Fashion is more than pretty clothes. It is both a reflection and influencer of social and political climates, an indicator of how people live their lives in any given time period. Petra Slinkard, Curator of Costumes at the Chicago History Museum, demonstrated this as she took us back through 20th century fashion at M2057’s first “Salon Series” event last Sunday.
I took inspiration from 1920s ideals when designing the M2057 Spring 2016 collection, but Petra reinforced that the fashion from that decade was so much more than fringe and flapper skirts. The changing shapes of ‘20s fashion—no corsets! Raised hems!—ushered in a new era where women demanded and celebrated new freedoms, and this set the tone for the rest of the century and into today.
Up through the 1800s, the corset reigned supreme, exemplifying restrictive and rigid expectations for women. But the work of designer Paul Poiret at the turn of the century began a shift—his draped, looser shapes were meant to be practical and worn without a corset. This trend continued through World War I: in addition to supply rationing, women took on more traditionally masculine jobs when men went to war, and “it was seen as unpatriotic to dress leisurely,” Petra told us. The corset fell by the wayside as women embraced looser, practical styles that literally freed them.
Ornamentation crept back into fashion after the war, in the early 1920s, and hemlines began to rise. “You started to see ankles and feet—who knew?!” Petra explained. Looser, simpler shapes from “brazen” designers like Coco Chanel revealed a sea change in the culture: “Clothes reflected a sense of uniform, of camaraderie and joy,” said Petra. No more male escorts—women went out by themselves or in groups. “It was an era where women embraced fun, and they could show it in public. Movement, freedom, music, dance. They had the ability to choose what they wanted to wear and to go against what was expected—drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes, and stay out all night.”
Freedom of choice, freedom of movement—all of this is inherently tied to the fashion of the 1920s. It was also the first time the public at large was able to participate in fashion—not just the wealthy or couturiers. These influences would reverberate throughout the rest of the century, from the miniskirts, pants, and Hippie styles of the 1960s and ‘70s to the power suits of the ‘80s.
Today, we take for granted that what we wear is a reflection of our own choices—what we like, how we want to present ourselves, how our clothes fit into our daily lives and activities. But this was revolutionary for women of the 1920s, and that legacy has impacted every style movement since. It was that liberation that inspired me this past season—simplicity, ease, freedom, movement.
My sincere thanks to Petra for giving such a thoughtful and captivating talk!
See more images from Petra's presentation:
Images courtesy of the Chicago History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art