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Fashion Overview


About the Decade: 1910-1919

Social change was brewing in the teens as our nation became increasingly industrialized. In the past clothes had been mostly hand sewn, but during the turn of the century the sewing machine was introduced, which made the mass production of clothing possible and the latest fashions affordable to the middle and lower classes. The styles worn during the teens reflected the beginning of the American woman's changing role in society. It was becoming increasingly acceptable for women to work outside the home. If a woman did not have to work for a living, she was expected to lead an active and useful life (an attitude due in large part to World War I and the need for more charities and hospital aid). To accommodate this active role, women wore clothes that were more practical. The hemlines were raised from the floor a couple of inches, skirts were full for ease of walking, petticoats lighter than in the past. They wore blouses with skirts instead of dresses. The hobble skirt which was popular in the teens often had a button down vent in the back which could be left open when walking. Women still wore corsets, but they became less restrictive than in the past. Not every woman cared whether or not she had the right to vote, and indeed there were women who thought the idea of women voting was unseemly, but nevertheless the Suffragette Movement was in full swing.


About the Decade: 1920-1929

In the 1920s women got the right to vote, prohibition made drinking the nation's favorite pasttime, and with the radio hitting home across America everyone was dancing. Fortunes were being made and spent recklessly and the cinema was giving rise to a whole new kind of celebrity and glamour. The automobile finally became affordable and accessible to most people, and it was everyone's duty to drive a natty new car or look as though they were. All of these elements had an effect on the fashions of the 1920s. In the early twenties hemlines were just above the ankle and waistlines were relaxed, but as the decade progressed hemlines rose until they reached just below the knee and the waistline dropped to mid hip. The silhouette was boyish and straight. Women wore corsets to flatten their chests and narrow their hips since their new sense of liberation rendered breasts and hips unfashionable. Many even forewent the corset entirely. They cut their hair into bobs both for shock value and for its fresh boyish appeal. Men's fashions in the early twenties were not all that different from the previous decades as they have never been known to change as rapidly as women's clothing. Their collars were stiff and worn high, their jackets were high waisted and sometimes belted. Slacks were narrow. As the decade progressed, the suit became more relaxed and the waistline more natural.


About the Decade: 1930-1939

America's economy was smashed to smithereens by the crash of '29, leaving families with no income. The nation was depressed both financially and morally. There was a great drought in the Midwest which caused the exodus of thousands of people heading west in the hopes of finding a better life on the glamourous California coast. Strikes were big news as Unions were created to help protect laborers, jobs and pay. Americans turned to radio and film to boost their flagging spirits. Theater and opera were luxuries few could afford, but one could listen to the radio and go to the movies for very little money. In sharp contrast to reality, the movies of this period depicted a sense of glamour unknown to their audiences. A favorite storyline of this period was the small town kid leaving home to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. Fashion in the thirties was greatly influenced by the Hollywood ideal of style. Hemlines dropped again in the thirties and the waistline returned to a more natural position. Skirts and frocks often clung to the waist and hips but flared out in the gores or pleats to a few inches above the ankle (or mid calf). The silhouette had changed from the twenties boyish, youthful straight lines back into a softer, more feminine one.


About the Decade: 1940-1949

With entry of the United States into World War II in 1942, the world of fashion went to war with waste and frivolity. Whether one was on the front fighting or aiding the great war machine by keeping the home fires burning, few people were unaffected by the war. Among the many commodities that were rationed were two that had a profound effect on the styles being designed during the war; silk and wool. Silk was being used to make parachutes (and many women donated their silk stockings to Uncle Sam), and wool was needed for uniforms and blankets for soldiers. The necessity to conserve challenged clothing designers to use their genius to make clothing using as little yardage as possible. Hemlines once again rose to just below the knee, skirts were often slender or boxy, having fewer gathers and pleats. Jackets were shorter and more fitted than in the thirties. Designers used clever cutting techniques in their pattern making to create detail work that required no extra yardage. However, detail below the waist would never again be quite as intricate and interesting as it had been before the war. Women's clothing also became more masculine as women took jobs traditionally held by men as they went off to war. In stark contrast to the war efforts' conservation, the Zoot suit was a glaring reminder that not everyone supported the war. Zoot suits were made of an excessive amount of fabric and were mostly worn by non-white hepcats unwilling or unable to join the military. Zoot suiters were seen as being unpatriotic and often drove enlisted men into fits of rage that usually ended in violence.


About the Decade: 1950-1959

With the end of World War II in 1945, the American entered the inevitable awkward transition from war to peacetime. Men were returning from the war and trying to resume their pre-war lives. Women, who had been holding jobs traditionally held by men, were encouraged to return to their posts as wives and mothers. Certainly some women were reluctant to give up their newly found sense of independence, but many women were happy to take up their traditional roles again. America turned its interest to family life and the big Baby Boom had its affect on fashion for both men and women. The main image for women was of demure femininity suitable for the sober role of motherhood. Although many silhouettes were espoused during this period, the two most enduring were the wasp waist with a full, long skirt, and the wasp waist with a long, slender skirt. Dancing lost some of its popularity as a pastime as the cocktail party became the most suitable entertainment for young families. Men's suits were two piece rather than three piece, the trousers generally un-pleated, and the overall shape boxier than in the past. Casual wear for men was not entirely new, but in the fifties it changed from having been clothes for sporting into clothes for barbecuing on the patio. The family man might wear khakis (left over from the war), and polo or Hawaiian shirts.