Real Talk: Why the 1920s Were Fashion’s Most Important Decade


Here’s a debate for your fashion clique: the 1920s—fashion’s greatest ever decade? The S/S 18 collections may be paying homage to a 1980s style revival, while nostalgia for the best (and worst) trends of the nineties and noughties refuses to rest. But when it comes to the revolutionary power and decadent style of Gatsby-era fashion, you just can’t deny the allure of all that freedom-fuelled razzle dazzle.

Flapper dresses with string pearls, feather boas and cloche hats (without a hint of irony), Chanel’s then-radical androgynous ‘garçonne’ silhouette; it was a time of wild abandon, empowering new cuts, shorter hemlines and unabashed party dressing. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Zelda Fitzgerald (née Sayre) ruled the style scene, and we’re only just getting started on why this is the decade our wardrobes should be really celebrating.

Have we got you hooked? Keep scrolling for the complete Who What Wear UK guide to 1920s style, including the trends we’d still wear today, plus the fashion icons who remain total #OOTD goals.

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To really appreciate the huge shifts in fashion that came with The Roaring Twenties, it’s important to first set the scene. After the end of the First World War in 1918, women in the UK were finally granted the right to vote—at least if you were 30 years old—with the same happening Stateside in 1920. After the gloom of the war years economies started to boom, women embraced a bolder, more flamboyant approach to life (cue the short and sassy bob haircuts), and the Jazz Age gave birth to high octane parties filled with ragtime dancing. Speakeasy bars rebelled against US prohibition, and the art scene exploded with the talents of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. Naturally, fashion was at the heart of the social rebellion, with Parisian couturiers—most notably Coco Chanel—all embracing the youth of the era.

After swapping Belle Epoch frocks for men’s overalls to contribute to the war effort, (you can’t do much heavy lifting in a tightly laced corset, after all), women shifted radically in the clothes they were willing to wear following WW1. Boned corsets and full skirts were out, sleek shapes and relaxed fits were in. Naturally, it’s the knee-skimming flapper dress that remains the ultimate symbol of 1920s fashion, with dropped waistlines, pleated skirts, and Art Deco embellishments adding serious glamour to cocktail-hour.

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Coco Chanel, of course, played a huge role in transforming wardrobes throughout the decade. The Parisian switched heavy fabrics for sports-luxe jersey and boyish cuts, ignited the trend for statement costume jewellery (hello fake pearls and bedazzled pendants), delivered the classic LBD in 1926, and sparked ‘fashionable’ women’s trousers while donning a pair herself on holiday in Deauville.

But it wasn’t just the Chanel show. Competition came from contemporaries including Jeanne Lanvin, known for her embellished chemise dresses, Paul Poiret, credited with introducing bohemian harem pants to the artsy style set, and Elsa Schiaparelli—Chanel’s greatest rival—who famously designed the ‘speakeasy soiree dress’—a party frock with hidden pockets that could cleverly hide a hip flask.

Thanks to shorter hemlines and advances in fabric technology, hosiery became a huge trend among the Bright Young Things, with sales of stockings and decorative tights going through the roof. Swimwear got skimpier, heels got higher, and voluminous wrap coats with real fur trims became a signature of high society.

When it comes to inspirational fashion muses, the twenties doesn’t disappoint. From Josephine Baker, the showgirl said to have inspired Beyoncé’s stage moves, to Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Zelda Fitzgerald, here are the style icons that still inspire our own wardrobes today.

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Marlene Dietrich became one of the most famous silent movie actresses of the time, and epitomised the height of fashion through the twenties and thirties.

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Silent movie actress Marie Prevost typified flapper style, and became especially revered after starring in the movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.

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Hollywood’s first Asian-American actress, Anna May Wong was crowned ‘The World’s Best-Dressed Woman’, and is credited with introducing the cheongsam to Western fashion circles.

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Blues singer Bessie Smith was the one of the best-selling artists of her generation, but became as equally known for her extravagant stage costumes.

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Comedy actress Colleen Moore was one of the first to chop her hair into a short bob, initially for her role in 1923 film Flaming Youth. The film would go on to cement the term ‘flapper’ and push for acceptance of women’s new-found freedom.

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Even F. Scott Fitzgerald conceded Joan Crawford’s status as the ‘best example of the flapper’. A lover of Art Deco glitz by night and Chanel’s somewhat controversial menswear-inspired shapes by day, her style was imitated by countless women.

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Josephine Baker was famed for her then-risqué performances, and considered one of the true flapper fashion icons by her fans.

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