The New Woman needed new clothes. Once they had shortened their skirts and worn trousers women would refuse to be immobilized again. But after the Great War, she literally had nothing to wear and an entirely new wardrobe was invented in a period of a very few years. Therefore, attention was turned towards the female body itself, and we can see that form must follow function and that the body likewise had to renew itself to keep up with the new fashions. While a full discussion of Coco Chanel and the revolution she wrought in women’s fashion will be discussed in another session, speaking in general, women’s dresses were completely changed, exposing the female body to an extent previously seen only in tropical climates among indigenous women, wise to the ways of hot weather. The arms of the New Woman were bare, her legs were exposed to the knee and corsets were banished, and each of these fashion events had consequences. 

To become the New Woman, now called the “Flapper,” the women who wanted to be fashionable were faced with the demand that the female body had to change its natural shape. After years of fitful ‘dress reform” movements in America and Europe, fashion finally did what common sense and medical science could not–banned the stiff old-fashioned corset. This overthrow of the corset was a rebellion out of necessity but, as shall be seen, when one thing changes another alteration needs to take place. 

Designers of the early twentieth century, such as Paul Poiret () created dresses that hung soft and loosely on the female form, but it became immediately obvious that the breasts needed to be taken care of. Without the corset propping up the female bosom, women now needed something to take its place of the rigid support. An object called a “brassiere,” a French word meaning upper arm, had been around since before 1910 and was a term used to designate a reinforced camisole, but the word achieved its final meaning as an independent object just before the War. Not surprisingly, it was a woman who invented the bra, literally out of a ribbon holding two handkerchiefs. 

According to historical accounts, New York socialite Mary Jane Jacobs was struggling to dress for a ball in 1913. Already the latest styles were trending towards deep necklines that exposed traditional corsets and Jacobs solved the equation between the new lines of the new dresses, which demanded a new breast-denying flatness, and the interfering and thrusting lines of the corset by inventing a garment that would give her support and allow the dress to be worn as the designer intended. She was later granted a patent for her invention in November of 1914. Compared to today’s fetching creations, the early bras were utilitarian, but during the 1920s, when it was permissible to invent entirely new private garments, pretty bras and fetching panties that were thin and non-bulky were available for the New Woman.

In the book on The 1920s, Kathleen Morgan Drowne and Patrick Huber, discussed the changes in women’s undergarments in the decade. “..corsets were marketed througout the 1920s and were still regularly purchased, particularly by older women. Over time, though, less burdensome corsets and lightweight rubber girdles gradually supplanted traditional lace-up, boned corsets. By the end of the decade, many women dispensed with ‘foundation garments’ altogether, instead opting for the brief new ‘step-ins’ or ‘cami-knickers,‘ which were light one-piece undergarments that amounted merely to a silk or rayon camisole stitched to a pair of thigh-length panties. Most brassieres manufactured during the 1920s were intended to flatten rather than accentuate women’s breasts.These cup-less brassieres, also called bandeaux, were made of cotton, silk, or rayon, and fitted snugly against the women’s body in order to smooth her silhouette under the straight, narrow dresses of the day. Some bras during the mid to late 1920s, however, were deliberately designed to separate and lift women’s breasts. In 1922 Ida Cohen Rosenthal developed the support bra and founded the Maiden Form Brassiere Company (later renamed Maidenform). These ‘uplift’ brassieres often featured elastic inserts and was widely advertised as preventing the bust from sagging.”

To say that after the Great War, the New Woman had to be remade from top to toe was not an exaggeration. Short bobbed hair allowed the Flapper to wear the new small close fitting hats, which drew attention to her exquisitely drawn face, and then came the short sleeveless dresses that exposed the entire arm and the leg below the knees. One problem–the need to cover the female bosom with a newly invented “bra”–was solved, but the new dress designs caused another issue came up, so to speak. The newly exposed underarms. In the past, the underarm of the female had been shielded by small sleeves or puffed sleeves or long sleeves, all of which concealed pads to absorb sweat. But modern dresses were sleeveless, exposing, when the arm was raised, the natural pelt of underarm hair. At first women were nonplussed but fashion considered such sights an aesthetic distraction from the garment so yet another industry sprang up the convince women to shave under their arms to avoid “embarrassment.” Some women eagerly took up the female version of the male razor to eliminate the suddenly undesirable hair, while others were less concerned with fashion’s dictates. But over time the convention that women shaved their underarms and men did not became the accepted norm. 

Women were forced to take up the strange and dangerous act of shaving their underarms. But women did not stop there. With the legs exposed to view, it was revealed that women, like men, had leg hair, but leg hair, especially when inside stockings, is not necessarily attractive and a smooth leg is simply more visually appealing. Women had to learn how to shave their legs without cutting themselves so that they could wear the short skirts, slip into stockings and slid their feet into the new Mary Jane shoes and go out in public, confident that they were thoroughly feminine and in line with the new rules and new expectations for the New Woman.In her book, Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, Madeleine Marsh wrote of the bonus for companies manufacturing razors and blades, which effectively doubled their consumer base. “..an American company to benefit from the new preoccupation with the body beautiful was Gillette, funded in 1904 when traveling salesman King Camp Gillette patented the disposable safety razor–a brilliant invention in that it was a product that men used everyday and that could be purchased over and over again. The only limitation to its multi-million sales potential was sex. Men shaved, women didn’t or not at least until fashions began to change. With shorter skirts and sleeveless dresses, suddenly ankles and armpits were on display, providing new body areas for women to wrry out and manufacturers to target. In 1916 Gillette launched the Milady Décolleté, their first razor for women. Tiny and discreetly boxed lady shavers were soon to be found in every bathroom cabinet and the 1920s saw the flourishing of mass produced cream and powder depilatories..It wasn’t just hairy legs that women had to be concerned about. With the rise in sport and dancing came sweat, not a subject that ladies were used to hearing discussed. In 1919 OdoRoNo an American deodorant for women helped popularize the abbreviation BO for body odor. Their magazine advertising provided such a frank discussion of the moist and pungent unpleasantness that could lurk ‘Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm’ that 200 readers of Ladies Home Journal cancelled their subscriptions.”

