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Entries in 1920s (100)


Wearing the Trousers

Super for the summer: lounging pyjamas in a pretty print with a matching jacket, 1928; a woman wearing a leaf-pattern trouser suit and broad-brimmed sun hatToday a good part of the world’s population is celebrating International Women’s Day.

Not only do we laud the remarkable women of history who achieved great and extraordinary things as human beings, but also as women in the face of incredible odds and sometimes horrific circumstances. We are also celebrating the quiet achievers: our mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces (and every other conceivable female relative, pardon the pun) and of course our girlfriends. We couldn’t have done anything without the women who came before us.

One thing I can’t help but think about women’s history in the world is our liberation from strictures of dress – literally. That may seem trivial at first, but being rid of societal strictures about what we wear is a huge gift.

Blonde bombshell: a curvy catsuit with a pleated inset at the trouser bottoms, 1929; American actress, Joan Blondell, a whacky, wise-cracking Hollywood starletTrousers were first adopted in Western Europe the period known as Late Antiquity (the transition period between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages), but they were mostly worn by men. It was not until the twentieth century that wearing the pants first became acceptable for women, by way of imported pantaloons from the Near East, to pyjamas at home (in place of the traditional teagown), to pyjamas on the beach in the 1920s and 30s (read about the exotic origin of the pyjama here). Of course the First World War had a lot to do with the emancipation of the Flappers, and the adoption of trousers beyond work wear for the war effort.

Beach babe: baggy bell-bottoms, a tight striped top, a spotted scarf and plimsolls, 1932; a girl with a bobbed haircut, dressed for a day out on the boardwalk

Perhaps in another century or two it will be de rigueur for men to be wearing dresses again.

Shockingly, there are still parts of the world where it is a criminal offence for a woman to wear trousers. I think everyone has forgotten that once upon a time everyone wore robes, togas, chitons, tunics, kilts whatever-you-may-call-’em. Perhaps in another century or two it will be de rigueur for men to be wearing dresses again.

Here are some glorious vintage pictures of women wearing trousers, from the 20s to the 70s – so many awesome styles! Enjoy your day, women of the world.

Photos from: Style Book – Fashionable Inspirations, by Elizabeth Walker, Flammarion 2011

Stellar and smouldering: in a Spencer Tracy suit, complete with brogues, 1938; American actress, Katharine Hepburn sitting on the arm of a chair smokingLand-girl looks: dungarees in bold checks, more Chelsea than cabbages, 1941; clothes for A Coupon SummerWorld War wear: crisp in white cotton with a classic rolled hairdo, 1943; a woman wearing coveralls examines designs on a drafting tableShock horror: collegiates in trousers, men’s shirts, bobby socks and even loafers, 1947; American students in Heidelberg, Germany, astound the local ladiesSexy siren or beautiful beatnik, a cinched-in waist and huge hoop earrings, 1955; British actress Joan Collins feeding a parrot in a big birdcageBoyish and yet beautiful, a sailor sweater with jeans, topped off with a pixie haircut, 1965; a portrait of American actress Jean Seberg sitting cross-legged on a stoolMatching moments: a cropped top, flared loons, topped off with a little beanie hat, 1971; a model wearing ‘Lollipop’, from the Mary Quant spring collection, LondonJust a gigolo: clubbing in a classic jacket and trousers with a fedora in hand, 1978; American model and occasional actress, Lauren Hutton at Studio 54, USAFighting fashion: snowballing and stripes, and very Flashdance legwarmers, 1982; knitting from head to toe protect a girl from the wintry weather


What I Actually Wore #128

Serial #: 0128
Date: 24/06/2013
Weather: 12°C / 53°F
Time Allowed: 10 minutes

This outfit amuses me, nearly four years on. I was still on my Ballet Russes kick, but I remember the sheer number of colours in this outfit was a rebellion against my own edict of not wearing more than 2–3 hues at once, as well as being inspired by a life drawing I did twenty years before in art college.

I remember somewhat quixotically selecting two fluorescent soft pastels that were amongst a 12-pack I had bought cheap. (Reduced probably because no one else had wanted to buy it.) I chose hot pink and lemon yellow. As a testament of my drawing teacher’s trust, she did not comment until I was close to resolving the drawing, after the additional introduction of cobalt and neutral shades. Then she told me that she had been very dubious at the outset, but admitted I had successfully pulled the drawing together. It was even framed and exhibited at the end of the year.

And here is the same colour palette rendered in cloth! All the garments are contemporary; only the hat and earrings are vintage, a 1920s cap with feather pom-pom, and woven cane hoops which are possibly 70s or 80s.

The hot pink long sleeved tee is a woollen merino knit, one of Kookaï’s trusty basics; the acid yellow top is by Veronika Maine, a favourite Australian label; and the linen skirt I bought in Spain. My other accessories include a cobalt Italian patent leather belt I bought on sale in David Jones, a local department store, French over-the-knee socks I wore to death, and a pair of wedges I bought from an online sale store.

Unusually for me, I put the outfit together the night before, and even ironed it then! I really liked it then (my notes say), and it still makes me smile, especially because of the inspiration behind it.


Tee: Kookaï
Veronika Maine
Celia Velo, souvenir from Spain
Alta Linea
Philippe Matignon
Merimac Hat Co, vintage 20s from Etsy
souvenir from Vietnam

Photos: September 2013


The Original Candy-Striper

When I was a little girl, I loved the English children’s storybooks about Milly-Molly-Mandy. They were written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, and were set in about 1920. The stories are set in a quaint English village, and follow the simple, every-day adventures of the title character, who lives in ‘the nice white cottage with the thatched roof’. Her full name is Millicent Margaret Amanda, which is shortened for ease. (According to my Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Molly was actually an alteration from Mally, a pet form of Mary.)

