A hundred years ago – flapper fashion in the 1920s

Artefact of the month – April 2021

In our mental images, the “Roaring Twenties” was a time of sparkling chemise dresses and pearl necklaces swinging to the beat of jazz music. The zest for life and euphoria sparked by the end of the First World War continued until the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The fashion of the era was a unique combination of exotic creations inspired by faraway countries and future-oriented modernism, which was also at the core of the Art Deco movement. The same aesthetics prevailed in architecture, decorative arts and textiles from 1909 to 1939. Art Deco should not be seen as an architectural style as such, but rather as a superficial ornament. Between the wars, it also affected art, film and photography. However, it was not called ‘Art Deco’ until the late 1960s.

Art Deco played with style and borrowed from national tradition, folk art and ancient cultures, and also drew inspiration from avant-garde art, such as Fauvists and Cubists in Paris, Futurists in Italy and Constructivists in Russia. The move of the Ballets Russes ballet company to Paris in 1909 was a turning point for fashion development in particular. The huge sensation caused by the Russian ballet company inspired many, especially fashion designer Paul Poiret. Collaboration between avant-garde artists and fashion designers flourished. The spirit of time is also reflected in the fact that the worldwide sensation in 1922, the discovery of the dazzling treasures in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, caused a real “Tut-mania” and the glorification of luxury materials. Women’s liberation and general liberalism changed the role of women in society, and this was reflected above all in fashion. The first true style of a modern woman was born. Paris was still the capital of fashion.

1 The spirit of Art Deco found its way even to funeral confections. Photo: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

2 Loja and Eva-Lisa Saarinen designed and made this silk batik tablecloth for Eliel Saarinen’s brother as a 50th birthday present in Hvitträsk in 1922. Photo: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

Research clearly shows how closely fashion development in the 1920s was linked to Art Deco, both feeding each other. At the same time, this reflects the complexity, intricacy and diversity of fashion. Although the female wear could be described as scant, it was in fact much more than just the liberated la garçonne style and cloche hats of young women (flapper girls). People searched for the exotic and, on the other hand, adopted the modernity of urban life of the time. The female figure almost disappeared, and so did her waist. The focus was on the hips, which were emphasized in various ways. The cut was box-shaped, but the straight and smooth fabric material provided an excellent base for artistic motifs: embroidery and appliqué as well as stylised, naturalistic or geometric prints. The inspiration came from the Orientalism of the Russian ballet, the animal and floral patterns of China and Japan, the imagery of ancient Egypt, African art and traditional Russian motifs. The Kimono cut came from Japan, and Chinese ornamentation was applied in evening fashion. Russian traditional costumes and kokoshnik headdresses, which even influenced tiara design, were also popular. With the Russians, a fondness for fur trim also came.

3 The skilfully embroidered kaftan coat dress was a gift from China from the turn of the 1920s and 1930s. Inside, the cuffs feature a 16.5 cm wide stripe of white silk satin covered with multicoloured silk embroidery similar to that on the coat’s edges and shoulder collar. The themes are women depicted in various chores and nature motifs. The dark blue satin is fully embroidered with white and blue-toned silk thread as well as large flowers and butterflies in gold thread. The embroidery has been carried out partly with the long and short stitch, and partly with stitches resembling the knot stitch, which are typical of Chinese embroidery. Photo: Museokuva Matti Huuhka & Co. Photographer: Johnny Korkman.

4 Miniature sculptures: a Russian peasant woman, St Petersburg 1919, and a young man playing the accordion, Soviet Union, Novgorod Province, Volkhov 1924. Photo: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

The variations in the hemline, for their part, represent the fashion of the era: From 1919 to 1923, hems were ankle-length, rising to the knee by 1928, at which point Jean Patou dropped them first in the back and then on the sides. The long, feminine evening gowns of the beginning of the decade turned into short Charleston and jazz dresses, and movement was emphasised by feather boas casually tossed over the shoulder. In the second half of the decade, designers again began to “complicate” straight dresses, which were too easy to copy. Dresses started to regain statuesque characteristics, and the waist returned to its place. Russian colourfulness gave way to a sporty, more Cubist style. Ornamentation disappeared and black was fashionable at any time of the day. Chanel created costume jewellery to complement her simple dresses.

After the First World War ended, Finland had also made a long leap from the Art Nouveau arches of the turn of the century, through the classic column silhouette, to a simple chemise dress, the power of which was based on light and gauzy fabrics hidden under glittering surface decoration. The cut of the dress was often irrelevant. The aim was two-dimensionality. The breasts were flattened with a band that went around the chest. Since the neck of the dress might also be equally low-cut in the front and back, critics said that it was sometimes hard to tell apart a woman’s front and back. Hair was cut into a smooth bob and possibly styled into waves. As the hem shortened, the legs became visible and the stockings became more important. Expensive materials and decorations complemented a simple cut. Beaded dresses represent the finest evening gowns of the 1920s also in the collections of the National Museum of Finland. Atelier Ika’s and Stockmann’s sewing departments are known to have commissioned beading, which was time-consuming work that required great skill, from Russian emigrants.

5 The beaded crêpe de chine evening gowns from 1924 belonged to Mrs Lydia Ingeborg Keirkner, née Bremer. One has soft-toned pearl embroidery on the hips to catch the eye, and the other has silver lace and a silver brocade belt. Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency.

