This exhibit will be exploring how women’s fashion reflected the social, political, and economic themes of the time period. It will focus on the style ideal of the time; which includes predominantly the fashions of white, middle- to upper-class women. The exhibit will showcase how this fashion changed alongside five different eras: The Gilded Age, WWI, the 1920s, the Great Depression, and WWII. The exhibit will follow the most distinguished trends of the time and seek to explain what they meant for women’s social, political, and economic status. The exhibit will look to women’s fashion magazines, popular designers and their inspirations, and style icons of the time. These factors affect everything in fashion from type of materials used, to silhouettes and shapes of clothing, to hem and necklines, to sleeves, to the practicality of the outfit. The exploration of this theme is significant because it shows what roles women fulfilled, what they themselves desired, and how they were perceived by society. Reflecting on styles of the time will show how the treatment of women evolved over the years, and what economic trends meant for the gender. This subject will give us a unique insight into the lives of the women who lived during these periods.
The Gilded Age, the period of the late 19th century to early 20th century, was defined by massive wealth disparities, rapid economic growth, immigration, and leg-o’-mutton sleeves (Goodson, 2014.) The rapid increase in wealth for certain people meant that wealthy, white women’s fashion became a way to express status (Ewing, 7.) The rigid Victorian shapes of the past century began to loosen slightly, as many white middle- and upper-class white women became involved in the “Public Sphere.” These women spearheaded reform movements and started to partake in activities such a bicycling, which demanded more practical outfits. The majority of fashion came from Parisian designers, imported to America by wealthy women who would travel to Paris and famous actresses such as Eva Moore or Maxine Elliot (Ewing 16.) Towards the end of the century, Victorian fashion of large skirts and frills began to give way to more Edwardian styles; practical shirtwaists, and smaller skirts. A major style icon of the time was the “Gibson Girl,” created by Charles Gibson. She represented the “New Woman,” a woman who was athletic, socially aware, politically activated. Her style was defined by her hair piled atop her head, and the S-shaped, hourglass figure, attained by a very tight corset that thrust the chest forward and the hips back (Ewing, 9). This corset style was designed by Frenchwoman Mme. Gaches-Sarraute, as the “health corset” meant to relieve pressure on the waist, but maintain the feminine shape. Around 1907, a new style arose. The “new-style corset” popularized by Paul Poiret Dior (Ewing 63) was paired with a straight “hobble-skirt” which was a column-like shape that forced women to hobble as they walked.
A year after the start of WWI in 1915, when women were allowed to enter the workforce, fashion changed overnight. As men went off to fight, women took jobs in factories, hospitals, and farms. They worked as drivers, nurses, administrators, laborers These responsibilities brought newfound independence, freedom, and a demand for more practical clothing. “Day suits”- two-piece skirt and jacket sets became popular (Lee, 12.) “Hobble-skirts” disappeared becoming shorter, and less structured, giving women greater ease of movement. (Ewing 84) They were dubbed “War Crinoline.” Fabric rationing also played a role in the styles of the times, as designs were simplified to accommodate shortages, meaning clothes were less frivolous and hemlines were shorter (Goodson, 2014.) War style began to creep into everyday fashion around this time, with pockets, khaki, trench coats, and corduroy showing up in women’s wardrobes (Mendes, 50.) Darker, more somber colors were popular, and a shortage of domestic services made elaborate clothing that required special care, and multiple daily outfit changes too impractical to maintain (Mendes, 51.) A major designer of the time was Coco Chanel, whose Parisian dress store remained open during the war, and featured “sporty” skirt and jacket sets (Mendes, 54.) This style would remain popular for many decades to come.
The end of WWI brought about a strong sentiment of women’s independence. In addition, the freedom women experienced during the war empowered them to break free of constricting social norms, and uncomfortable fashions. After a devastating war, people’s attitude towards modesty and strict social norms changed to allow more freedom for women (Ewing, 1997. 91.) This period is most defined by the “flapper” or “garçonne” look, in which dropped waists, androgynous hairstyles, and mid-calf hemlines were prevalent (Mendes 58.) This style embodied youthfulness, and a rebuke towards traditional styles which painfully and restrictively accentuated female curves. In fact, the ideal body shape was a thin, straight, body with no curves. Corsets served to flatten the breasts and straighten out the figure (Ewing, 1996. 93.) The dresses of the era were loose, falling straight from the shoulders to the hips. Louise Brooks, an American actress, embodied this style with her bobbed hair and loose gowns.
Women’s fashion of the Great Depression contrasted with the opulent styles of the 20s. The stock market crash of 1929 left everyone forced to simply “make do” with what they had (Mason 2011, 12.) As a result, styles became simpler, and reverted to “classic” styles like the puffy sleeves seen before during the era of the Gibson girls (Walford, 2008. 14.). The “boyish look” wen swiftly out of style; defined waists came back, and hemlines lowered once again. (Ewing, 1997. 108)
World War II fashion was affected by the loss of Paris as the fashion capital of the world, as well as material regulations (Walford 2008, 65.) Once Paris became occupied, New York rose to prominence as a leader in the fashion industry. For the first few years of the war, American fashion was not affected. Then in 1942, Limitation Order 85, which set forth a set of regulations for clothing manufactures, brought “War Wise” style, stateside. L-85 dictated much of what women wore: patriotic colors, fabrics such as gingham, cotton, denim, and rayon (Walford 2008, 28.) Fabric rationing like in WWI gave the military first pick of any produced materials. Hemlines rose in an effort to ration materials (Mason 2011. 14). These shortages also contributed to styles cut close to the body, without embellishments or extra material like pleats or ruffles. Women who worked in factories often wore trousers, and they soon became an acceptable style for women to wear in the home (Ewing 1997, 87.) Women in the military were expected to keep up appearances, and uniforms were designed for women to look attractive to “keep up morale” (Walford, 2008. 92.)