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Liz Claiborne poses at a desk in front of an array of colorful sweaters.
Fashion designer Liz Claiborne in 1982. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd.

Life and Fashion in the American 20th Century

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This is a guest post by Sahar Kazmi. It appears in the January-February issue of the Library of Congress Magazine

In between drawings of corseted debutantes and ads for breeches and hair tonic, the 1892 first issue of the iconic Vogue fashion magazine includes a brief feature on the origins of its namesake. Vogue, the excerpt explains, comes from the Italian “voga,” the French “voguer” and the German “wogen” — all of which refer to rowing, sailing or floating.

The words are fitting roots for a publication about fashion, an art form famous for bouncing along the waves of change. Throughout the ages, fashion has responded to social events and reflected the shifting culture of its time. It’s been an avenue for reference and reinvention, expressing societal viewpoints and political movements through fabric and adornment.

As the Library’s collections demonstrate, this was especially true for 20th-century fashion in the U.S. The story of American style is depicted in the Library’s century-old newspapers and magazines; in department store catalogs and home-sewing pattern books; in vintage lithographs and high-gloss photography.

Fashion is a tale of changing conventions: the loosening of a silhouette, the rise of a hemline. It’s a history of attitudes embraced and rejected: the anxieties of war or the delights of social liberation. Often showcased as the terrain of women, it routinely embodies their fantasies and evolving place in society.

Part of a page from McCall’s Magazine in 1930, showing womens’ sportswear designs. 

Publications in the first decade of the 1900s depicted mainly women of wealth and status, richly ornamented with embroidery and tailored lace. Their ideal shape, achieved with what was dubbed a “health corset” in advertisements, was the contorted S-curve.

“It is the result of much study of all the points most essential to a perfect figure and conformity to the present fashion,” proclaimed an ad for the Paris Model corset in a 1903 issue of Vogue.

The S-shaped corset pushed the bustline forward while tilting the hips back, creating a narrow waist and curvy profile. The look wasn’t a dramatic departure from the rigid styles of the 1890s, but bulky skirts and bendy waistlines began to loosen as the 1910s approached.

The empire waist dress, popularized during the late 18th-century Greco-Roman revival, made a comeback in fashion literature. Its shape featured a fitted bodice with fabric flowing down from the bustline, creating a relaxed silhouette around the waist.

Clothing with room to move and breathe was key as World War I erupted in 1914. European women put on trousers and overalls to serve in wartime factories. American women, already familiar with the simplified tunics and uniform-style jackets of the suffrage movement, followed suit when the U.S. joined the fray in 1917.

Even the wealthiest women who never stepped foot in a munitions plant or military unit took part in the shifting aesthetics of the day. A 1917 newspaper spread touting the latest designs from British clothier Lady Duff-Gordon showcased, “A new walking dress with a military touch.”

As the war ended and women gained the right to vote in 1920, fashion publications highlighted the vibrancy of the Roaring Twenties. Alcohol was prohibited nationwide, but the postwar economy was booming and the middle class was richer than ever. Speak-easies popped up like weeds to sell homemade liquor to the war-weary masses as jazz rang out through the night.

Women’s fashion championed straight lines and much shorter skirts — all the better for dancing the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. A once-voluptuous bodily ideal gave way to a more androgynous form, with the loose and swingy flapper dress quickly becoming a favorite of the period.

When the party came crashing to end with the Great Depression, hemlines once again fell to the ankles. Simplicity still reigned supreme, in large part because it was more affordable. For working and middle-class women struggling to make ends meet in the 1930s, the sensuous fashions of Hollywood stars provided the romantic standard of the day.

Fashion model posing in an evening gown on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, with the Tidal Basin and Washington Monument in the background
A fashion model poses on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in 1952. Photo: Toni Frissell.

Their garments, made of slinky silk and satin, were cut “on the bias,” hanging diagonally across the body. In an age of uncertainty and financial fear, figure-hugging femininity was back in vogue. At the same time, women’s fashion embraced structured suiting, incorporating wide shoulders and crisp jackets.

But drapery wasn’t only for women. Black, Latino and other men of color favored the flamboyantly wide legged and long-jacketed “zoot suit” as a symbol of political subversion in the 1930s. Labor activist César Chávez was said to have sported zoot suits in his teens, and Malcom X even describes purchasing his first zoot suit (“Sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knee”) in his famed autobiography.

Four men in suit, ties and hats, smiling at the camera in what looks to be a television or radio studio
The Delta Rhythm Boys, a popular mid-century quartet, wearing zoot suits. Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, just as World War I had dominated the styles of the 1910s, the Second World War came to have an outsized effect on the clothing of the 1940s. Skirt suits retained their popularity, now simplified even further by material rationing into regulated “utility dresses.” Overalls and trousers for women came back strong, with functional fabrics like tweed and cotton finding prime place in women’s wardrobes.

The end of World War II gave way to what became known as “The New Look.” In 1947, the French couturier Christian Dior debuted his “Corolle” collection, a line of tiny-waisted, voluminous skirts and exaggerated padded hips. Fashion publications hailed it as a return to formalized femininity and luxurious use of fabrics after the deprivation of war.

But as with the continuous reimagining of the female form, each era of fashion was in some way a reaction to the styles that came before it. By the time the 1960s rolled around, the U.S. was in the throes of a cultural rebirth — the civil rights movement was growing in urgency, students were protesting the Vietnam War and second-wave feminists were widening the gains of their suffragist forebears.

Popular fashion in magazines was no longer prim and dainty. This was the age of the miniskirt and knee-high go-go boot. The “Black is Beautiful” movement spotlighted traditional African prints and fabrics, and the burgeoning hippie look turned to flowing peasant shirts and bell-bottom jeans for men and women alike.

Bianca Jagger wearing a golden close-fitting gown, with crossed neck straps and bare shoulders
Fashion icon Bianca Jagger at a gala in 1977. Photo: Bernard Gotfryd.

While the short, straight-line dresses of the 1960s had harkened back to the linear fashions of the ’20s, the aesthetics of the following decade drew inspiration from the 1930s. Disco outfits and prairie dresses held prime place in the 1970s, but the everyday woman might just as easily be found in a smart suit or below-the-knee skirt. Designer Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress touted a flattering, body-skimming silhouette reminiscent of bias-cut favorites from the ’30s.

Fashion was more democratized than ever, available everywhere and increasingly casual. Sportswear as day-dressing had been popular since the pleated tennis dresses of the ’20s, but everything was bigger and louder in the 1980s. This was the era of dancewear and sweatshirts, leggings and high-cut leotards. Shoulders were wider even than those of the ’30s, accessories bolder than the embellishments of the early-1900s and sleeves as puffy and ballooning as the ones in the original European Renaissance.

It’s no surprise then that 1990s fashion publications featured a more minimalistic direction. Plain white T-shirts and denim were all the rage, and sportswear reached new heights with hip-hop artists popularizing tracksuits and luxury sneakers.

Casually oversized looks, from baggy grunge and plaid to practical puffer coats found their way into catalogs and magazine spreads. Even on red carpets, women wore simple column and slip dresses.

“Fashion is and has been and will be, through all ages, the outward form through which the mind speaks to the material universe,” the scholar George Patrick Fox once said in his 1872 treatise on the philosophy of style.

As the 20th century reached its end, fashion had left the exclusive domain of the elite. It had become the playground of an ever-changing culture.

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Comments (2)

  1. This would make a fabulous exhibit at the library!

  2. Cool! What issue is that McCall’s image from?

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