Fashions of the Era

This section used to contain a lot more information, but something like fashion is better when illustrated, and we don’t own the copyrights to any photographs taken back in the swing era. So here we present you with a summary of the popular styles back in the day, written by Sarah Reid, who has done extensive research into vintage fashions, followed by several links that will take you to photographs online to enable you to see the fashions themselves.

First – if you’re looking to buy some vintage duds, check out Dorthea’s Closet. Owned by Angi, who’s been involved in the swing scene for years. Located at 1733 Grand Ave, near Meredith & Central Campus.

The 1920s        The 1930s        The 1940s        The 1950s        Other Resources

The 1920s
The 1920s were characterized by Prohibition and jazz, both of which also strongly influenced the fashions of the day.

For women, the major development of the era was the rise of cosmetics. The movie industry heavily influenced the American woman with its glitz and glamour, and many women wanted to dress and groom to look like the stars they saw on the screen.

During the early twenties, women’s waistlines began to drop, first just below the natural waistline, then eventually to the hips. Dresses and suits were loose and tailored to hide the waist completely. The “shift” dress was popular, and most dresses had completely straight bodices. Hems started the decade long, then rose to just below the knee, then rose to the knee towards the end of the decade.

Most clothing fastened with buttons, but hooks and eyes were also popular. Natural fibers were generally used, with cotton and wool being most popular. Silk was also used, but was in limited supply. Rayon was developed during this decade and used for stockings and undergarments.

In keeping with the general feeling of liberation that characterizes the 1920s, many young women were anxious to show off their knees (which was considered forbidden until this time) by rolling down their stockings and even putting rouge on their knees to draw attention. Interestingly, the popularity of dances such as the Charleston (which was really just one of many “fad” dances popular during this era) helped shape the shoes that were considered fashionable during the decade – these dances required shoes that fastened securely and had a low heel.

The exciting discovery of King Tut’s Tomb also led to an Egyptian craze for a few years, with Egyptian themes even appearing in clothes.

Men generally wore the clothes they found when they returned home from WWII during the early part of the decade. The “Sacque” suit, popular for decades, remained the “day” suit of choice. These suits were worn with colored shirts, ties with small patterns, and black bowler hats. Formal occasions called for top hats and tail coats with white shirts.

Men tended to wear two-tone shoes during the day, or oxfords.

Men’s pants are the most interesting aspect of men’s fashion during the twenties. Knickers (also known as “knickerbockers”) were often seen as casual wear. Knickers were called “plus-fours,” “plus-sixes,” “plus-eights,” and “plus-tens.” The “plus” tells you how many inches below the knee the pants hung. Norfolk coats with large patch pockets, a belt, a shoulder yoke were worn with knickers.

Mid-decade saw the rise of the baggy pant. “Oxford bags” were first worn by Oxford students to get around the University’s prohibition of knickers. These very baggy pants had hems as wide as 40 inches around, so could easily hide the knickers worn underneath. The style came to America by Ivy League students, but soon caught on among the general public.

In stark contrast, jazz fashion also had a period of brief popularity. Jazz suits were close-fitting and tight-waisted with tight, skinny pants.

Fabrics for men’s clothes were also generally natural – tweed (also known as homespun wool) was a popular choices, as was flannel. (The flannel of the 20s was heavy, soft, and slightly napped wool, not the cotton flannel we use in pajamas today.)


The 1930s
The Great Depression of the 1930s certainly impacted the fashion world. Fashion had always dictated that women purchase new fashions for each new season. While this certainly remained true for the upper crust of society, the majority of Americans could no longer afford to replace their clothing so often! The focus turned away from new clothing and moved to reusing and remaking the clothes one already owned. It was also during this time that the practice of changing clothes several times each day fell out of style. (Before this time, many people had different outfits for morning, afternoon, and evening.)

The shape of the 1930s, for both men and women, was long and sleek. Muted and deep hues were popular, as were abstract and geometric prints.

For women, the flapper look of the twenties gave way to a softer, feminine look. Hemlines dropped to the ankle, and waists returned to the natural waistline, from the dropped waist popular in the twenties. Skirts were long and sleek, accentuating narrow waists and slender hips. Some skirts featured layers or tiers, with the bottom of the skirt full with pleats or gathers. Necklines dropped, and were often accentuated with scallops or ruffles.

Fur was a popular fashion accent during the thirties – fur coats, fur trim, fur stoles. Hats were usually worn at an angle, and berets and brimmed hats were popular. Many different styles of shoe were popular during the era, from flats and pumps to shoes with ankle straps, spectators, and buckle-on shoes.

For men, suits of the era accentuated, or created, a large torso. Shoulders were squared and lapels were artfully used to draw attention to a V-shaped chest and to add visual breadth. Double-breasted suits were quite popular, and trousers were long and generously cut. Dark fabrics were most common, but were often accentuated with herringbone or vertical stripes. Plaids were also a popular choice for men during the 1930s.

Mid-decade, a new cut in men’s suits became popular. Intended to symbolize prosperity, the new look was called the “London cut” or the “London drape.” To quote Carol Nolan, “It featured sleeves tapering slightly from shoulder to wrist, high pockets and buttons, wide, pointed lapels flaring from the top rather than the middle buttons and roll, rather than flat lapels. Shoulder pads brought the tip of the shoulder in line with the triceps and additional fabric filled out the armhole, creating drape in the shoulder area.”

Blazers also became popular during the late thirties for summer, worn with cotton or linen slacks or shorts.

And, of course, the gangster look had an influence on the era’s fashions. Gangster suits were almost like a cartoon version of everyday suits – wider stripes, brighter colors, bigger shoulders, more colorful ties, narrower waists, wider pants, brightly colored hats. This look would, of course, play a role in the 1940s, as well.

