Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1900-1920

Women’s fashion has a long and colorful history and, in the 20th century, newspapers captured it all! You can find full newspaper pages with photographs of the latest fashions from Paris, department store advertisements with drawings of the popular frocks of the day, and articles covering social events and what fashionable people in attendance were wearing. Here is a look at the history of fashion through newspapers, starting with the time period 1900 to 1920. This is part 1 of a 3-part series that will span fashion history from 1900 to 1960. 

Detail from the San Francisco Call newspaper depicting the evolution of women's fashion. Three figures of women dressed in attire from various time periods.

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), August 17, 1902.

1900 to 1910

While the first decade of the 20th century saw significant technological advancements, women’s fashion remained largely similar to the looks of the preceding century. At the beginning of the decade, the structured silhouette of the Gibson Girl was popular and was the idealized look of Edwardian era style. Lace and other embellishments were essential. Modest dresses, bodies molded by corsets, and garish ornamentation dominated women’s fashion.

Detail from a Montana newspaper from 1900 of a drawn portrait of a woman wearing a large feathered hat captioned "The Girl of 1900."

“The Girl of 1900,” Daily Inter Mountain (Butte, MT), January 6, 1900.

Detail from a Savannah, Georgia newspaper from 1903 of a sketch depicting five women in a park in stylish dresses and large decorated hats.

“Embroidery from Neck to Hem.” The Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), April 19, 1903.

For a large part of the decade, the fashionable silhouette was the S-shape created by a new “health corset.” These corsets removed pressure from the abdomen, but resulted in the bust being pushed forward and the hips pushed back. Tops were loose and blousy helping to emphasize a top-heavy shape. Sleeves were also dramatic and long, heavy skirts were enhanced with frilly petticoats.

Day dresses emphasized modesty, covering the body from neck to the floor with long sleeves covering the arms. Skirts were bell-shaped and adorned with lace. Rich fabrics were typically used, such as silk satin, damask, and chiffon, usually in light, soft colors. The fashionable look overall was that of a mature and sophisticated woman.

Photograph of a woman wearing an elegant evening gown and holding flowers. Detail taken from a 1909 Montana newspaper which published the photograph.

An evening gown, 1909. The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MT), March 21, 1909.

Evening dress generally followed the same silhouette, though these gowns were more revealing with low necklines and short sleeves, often offset by wearing long gloves. Sleeves were also sometimes draped off the shoulder. 

During the latter end of this period, many women started to work outside the home for the first time and they sought out more practical attire in the form of the “tailor-made”– a woman’s skirt suit. These suits were functional and stylish for women entering the workplace and they became a symbol of independence. 

Though the prevailing style favored embellished day and evening dresses, women began to focus on dressing for the occasion. There was an increased importance placed on event-specific dressing. Wealthy women tended to have many costumes, ranging from theatre and evening gowns to morning and afternoon dresses and practical costumes for outdoor and sporting pursuits

Also during this period, sports such as golf, tennis, cycling and motoring began to have influence on fashion and inspired new styles. 

Fashion began to soften as the decade progressed. The rigid S-shape popular in the early part of the decade gradually straightened out into a more natural shape. Billowy blouses hanging over the waist in front were replaced with narrower loose tops, sleeves, and skirts. Waists were higher and a tubular silhouette began to emerge as fashion moved into the 1910s. 

Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year, from 1900 to 1910:

190019011902190319041905190619071908 –  19091910

Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1900 to 1910:

Single image of six women wearing fashions from various years spanning 1900-1910, cropped from six separate newspapers from different years from around the U.S.

[Images of dresses throughout 1900-1910, cropped from separate newspapers; click the linked citations below to view.] From left to right:

1900. The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), February 11, 1900.
1902. The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), August 10, 1902.
1904. The Birmingham Age-Herald (Birmingham, AL), August 6, 1904.
1906. The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), April 8, 1906.
1908. Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), November 22, 1908. 
1910. Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), October 23, 1910.

1911-1920

Fashion of the 1910s can be split into two periods: before the war and during the war. The First World War had a fundamental effect on society and culture, and fashion was no exception. 

