Inside the Collection

Flappers, Frocks and Fashioning the Modern Woman, Tales from the Australian Dress Register

Photograph of Flapper Dress of Marjorie Florence Smith.
Flapper Dress of Marjorie Florence Smith. Collection and image courtesy: Cavalcade of History and Fashion Inc

The end of the First World War saw a tremendous change in society and the horrors of war prompted people to question the rigorous social and moral values of the preceding Edwardian Era. As with any time in fashion history, contemporary concerns and thought affected fashion and so, the nineteen twenties came to symbolise in dress everything that the end of the First World War had brought about –relaxed social attitudes, greater freedoms for women, an economic and creative boom, and most importantly the turn towards ‘modernity’.

During the early nineteen twenties women and men both began to abandon the restrictive fashions of earlier years and adopted a more casual look characterised by comfortable shoes, plain colours and loose fitting garments. As more women entered the workforce and became independent they demanded greater freedoms and often used their dress, hair and makeup to visually reflect this break with traditional female roles.

A youthful androgyny was the favoured look of the nineteen twenties. Dresses such as the Flapper Dress of Marjorie Florence Smith (shown above) part of the collection from the Cavalcade of History and Fashion Inc. and an evening dress made by David Jones (below) part of the Powerhouse Museum collection, created a boyish shape as they flattened the chest, dropped the waistline and hid the hips. As women gained more of the freedoms of men, their clothing favoured masculine geometric shapes, which created a rectangle-like silhouette, rather than curvy feminine ones – a stark contrast to the hourglass silhouettes seen in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras.

Photograph of Evening Dress made by David Jones
Evening Dress made by David Jones. Collection: Powerhouse Museum,
2008/8/1. Gift of Heather McDonald, 2008

Although skirt lengths had risen slightly to the ankle during the war, the nineteen twenties saw them rise even higher with skirts reaching just below the knee by the latter half of the decade. As the hemlines of skirts and dresses got higher so to did hair lines, as women chose to cut their hair short into what is now known as a ‘bob’.
The combination of these changes shocked contemporaries who claimed that these women were girls with “a child’s mind in a woman’s body” and who preferred to wear children’s clothing than those of grown women (before the nineteen twenties young girls’ clothing was characterised by high hemlines and boyish cuts). Many Australian newspapers also contained discussions of the ‘Flapper Problem’ or the ‘Masculine Flapper’, highlighting the perceived gender disturbances that these androgynous dresses created.

However it was not just in clothing that curves were replaced by straight lines. By the mid- nineteen twenties much of the western world’s economies were booming and the decadence of the ‘roaring twenties’, the notion most nostalgically associated with this era, began to emerge. This was reflected in new design movements such as Art Deco which was characterised by geometric shapes, bold colours and lavish ornamentation. Simple fabrics such as cotton were replaced by luxurious silks and rayon, and evening dresses came to be lavishly beaded. The Australian Dress Register contains two garments which exemplify the decadence and fun-loving optimism of this age in which Australians also participated.

Photograph of Gillett Sister’s Charleston Dress
Gillett Sister’s Charleston Dress. Collection and image : Albury Library Museum.

The Gillett Sister’s Charleston Dress from the Albury Library Museum, dates from the late nineteen twenties and has been named after the famous Charleston jazz dance which became popular during the decade. The fast paced movements of dance required short, simple dresses with no sleeves. Much of the ornamentation of ‘Charleston’ dresses was intended to accentuate the movements of the dance, as the cherries attached to this dress near the shoulders would have swung about freely, as well as the layers of gathered organza which combined with the taffeta skirt of the dress.

During the nineteen twenties the entertainment industry grew. Women became inspired by screen idols such as Louise Brooks and with the increase in wealth people spent more time and money in music halls, movie theatres and cabarets. The artificial lighting and shadows of these dance halls highlighted ornamentation, and so many dresses were elaborately beaded with exotic motifs inspired by the Art Deco movement. One such Australian example of this is a flapper-style dress hand made by rural dressmaker Una Simpson from Wagga Wagga and comes from the Museum of the Riverina collection. The dress contains floral beaded designs that are framed by geometric lines of metallic and frosted beads all sewn into a fine silk net which covered the black material of the dress. This dress was obviously inspired by the exquisite beaded dresses that were imported from France, and is a testament to the fact that even women in rural Australia were not removed from the decadence and international influences of the fashion during this period.

The post war decades prompted unprecedented social change for women and men. The youthful optimism of those who had just lived through one of the most influential and devastating events of the twentieth century was reflected in the beginnings of social emancipation from Victorian and Edwardian restrictions on class, wealth, morals and gender attitudes. All these factors were reflected in dress and design movements such as Art Deco, and as these Australian examples of women’s dress reveal, the 1920s was truly the first decade to see the fashioning of the modern Australian woman.

The Australian Dress Register is a unique collaborative online project about dress in Australia. Its purpose is to encourage Museums, families and private collectors to research their garments and share the information in an engaging, accessible and innovative digital format.

Written by Sarah Bendall, Australian Dress Register Volunteer
Winner, 2012 Ernest Bramsted prize for Medieval or Modern European History, Sydney University.

For further reading see:

J. Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction C.1860–1940 (Wace 1966, Macmillan 1972)

J. Dorner, Fashion in the Twenties and Thirties (Ian Allan, London, 1973)

J. Holscher, Fashion Design in the 1920s (The Pepin Press, Amsterdam, 1998)

J. Peacock, Fashion Sourcebooks: the 1920s (Thames and Hudson, London, 1997)

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