Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1921-1940

From the Roaring Twenties to World War II, women’s fashion moved from the shorter, calf-revealing dresses of Flapper style to lowered hemlines and Hollywood glam. This is part 2 of a 3-part series that will span fashion history from 1900 to 1960. Click here to read part 1 of the series.

Collage of eight female figures dressed in various attire from 1922 to showcase fashion of the day.

Example of 1920s fashion during the early part of the decade. The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 19, 1922.

A female figure stands dressed in a beaded, calf-length dress.

A beaded, calf-length gown from the early 1920s. The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 19, 1922.

1921 to 1930

At the start of the 1920s, the world was still recovering from the First World War, which had ended in November 1918, just before the dawn of the decade. The conflict had a significant effect on culture, society, and fashion. During wartime, people took on a more modest lifestyle. Women wore less jewelry and the extravagant clothing of the Edwardian era faded away. 

Simplicity was the driving trend of women’s fashion of the 1920s with the development of convenient and modern styles that rejected formality and multiple layers in favor of comfort and a more natural effect. The tubular look of La Garçonne fashion dominated much of the decade and was typified by the flapper dress which had dropped waistlines, raised hemlines, and was made from economical fabrics. Coco Chanel was a prominent designer at the time and helped to popularize the style. 

A female figure wearing a white blousy shirt, fashionable hat, and long scarf, with one hand in the pocket of her skirt with knees knelt in a wicker chair.

Androgynous elements in 1920s women’s fashion. The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 19, 1922.

The simple lines of women’s fashion during this period had flashes of androgyny, with the use of ties, high-waisted trousers, hats, and tailored dresses that resembled suits. Mixed in were feminine attributes and accessories, such as a long string of pearls and a deep red pout colored on the lips.

Some evening dresses still remained long to the ground, but many followed the popular hemline trends of daywear. While simplicity in construction was central to both day and evening wear, the latter could be more ornate, embellished with beadwork, embroidery, and sequins

Though La Garçonne was one of the more popular styles of the decade, it was not the only one. Designer Jeanne Lanvin popularized a look that was the opposite of the androgynous look, with feminine and romantic dresses made of long, full skirts.

Another popular trend was sportswear worn as daywear, which up to that point had been acceptable for men, but not for women. Tennis was the most popular sport for women at the time and inspired fashion.  Tennis star Suzanne Lenglen’s short sleeved, pleated tennis dress and bandeau led to the embracing of wider trends of sleeveless, knee-length shift dresses that were popular by the late 1920s.

Early in the decade, many women cut their hair into a bob. Hairstyles kept getting shorter throughout the decade, but like hemlines, as the decade drew to a close, women began to grow their hair long again. The cloche hat was the “it” accessory to accent these short hairstyles.

A detail from a newspaper of a sketch of two female portrait profiles facing each other with eyes closed and short bobbed hairstyles.

“There Is No Age Limit For Bobbing Hair–Even Grandmother Is Doing It,” Perth Amboy Evening News (Perth Amboy, NJ), August 8, 1924.

While these new styles were sold by designers and in department stores, the shift to simplicity made it easier for women to recreate the same styles at home. This combined with inspiration taken from regular working-girl attire and the use of economical fabrics, led to what has been called the “democratization of fashion.” Anyone could achieve a fashionable look; dress was no longer a sign of social status. 

Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year, from 1921 to 1930:

1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930

Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1920 to 1930:

Single image of six women wearing fashions from various years spanning 1920-1930, cropped from six separate newspapers from different years from around the U.S.

[Images of dresses throughout 1920-1930, cropped from separate newspapers; click the linked citations below to view.] From left to right:

1920. The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), May 16, 1920.
1922.
The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 5, 1922.
1924. The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, UT), November 15, 1924.
1926. The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), August 17, 1926.
1928. The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), June 9, 1928.
1930. Maryland Independent (Port Tobacco, MD), September 19, 1930.

1931 to 1940

A female figure stands erect, with arms at either side and looking upwards, in a white gown with a large belt

Actress Carole Lombard in a beaded tailored dress. The Frontier (O’Neill City, NE), February 2, 1933.