Single image of two women made from cropped images from two separate newspapers from different years. The first women on the left wearing a long dress and large hat depicts fashion worn before WWI; the woman on the right wearing a tailored suit depicts fashion worn during WWI.

[Left to right] Example of women’s fashion before WWI. The Morning Standard (Ogden, UT), December 4, 1910; example of women’s fashion during WWI. The Day Book (Chicago, IL). April 1, 1915.

The 1910s began with a softer, more natural silhouette than the rigid S-shape that dominated the decade before, although in the earlier years, there was still an emphasis on the bust and a top-heavy look. As the decade progressed and the S-shape began to disappear, the empire waist made a comeback and skirts started to taper down to the bottom. 

Newspaper page from a Virginia newspaper in 1916 depicting women's fashion inspired by India. Two photographs on the page depict a woman wearing a long gown with turban-style hat with feather sticking up and a draped coat with fur around the neck and sleeves. The second photograph is a close-up of the woman's head with more detail of the turban-style hat.

Example of Orientalism in fashion. Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), November 12, 1916.

At the start of the decade was the rise of Orientalism, in which aspects of the Eastern world were imitated or depicted in Western art, entertainment, and fashion. Designer Paul Poiret popularized the look that featured draped fabrics, vibrant colors, and a column-like silhouette. In 1911, he even introduced the “harem skirt” that only the most daring of women opted to wear. Poiret’s inventive and news-making fashions dominated the first half of the decade. He also created the “hobble skirt” which narrowed so tightly at the bottom that it made it difficult for women to walk. He and other designers at that time were creating fashion that no longer required a restrictive corset. 

Other prominent designers of the day were Lady Duff Gordon, a London-based designer who moved across the pond to New York and Chicago early in the decade. French designer Jacques Doucet was popular for his simplistic, fluid designs

In July 1914, the world was thrust into the “war to end all wars.” Women began to work in munitions factories as part of the war effort and began to wear uniforms that included tunics over skirts, overalls, and trousers. Simple, utilitarian clothing made of cotton became popular during wartime. 

Detail of photographs of three women in wearing various military and service uniforms during WWI, published in a 1918 Nebraska newspaper.

“Women in Wartime,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), July 14, 1918.

The United States did not enter WWI until 1917, but the war’s effect on fashion was already felt in Europe. Production and distribution of new fashions from France, which had been at the center of fashion for years, was greatly diminished during the war. Military and service uniforms for women had elements of current fashion, with long skirts worn with tunics and jackets were similar to civilian dress. These styles were also evocative of attire worn by the suffragists

After the war ended in November 1918, simplicity in style continued and a barrel-like, tubular silhouette emerged. Skirts were still long, but there was an attempt to make the body into a cylinder shape. This eventually led to the development of the quintessential flapper look of the 1920s.

Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year from 1911 to 1920:

1911191219131914191519161917191819191920

Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1910 to 1920:

Single image of six women wearing fashions from various years spanning 1910-1920, cropped from six separate newspapers from different years from around the U.S.

[Images of dresses throughout 1910-1920, cropped from separate newspapers; click the linked citations below to view.] From left to right:

1910. Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), January 2, 1910.
1912. The Washington Herald (Washington, DC), February 18, 1912.
1914. The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 25, 1914.
1916. The Sunday Telegram (Clarksburg, WV), January 2, 1916. 
1918. The Ogden Standard (Ogden City, UT), May 11, 1918.
1920. Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), September 19, 1920.

Discover more:

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

5 Comments

  1. Derrick Bell
    June 10, 2021 at 5:39 pm

    Think woman should wear hats more often, it was such a glamorous look.

  2. Anmol
    June 16, 2021 at 6:12 am

    Glad to see your post. This post will help me. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

  3. Sophia Moller
    October 26, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for sharing this historical information. Its appreciated.

    //blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2021/06/womens-fashion-history-through-newspapers-1900-1920/

  4. Sophia Moller
    October 26, 2021 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for sharing this historical information. Its appreciated. I would like to read future posts.

    //blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2021/06/womens-fashion-history-through-newspapers-1900-1920/

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