The new shoes were more like what had been called “slippers” in the past and took the place of the tall button up boots worn by their grandmothers. These new shoes could be literally stepped into, and often the woman did not even have to stoop to do a shoe button or to fasten a buckle. Compared to the shoes of her mother or grandmother, these shell-like shoes called attention to her lively feet, now busy doing the new dances, like the Charleston or the Black Bottom. 

But even more exposure of the female body was to follow. Now shaven and shorn, women in bobbed hair and smooth legs set forth in the new “bathing suits,” as the old bathing costume was now called. The rather ample bathing suit of the 1920s was far from today’s very scanty garments but at the beginning of the twentieth century, this athletic attire called attention to a fact that had been obscured by the voluminous dresses of the past. The body of one woman was different from that of another, and, for the first time, women would be lined up and judged–by men, of course–on whose body was the “best.” A new ordeal for women had begun.

Before the Great War, women, clad in elaborate concealing bathing costumes that were devoid of any redeeming fashionable features, gingerly approached the water. To accommodate the fearful and modest women, who dared to brave the waves at the beaches, small structures, houses on wheels that could be towed into the water—but not too far–were built to provide privacy. The pre-war woman could emerge timidly and wade around in shallow water, but the post-war woman was far braver—as brave as her bathing suit was brief. Like the new dresses, the skirts of bathing suits were short, but prudish beachgoers had their standards and they were arbitrary. Women at the beach were pursued by police officers wielding rulers to measure the length of the skirt of the bathing suit, lest excessive thigh be revealed. Now that women’s bodies were on display, being measured and judged, beauty contests became a form of competition among women. 

Much of these new types of clothing and new modes of behavior were driven by women, who were now becoming an important force in the marketplace. The Roaring Twenties employed enough women and/or provided men with enough disposable income to free money for spending on the latest fashions. As recently as twenty years earlier, only upper middle and upper class women could dream of following fashion trends closely. During the 1920s, the demands upon women, who had to completely redesign their entire bodies, had escalated considerably. As women increasingly altered their appearance in rapid fire fashion, moving from head to toe and changing everything in between, visible or invisible, the resistance to such radical self-fashioning remained well into the 1930s. As Angela J. Latham wrote in her book, Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s, “No misgivings were more frequently expressed, however, than moral ones. Moreover, no aspect of fashion so kindled the fury of moralists as short skirts..Most moralistically inclined dress reformers saw nothing humorous at all in fashion trends. Many, in fact, equated attractiveness with virtue and ponderously attempted to convince others of the same. These calls for modesty in dress, coupled with harsh criticism of unattractive and/or ‘tasteless’ appearance, essentially told women that to create a pleasing appearance was their moral obligation..moralistic dress reform advocates also tried regularly to shame women into compliance with more righteous standards of dress..Hugh A. Studdert Kennedy, in his thoughtful and expansive essay inadequately entitled ‘Short Skirts,’ explored the relationship between immorality and shame and suggested that the former was largely determined by sizable doses of the latter. Kennedy noted examples of fashions that would have been shunned as wanton nakedness in earlier eras were largely taken in stride by 1926. Noting that one ‘Prince of the Church’ recently decried the ‘unparalleled depravity of women’s dress.’ Kennedy retorted, ‘The lac, of morality is not in the nakedness but in the shame, and the shame grows less day by day..‘Unfortunately, for those who fought for dress reform, the short skirt was hardly the only ‘depraved’ fashion women wore..there was a public outcry when uncorseted young women attended dance halls. Dancing was, understandably, a far more sensual experience without the ‘armamentation’ of the corset..Among the most vociferous of the world-be dress reformers argued moralistically, those persons who considered women’s health central to the fashion debates of the 1920s were by no means reticent. The items that topped their reform agenda were shoes and underwear. Shorter skirts naturally increased the visibility of women’s shoes. Thus fashion advisors in the 1920s, unlike those of the previous decades, emphasized the importance of footwear to a woman’s ‘total look.’”

There was a never ending list of clothing worn by women that attracted the ire of this new generation of dress reformers, now operating under entirely new rules. Like their predecessors of the late nineteenth century, their excuse was health of the women; unlike their predecessors, the reason was hardly valid. Shoes were scrutinized for being highheeled and tight, problems that could cause ‘misplacements and congestions such as prolapus of the stomach and bowels, constipation, indigestion, and misplaced uterus, and menstrual pain’—all medically ridiculous notions. Tight shoes were equated to tight corsets, but tight shoes were never considered to be anything more than an ill-fitting purchase that could be discarded, unlike the corset which was touted as a fashion necessity. The literature of the day on the topics of women’s fashions, laid out by Latham, seem, one hundred years later, indicative, not of actual problems but of social anxiety. Women were out of control and in response a huge and ridiculous discourse was unleashed to attempt to bring them to their senses. Faced with a choice between moralizing lectures and the allure of a new dress, most women made the obvious choice— a new dress wins every time. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

13 + 11 =