6 Beading detail. Photo: Jan Lindroth.

7 Long stockings of light purple silk knit with a back seam. Decorative arrow design on both sides of the ankle. Arrow design detail. Photo: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

Finnish independence was first celebrated with an evening gala in 1922, and dancing was also on the programme. In the Hall of State, the newly remarried President Ståhlberg and his wife Ester shook hands with more than a thousand guests. Hjalmar Appelgren-Kivalo, who was appointed state archaeologist in 1915, is said to have been blunt and to have expressed bold opinions on topical issues in public. His ready wit is amusingly evident in a letter he sent to his daughter Linda, apparently to London before Christmas 1922, which sketches the events in the words of a museum man recently appointed as professor. Among other things, he describes the presidential ball on ‘freedom day’ (6/XII) as follows:

Terribly crowded, must have been one and a half thousand people. Hot. Movement back and forth, a crush. Ladies and Gentlemen. Many women wearing as few scraps of clothing as possible. Among the Gentlemen, eyes were drawn especially to foreign ambassadors, who had a chest full of decorations and ribbons, and coats full of gold braid. One was in scarlet tailcoat with decorations.”

Through contemporary eyes, these first evening parties were thus celebrated with semi-naked flappers and flashy boys wandering through the hot and crowded halls. In 1923 and 1924, the event was smaller in scale. On the other hand, there was a very precise dress code for court receptions. Women’s dress included a train attached to the shoulders. On their head, they had to wear the three white ostrich feathers from the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales, with white tulle gauze suspended from them. Women with shingled hair had to use a tiara to hold the ostrich feathers in place. In addition, the outfit included long gloves. A bouquet of flowers and fan were optional. Gunvor Planting was the first Finnish debutante to be presented at the English court in 1928.

8 The wife of the President of the Republic, Mrs Signe Relander, is remembered not only as a beautiful woman but also as a sophisticated and elegant socialite. The beige beaded silk crêpe dress, made in 1925 by Salon de Mode Jenny Kuosmanen, a Helsinki sewing company, for the state visit of King Gustav V and Queen Victoria of Sweden, is part of the collections of the National Museum of Finland. Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency.

9 Finnish debutante Gunvor Planting’s Atlas silk dress was made in 1928 by court dressmaker Reville Terry. The dress was said to be diamanté because all seams are decorated with rhinestone strips. However, the hem was not allowed to be as short as the evening fashion of the time would have required. The shoes had to be pumps matching the colour of the dress. Photo: Jan Lindroth.

Social disparities levelled off, although city residents had an advantage over fashion. In professional, private and political life, the position of women became more equal. Kotiliesi magazine, published since 1922, offered articles on clothing, health and beauty care for the needs of women, even in rural areas, among other educational articles. The foreign fashion magazines of the time, with their coloured drawings, told women what was chic abroad. If you compare the drawings with the clothes preserved in the museum collections, you can easily see that the latest trends also reached Finland. Coco Chanel’s classic little black dress was born in 1926 as the fashion Ford and still lives its style-conscious life a century later.

10 The calf-length visiting dress in black silk satin from circa 1926 is a topical example of Chanel’s little black dress fashion. The monkey fur detailing on the collar and cuffs of the silk afternoon dress was popular in Art Deco evening coats. The handbags of the time were also flat: the evening bag of silver metal mesh and the powder purse with a diamond pattern of gold and white glass beads represents the accessorising style of the season at its most appropriate. Photos: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

11 The women’s shoes were like jewellery with their French heels and long pointed toes. Two pairs of Viennese Pelz shoes: dark purple beaded pumps from 1920, and the silver brocade shoes were used as wedding shoes in 1923. Photos: Markku Haverinen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

It was only during the First World War that a woman could publicly wear trousers. However, attempts had already been made before that to wear this men’s clothing to achieve equality. Paul Poiret’s pants suits from the early 1910s did not make it off the runway. The war, in other words the practicality, made trousers and overalls women’s workwear. The popularity of sports had a simplifying effect on both design and cut. Freedom of movement – especially for women – was of paramount importance. Tennis, swimming and skiing outfits were at the top of product development. Trousers, shorts, swimsuits and beach pyjamas were part of the summer holiday. Sportswear and jumper fashion were invented.

Above all, everyday clothing was now practical. Easy knitted fabrics and fluttering artificial silk fabrics appeared on the market. The hemline stayed at calf level. Liveliness was created with bias cuts, gathers, flounces and asymmetrical or uneven hems. As the decade neared its end, people were ready for something different. The pursuit of true femininity raised its head spectacularly. With the adult woman’s dream in their sights, fashion designers and particularly Madeleine Vionnet began to create elegant, skilfully bias-cut evening wear with as few seams and fasteners as possible. An overwhelmingly feminine seductress in glamourous Hollywood style now entered the ballrooms.

Outi Flander

12 Comfortably cool summer clothes were also useful in the countryside. The only decoration of the pale lilac and brown chequered cotton dress are the ruches lined with the purple silk ribbon on the hem. The white linen cambric dress features geometric satin-stitch embroidery sewn with beige and light green thread on the turn-down collar and pockets. The barely calf-length everyday dresses are from around the middle of the decade. Photo: Finnish Heritage Agency.

13 A clear shift towards femininity is already discernible in the silk georgette dress. Tradition has it that the bright blue gown was worn at the President’s Independence Day ball at the end of the decade. Photo: Kimmo Ekholm, Finnish Heritage Agency.

Literary sources:

Kopisto Sirkka 1997. Moderni Chic Nainen, Muodin vuosikymmenet 1920-1960. Helsinki.

Lussier Suzanne 2003. Art Deco Fashion. Singapore.

Image gallery:

Fashion drawings from the French fashion magazines Très Parisien from 1922 and 1925, Quelques Idées from 1923 and the 1929 Christmas issue of Art - Goût - Beuté.