As the 1920s rolled into the 1930s, women’s fashion gradually evolved from the boyish look of the previous decade into the feminine silhouette of the early thirties. Following the Roaring Twenties, fashion was marked with a return to conservatism. With the stock market crash in 1929 and the dawn of the new decade, hemlines lowered back down to the ankle and waistlines moved back to their natural place. 

A detail of an image from a newspaper of two female figures, one in a white dress and the other in a black dress, with their backs at the forefront, showcasing the low back style of the gowns they are wearing.

Low backs were fashionable on evening wear in the 1930s. The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), October 9, 1930.

Although the popular styles of the 1930s were generally a departure from those of the previous decade, the simple lines of the 1920s La Garçonne look prevailed. While the simplicity of the 20s created a sack-like silhouette, the simplicity of the 30s hugged curves, creating a soft, feminine shape. During this period, the silhouette evolved into a slender, elongated torso with wider shoulders and a natural waist. 

An important trend of the decade was the bias cut (cutting fabric on the bias at a 45 degree angle on the woven fabric against the weave), which contributed to the overall slender look of the early part of the 1930s. Designer Madeleine Vionnet began using the bias cut in the 1920s and, by the 1930s, it became a popular style for creating body-skimming garments over women’s curves. In particular, evening dresses made of satin with low backs hugged a woman’s curves and flared at the bottom, creating a fluid and feminine silhouette.

While eveningwear was dominated by the body-skimming silhouette, daywear returned to romanticism and femininity. Patterned day dresses came in florals, plaids, dots, and other abstract prints. Waists were clearly defined and fell between the mid-calf and just above the ankle. Smart suits were also popular with crisp lines and defined shoulders. The exaggerated shoulder–on suits and dresses–was a hallmark of 1930s fashion achieved through padding, layers of fabric, and other embellishments. 

Featured are three female figures in three separate images from a newspaper page, all wearing black, calf-length dresses in different styles.

Examples of the exaggerated shoulder of 1930s fashion. Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 27, 1938.

A detail of a newspaper page with a collage of images of film celebrities from 1935.

“Naming the Screen’s Best Dressed Woman of 1935,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 20, 1935.

In the 1930s, films and specifically Hollywood, had a major influence on women’s fashion. Styles were based on fashions seen on the screen and Hollywood disseminated fashion to the masses. Film stars such as Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford had a direct influence on fashion and stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Bette Davis became some of the first Hollywood style icons. At the same time, the makeup and beauty industry was on the rise, allowing women to copy the glamorous styles of their favorite stars at a relatively low cost. 

The Great Depression also had an impact on fashion, contributing to the democratization of fashion. Prior to the 1930s, buyers would purchase copies of designs from Paris and resell them in their countries. However, during the Great Depression, new exorbitant duties were imposed on the cost of those copies, yet toiles (a muslin or other cheap material garment pattern) were allowed in duty-free. Toiles came with full directions and made it possible to sell simplified versions of original costly dresses for a fraction of the price. 

By the end of the decade, Europe had entered into the Second World War and the U.S. still had not yet left the Great Depression behind. As the 1930s closed, the popular style of broad, padded shoulders, nipped in waists and shorter A-line skirts that would dominate the early 1940s started to emerge.

A detail from an advertisement newspaper page features five female figures sketched in short-sleeved, calf-length dresses of various patterns with hats.

Examples of the emergence of the A-line skirts that would be popular in the 1940s. Evening Star (Washington, DC), August 15, 1938.

Click on the timeline below to see how fashion changed year to year, from 1931 to 1940:

1931193219331934193519361937193819391940

Here is a side-by-side view of women’s fashion over the course of the decade, 1930 to 1940:

Single image of six women wearing fashions from various years spanning 1930-1940, cropped from six separate newspapers from different years from around the U.S.

[Images of dresses throughout 1930-1940, cropped from separate newspapers; click the linked citations below to view.] From left to right:

1930. Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 12, 1930.
1932. Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 13, 1932.
1934. The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), December 28, 1934.
1936. Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 24, 1936.
1938. Carbon County News (Red Lodge, MT), January 28, 1938.
1940. Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 31, 1940.

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* 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.

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