The original illustrations were darling, as was Milly-Molly-Mandy’s seven year old style. She wears a simple pink-and-white striped dress, a straw boater, white socks and black Mary-Janes – a children’s unisex classic shoe that in the Roaring Twenties transmogrified into adult women’s shoes and have never gone out of style since. (Check out this gorgeous children’s outfit at Sewpony, made by a modern mum who lives in country Victoria.)

I wonder if here is the genesis of my long love of the short bob, Mary-Janes and striped clothing? Inspired by one of my childhood heroines, I’ve styled an outfit for the grown-up Milly-Molly-Mandy, who now of course insists on being called by her proper name. She’s grown her hair out, but she still loves pink and white stripes.


Fashion Notes

The short-sleeved seersucker blouse is from Australian high-street store Witchery, the pleated skirt is by Moschino, the punctured brogue-style, patent T-bar heels by Scooter, and the striped elastic belt is, I think, vintage 80s. I can’t believe I forgot to include the boater however! All of these items I bought second hand.

Photo: December 2016


You’re Mad on Dances


I’m not going to give you a big history lesson on the Charleston dance except to say it is the most famous dance associated with the 1920s. It was named after the harbour city of Charleston in South Carolina, and was first composed in 1923 for a Broadway show titled Runnin’ Wild. The peak years for the Charleston’s popularity were 1926–1927.

Wikipedia describes it thus: ‘At first, the step started off with a simple twisting of the feet, to rhythm in a lazy sort of way. When the dance hit Harlem, a new version was added. It became a fast kicking step, kicking the feet, both forward and backward and later done with a tap. Further changes were undoubtedly made before the dance was put on stage.’

Josephine Baker perfoming the CharlestonThe dress I am wearing, being quite short and skimpy on the bodice, is vaguely inspired by flapper dresses with its drop waist and gored skirt. It is grey silk chiffon, by Australian high street store Sportsgirl. I purchased it on eBay and was rather disappointed by its brevity once the package arrived and I saw it in person (and on my person!). I thought it was fine for a homage to the dance though, and had fun kicking my patent navy heels to an album of original Charleston recordings, including an amusing George Gershwin song performed by Fred and Adele Astaire:

I've seen for days that you've got
The ways that must be checked
In you I never can detect
The slightest signs of intellect
You’re mad on dances, think of the chances you neglect
You never seem inclined to use your mind
And it's quite plain to see
That I'm the brains of the family …

[Read the full lyrics here, and watch a period video of the dance below.]

Photo: March 2014


Surface Decoration


Many years ago, I remember seeing a vintage 1920s embroidered silk piano shawl belonging to a fashion editor I once worked with. It was a celestial shade of Wedgwood blue, with cream coloured embroidery, and I fell in love with it. It had belonged to her mother, and quite naturally, she wasn’t parting with it.

I determined to find my own, except there was one problem in fulfilling this mission: these enormous shawls are rarely to be seen in Australia. About five years ago I looked at some in an antique textile shop in Barcelona; I remember a gorgeous black and white one priced at several hundred euros – beyond my price range. Later, I expanded my search to Etsy.

… in the 1920s piano shawls were adopted for decoration of the top surface of the fashionable flapper.

Piano shawls or scarves literally are embroidered pieces of fabric that were used to decorate and protect the top surface of a grand piano. They were quite popular during the Victorian era when pianos in the parlour were fashionable, and in the 1920s piano shawls were adopted for decoration of the top surface of the fashionable flapper. They were worn in the evening simply as shawls, or were tailored to create jackets or kimono-style coats. The hand-tied fringing they are commonly edged with form a distinctive and seductive decoration, swaying with every movement of the wearer.

A few years ago I watched an original 1920s film – I can’t remember the title, but it was about two sisters with a strong sibling rivalry when it came to men – in which a young flapper dons a piano shawl for an evening wrap in disgruntlement after her elder sister steals her brand spanking new lamé coat. The younger sister threw the shawl around her like a cloak, so that the fringing trailed behind her, brushing the floor. The coat was beautiful, but I didn’t consider the shawl a poor substitute as did its wearer!

I eventually found a shawl that I liked on Etsy – not in the coveted Wedgwood blue, but in lustrous navy and white (it won narrowly over a similar shawl of black and white that was a little smaller); I particularly love the birds fluttering amongst the embroidered floral vines. While they come in many different colour combinations, I preferred the minimal simplicity of just two. Here I am wearing mine folded diagonally in half, as the fringing trails dangerously on the floor like a train if it is not folded. I have worn it out as an evening wrap too, to the theatre, and the crépe de chine is not only very warm, but I feel incredibly glamorous embraced within its folds.

I was lucky to find a beautiful piano shawl in such perfect condition at the extreme lower end of the price scale. There are many readily available on Etsy and other online stores, with prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you do wish to buy one, do be patient and shop around as there are bargains to be found, and also be careful to check the condition as much as you are able, as these are antique textiles and you can expect to find shattering, tears, holes and stains in fabrics that have been heavily used or stored incorrectly. A reputable seller will be upfront about such issues.

Photos: March 2014

Model wearing a shawl of crëpe de chine hand-painted by Russian artists, 1924; ph. Edward Steichen. ‘Edward Steichen In High Fashion the Condé Nast Years 1923–1937’ by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow, FEP Editions LLC, 2008