The first synthetic fibers were developed and popularized during the thirties. DuPont developed nylon in 1935, but it was not used widely until after WWII. Zippers were generally the fastener of choices, usually called “slide fasteners.” (I can’t tell you how confused I was the first time I read that in a vintage pattern! – ed.)

The 1940s
Nazi occupation of France in 1940 forced Paris to disappear from the world fashion scene for the duration. This allowed American designers a chance to strut their stuff, at least until 1947, when French fashion once again came to the forefront. Because of this, and because the U.S. was largely untouched by the war, Americans were some of the best-dressed of the war era. It is also interesting to note that American designers had previously just focused on copying the Parisian fashions each year, but during the war, they had to develop their own designs. For whatever reason, they focused largely on sportswear, resulting in the US becoming the sportswear capital of the world.

American fashion during the 1940s was largely dictated by War Production Board restrictions, which were in effect in the United States from 1942 until V-E Day, though clever women could skirt them by making their own patterns! Stanley Marcus, the apparel consultant to the WPB, declared that it was a designer’s patriotic duty to design fashions that would remain stylish through several seasons, to cut down on waste. The government also used most of the natural fabrics available, forcing American manufacturers to substitute man-made fibers for garments. Rayon became widely popular during this era. Nylon disappeared from the fashion scene entirely, and was used instead for parachutes. (you can read a bit more about L-85 here)

The 1930s focus on repairing, reusing, and remaking continued through the war years, which found many women remaking their husband’s old suits into suits for themselves and their children, and turning old dresses into children’s clothing. Several sewing books from the era contain instructions for making old clothing new again by adding trim, combining two dresses into one, changing hemlines, and re-cutting sleeves. There was also a great deal of focus on caring for garments properly to ensure maximum wear.

For women, suits featured short, trim skirts and short, trim jackets. Trim waists were contrasted with padded shoulders. Blouses featured soft lines and bows at the neckline. Separates were introduced at this time, with the idea of purchasing coordinating pieces to give the wearer more options and the feeling of a larger wardrobe. Many popular women’s styles mimicked a military look. The working-girl look (a la Rosie the Riveter) was also chic. It was generally considered in bad taste to dress in a showy fashion during a time of shortage, so conservative was the name of the game.

The wedge-heeled open-toe shoe became popular during the decade, using cork or wood in the sole. Heels were limited to one inch high by war restrictions. As mentioned previously, nylons were unavailable. Some women painted their legs with make-up, complete with eyeliner back seams, but many women opted to simply wear socks!

After the war, American women were ready for something drastically different. The country as a whole was ready for change, tired of restrictions and making do. In 1947, Christian Dior gave them what they wanted – the “New Look,” which featured long, full skirts, a soft feminine look, and peplums galore.

It should also be noted that during the 1940s, women’s undergarments finally separated into two pieces – a bra and a girdle.

Men were also affected by WPB restrictions. Wool was restricted, meaning suits would now be made from viscose and rayon. Suits also were stripped of vests, pocket flaps, cuffs, and pleats. Many men, of course, were wearing military uniforms, which served as formal wear while on leave, as well.

Zoot suits usually receive a lot of attention during any discussion of 1940s fashions. They flaunted the WPB regulations, and many citizens felt that the suits symbolized the wearer’s lack of support for the American war effort. The zoot suit featured oversized jackets with wide shoulders and lapels, baggy pants with high waists and numerous pleats, deep cuffs that narrowed at the ankle, and bright colors. Though the average 1940s man would never imagine wearing a zoot suit, the influence on men’s fashion is clear when one looks at the “every day” suits of the era, which often had higher-waisted trousers and roomy jackets.

Post-war suits were full-cut and long. Men were ready to get away from the trim look of uniforms and eager to feel like civilians again. Bright, extraordinarily decorative ties were widely popular – we have even seen one with a pin-up girl on the front, and the same pin-up girl sans clothing on the back!

Casual shirts appeared for the first time in the post-war era, brought over from men stationed in Hawaii or other tropical locales.

One of the most extreme changes in postwar men’s fashion was the adoption of the casual shirt. In 1946 and 1947, Hawaiian or Carisca shirts were first worn on the beaches in California and Florida. Made in bright colors, the shirts sported fruit, flowers, flames, women or marine flora. About this time, a man walking the streets of New York without a jacket and shirt tails flapping, became a common sight.

It should also be noted that the end of the 1940s saw the rise of the teenager in all aspects of American society. For the first time in history, young people were setting fashion trends and older people were following.

The 1950s
The 1950s were marked by conservativeness, in manner as well as in dress. Many young people, weary of the images of WWII, just wanted to settle down and start a family.

The look of this decade is scaled-back, buttoned-down, and hemmed-in. Men’s lapels and ties were skinnier than in the 40s, and women’s dresses were narrow and slimming. (Of course, another popular style for women was the full, gathered skirt, a welcome change from WWII restrictions.) It was common for women to have “house” dresses, which usually were casual and made of cotton with buttons in the front, and then also “day” dresses, which were made of finer fabrics and were a bit dressier.

Teenage fashion also came to the forefront during this decade, with fashions for teenage girls featuring full skirts, sweater sets, and bobby socks. Teenage boys trended towards jeans or casual pants with button-front or pull-over shirts in casual styles.

Other Resources:

Carol Nolan’s Fashion History

Fashion Era

American Vintage Blues

American Cultural History

Vintage Vixen

Vintage Gown (focus on bridal attire)

Content this page copyright Sarah Reid 2001, 2007

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