering ribbons for girls. (Maginnis)

    In the 1980's clothing began to calm down as a rejection of the overdone grandeur of the 60's and 70's. T-shirts and jeans were worn by all. Sweatpants appeared for relaxing and for children, although were considered to relaxed for work. Women's clothing was over emphasized, with big shoulder pads and flashy details. Neon colours were all the rage for a phase in the late 80's, the glaringly bright colours mixed in unusual way. Men's suits returned to the tailored standard they had held before 70's, although the waistcoat did not return after the war except in extremely formal occasions (Maginnis).

    As the last decade of the millennium the 1990's hold an interesting period in clothing. Jeans and T-shirts are still the uniform of choice for most people, with suits and simple but more formal clothing filling out the spectrum. Young girls are wearing skirts shorter then ever, and showing skin on the chest, midriff and leg is popular. Toward the end of the 90's their is a shift to bring in the beading and exquisite detailing of the 20's but with a more mane made, plastic look. The new millennium will be brought in with sequins and sparkles, but anything could lie beyond.(Northampton)



Baker, Patricia. Fashion of a Decade: The 1940's. Hong Kong, 1991

Baker, Patricia. Fashion of a Decade: The 1950's. Hong Kong, 1991

Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1020's. Hong Kong, 1991

Herald, Jacqueline. "Fifties Fashion".

"James Dean".

Maginnis, Tara. "The Costumers Manifesto".

"McCord Museum Musee".

Ribeiro, Aileen and Valerie Cummings. The Visual History of Costume. London, 1989

Selbie, Robert. The Anatomy of Costume. New York, 1977

Yarwood, Doreen. Outline of English Costume. Boston, 1977

"University College Northampton"


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