A brief overview of western social history and its effects on fashion from the 1920s to the 1950s

Guest Post: From the Desk of Ms Celia Bonica from Kitty’s Vintage Kitsch
The 1920s was the decade that saw more changes than any other of the twentieth century; this was true for morals and social mores, but more than anything, for women.
During the first world war (1914-1918), women had taken on many jobs that had previously only been held by men- factory work, manual labour, heavy cleaning and secretarial work. Spurred on by the suffragette movement, economic necessity and the need for wartime labour, they became used to having their own money, having more freedom and dressing in a more utilitarian manner than ever before.

In 1918 and 1920 respectively, women in the UK and the USA gained the right to vote. Emancipation took on a broader meaning than simply gaining the right to vote; women began emancipating other spheres of their lives too. They began smoking in large numbers, staying out late at night without chaperones, drinking in public, even having open lesbian flings.

The general need for practicality during wartime followed through to women’s clothing, from the inside out. Frilly, layered undergarments worn by the Victorians were replaced with simple cami-knickers. Long hair was now seen as a symbol of pre-war idleness, and was cut short, often in a severe ‘bob‘ style. Jewellery changed too; costume styles were all the rage, with younger women embracing sparkly rhinestones, shiny chrome and lots of colour. With the advent of coloured Bakelite around 1927 came lots of chunky, clunky bangles-the ones we still love today.

Mannish looks were popular with those who liked to shock their elders; men’s suits were worn by women for the first time, and sportswear for women was an option for the first time. Dresses became loose-fitting (much easier to dance in), the waistline was lowered, and hemlines came up to just below the knee. The silhouette was long, straight, sharp and sleek.
For those who wanted to accentuate this new look, special bandeau bras were available to flatten the breasts. They worked by pushing the breasts to each side, even under each arm if possible. The ultimate sacrifice for fashion, however, would be the cosmetic mastectomy, which became available in 1920s Paris for the first time.
Fabrics were all natural- plush silk velvets, cotton voiles as light as air, and woollens for the cold. Evening wear featured intricate beading, fabulous fringed shawls and stunning opera coats with highly decorative sequinned and beaded collars.

The face was all about the sharp look; framed by the ever present, close-fitting cloche hat, the hair was done in clean lines for daytime, often softened by finger waves for evening. A cupids’ bow mouth was all the rage, especially with very dark lipstick. Makeup was also a first for many women in the 1920s, so to wear noticeable makeup-and to be seen to be carrying a compact or lipstick- was certainly daring and hugely fashionable.

So if the 1920s were mannish, emancipated, and full of parties, what were the 1930s all about?? In a word- austerity.

The stock market crash of October 1929 in the USA largely caused what is known as the Great Depression; the longest, most severe and most widespread depression of the twentieth century. In one day, the stock market lost $14 billion- that would be the equivalent of $377 000 000 000 today!
Unemployment was around 25%, but with no government benefits, the resultant poverty was intense for those without work. Some 60% of the population were financially disaffected by the Depression. Naturally this created a sombre public mood; gone were the days of lavish parties and hedonism. Even those who could afford it were nervous about the future and mindful of their less fortunate counterparts.
This was the true start of the ‘make do and mend’ era for many families whose incomes had been reduced. Mothers and grandmothers altered, mended and re-altered their dresses to stretch the budget. Manufacturers started making cheaper dresses, lower-heeled shoes and smaller, plainer hats. A return to ‘sensible dressing’ was seen, with a more feminine look. The waist returned to its natural position, hemlines lowered to mid-calf length, and any fancy clothing details were all around the collars and the shoulders.

The sombre social mood was reflected in fashion colours- maroon, olive green, mauve, taupe, browns, muted blues and black were by far the most common colours seen. Women learned to make the most of what they had, updating with cheap accessories, new trims for old hats, a pair of shoe clips, a plastic brooch or borrowing a fur from a friend for a special occasion.

This was an era when everyone could sew, and this is why we modern vintage lovers will often find sleeves, hems and seams with extra panels, later-added shoulder pads and all sorts of weird and wonderful alterations with different features from different eras apparent.
And the sewing continued throughout the 40s too! The outbreak of WW11 in 1939 caused an even more sombre public mood; what followed, as we know, was economic rationing, hardship, and the height of the ‘make do and mend’ era.
As increasing numbers of husbands, brothers and boyfriends went off to war, women were again required to focus on practicality and support the war effort. Many worked in factories (think of the well-known image of Rosie the Riveter), land armies, nursing and other auxiliary services.
Patriotism was all; to be viewed as ‘not doing your bit’ or ‘dressed up fancy’ was in very poor taste at the time.
The rationing of cloth and clothing began in 1941 in the UK and 1942 in the USA, and lasted until well after the wars’ end. Food, too, was strictly rationed, and the supply of certain foods such as butter did not return to normal until 1952. It’s little wonder that people in general were a little slimmer in those days; there was less food available, no processed food, few takeaways existed and people simply ate less.
Add to this, the wearing of proper foundation garments such as tight corsets and girdles was an essential. No self-respecting woman left the house without one, as they reduced the waistline by some three or four inches. Are we surprised, then, that many 1940s garments seem small these days?!


So, how did fashions change from the 1930s to the 1940s?? Everything was simplified. Practicality was paramount. Skirts were shortened to just below the knee, decorative features such as the huge 30s-style sleeves disappeared, buttons were limited and nothing looked ‘frou-frou‘.
All sorts of cloth was refashioned into useable clothing-pillowslips became shorts, wedding dresses were handed down, begged, borrowed and made to fit the new wearer. Cast-off trims and laces may have been used for children’s clothing.
Stockings were extremely difficult to obtain, which led women to such things as drawing a vertical seam line along their legs or dyeing their legs with tea bags (used, of course!) to appear as if they were wearing stockings. As an alternative, the wearing of ankle socks was introduced to adult women, and was strongly encouraged by the government, and even shown in propaganda-type posters.

1940s hair was high maintenance by our standards; pin curls, sets, victory rolls and blow waves were a daily or at least weekly necessity for every woman. Practical styles for the working woman evolved too; the turban hat and the wearing of a neatly-tied scarf became more common. Still, these more casual styles had a definite 40s look to them, and were always very carefully groomed when out in public.

After the end of WW11, naturally there was much cause for celebration. Things, however, did not return to normal right away. Rationing stayed in effect for numerous items for years after the wars’ end, and it wasn’t until 1947 that Christian Dior pioneered the ‘new look’.

The ‘new look’ was a reaction against everything people experienced during the war. Women wanted fun, frivolity and new fashions. There were lush, full skirts, plentiful makeup, lots of accessories, a variety of happy colours to choose from. As rationing lifted, skirts became enormous, with literally yards of fabric, hair was cut short for ease of styling, stockings with stretch (and so without the seams) were worn with gay abandon, petticoats were full and frilly, and matching accessory sets (compact, cigarette case & lighter or handbag, shoes & gloves) were mandatory.

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GOLD COAST – Saturday 17 February 2024 – 10am – Gold Coast Salon (Address given out at time of booking) Step into the glamour of the past at the Vintage Styling Workshop! Join us on Saturday, February 17th, 2024, from 10 am to 1 pm, at My Gold Coast Studio, where you’ll discover the secrets…


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2 thoughts on “A brief overview of western social history and its effects on fashion from the 1920s to the 1950s”

  1. I loved reading this. My mother grew up during the depression and WWII in the U.S. I think that is where I get my love for thrifting and vintage. During the depression here, the feed bags were made of cotton and patterned with tiny flowers in pink, blue and yellow so that women could then use the feed bags to make clothing from. -T

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