The 1920s: Fashions of Illicit Fantasies

The 1920s were a time remembered for marrying glitz and danger. Prohibition ironically made booze available to all classes and genders. Gin joints operated in dingy backrooms and marbled clubs alike. Thanks to mob bosses like Salvatore Maranzano, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lanksy, and Al Capone, everyone had the right to party.

No drinks here officer

As the first generation to enjoy night life, the youth suddenly had a different preference for how they wanted to experience life. Jazz drummer and vocalist, Sonny Greer, describes the impressive energy of The Cotton Club in the late 1920s:

“We went to work at 11 o’clock at night, and nobody knew when closing hour was. We usually didn’t get through till seven or eight in the morning, but it was beautiful … all kinds of people mixed there—show people, socialites, debutantes, musicians, and racketeers—and everybody had a lovely time. It was still Prohibition … nobody could get a drink of booze in the place unless I gave an okay.… The last show at the Cotton Club went on at two and the club closed at 3:30 or four. Then everybody would go next door … or to the breakfast dance at Small’s Paradise, where the floor show went on at 6 o’clock in the morning.”

Sonny Greer

The urge for fast dancing into the long hours of the night certainly demanded different functions of fashion than did the slow waltzes of previous decades. Anytime dance is involved, the flashier the fabric, the better. Under the newly installed glow of electric lighting, party-goers wanted glimmer and easier movement. Popular fabric choices for evening dresses were silk, velvet, layers of chiffon, and lamé.

Lamé is made from metallic fibers and has a tinsel-like brilliance to it under light. It is usually gold or silver in color. Silk and satin both have a quality of shine often described as liquidy. Chiffon is a favored fabric for many varieties of dance and has a sheer yet shimmery appearance to it. Combining it with silk to make silk chiffon increases the shimmery effect. Velvet being originally made from silk has a strong yet rich lustre to it and can vary from draping heavily or lightly depending on thickness. All of these fabrics move incredibly well under slow or fast dance movements.

What impresses me most about the evening gowns of the 1920s is the artistry evident in the designs. With the opening of Diaghilev’s ballet production, A Thousand and One Nights, in 1910, couture designers craved to capture the richness and movement of garments from far off lands. This resulted in unique designs combining different exotic elements, lengths, cuts, and colors. Added to this, Madeline Vionnet’s rise in the fashion world since 1923 popularized a Grecian silhouette and drape to evening wear. Some of the most aesthetically pleasing gowns (in my opinion ) were wrought from Callot Soeurs’s imagination. Her designs often featured blossom prints, kimono silhouettes, and the wispy airiness of China’s Tang dynasty.

Colors of evening gowns were also inspired by the colors found in the far and middle east. Gowns of startling jewel toned teals, blues, purples, and greens were flaunted with flowing grace when the sun went down.

Despite the 1920s fashions having the reputation for plainness and shapelessness, there exists quite the array of feminine dresses for both day and evening wear (a separate post would truly need to be made to cover day dresses.) During the latter half of the decade, skirt portions of dresses became the widest they had been since Chanel popularized the ultra-narrow ‘le garconne’ silhouette in 1925. Colors also softened into pastel hues and layers of chiffon were added for fluttery femininity. Dresses became edged with more and more lace.

Evening gowns became impressive visual feats that looked designed more for flying slyphs or greek goddesses than curveless flappers. Madeline Vionnet’s innovation of cutting skirt hems “on the bias”, creating a drape that gracefully skims over curves, led to other kinds of experimentation for dress hems. By the late 20s, almost all dress hems were cut asymmetrically, creating a rather pixie-like appearance to its wearer (especially as flower embroidery and appliques made a greater appearance).

The role of fantasy in 1920s dress (esp. evening wear) has always been a curiosity of mine. A theory of mine to disprove or confirm in a later post, is that it was born out of the Ziegfeld Follies shows that were immensely popular from 1907 to 1931. The costumes for their show girls were designed by Erté and were pure creations of fantasy. Erté’s costumes included no shortage of sparkling jewels, beads and feathers over wide draping robes.

A favorite scene of mine from Boardwalk Empire captures the fantastical spirit and costumes of the Ziegfeld Follies. Mr. Ziegfield required that his girls be comfortable performing nude as they would often be draped in just jewels, beads, open robes, and of course a sparkling head piece.

Whatever your opinions are on the extravagance of the decade, perhaps they picked just the right time to act out their fantasies as sultans, goddesses, and fairies. The stock market crash of 1929 put a devastating end to their party culture and it has sadly not been revived in the same way since. All that remains of their world of fantasy are old musical recordings still retaining a lacquered gleam, a bit of party silk slipping from attic beams, and if you’re lucky, some leftover bathtub gin.


Jacqueline Herald, (2007). Fashions Of A Decade The 1920s. Chelsea House publishers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: