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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1900 to 1910:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1910 to 1920:
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.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more historical newspaper coverage of women’s fashion and more!
- Check out these related Topics in Chronicling America research guides:
Gibson Girl: Topics in Chronicling America
Flappers: Topics in Chronicling America
- View the online collection of Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919.
- Fashion History Timeline, Fashion Institute of Technology
* 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.