Twenties to Sixties Style in Fashion ~ Part 1

Twenties to Sixties Style in Fashion ~ Part 1

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Fashion is a mirror of society, culture, politics and economics of its times. Its acts as the visual compass that is set in motion by the turn of various events affecting the society. Fashion, they say, is cyclical but one wonders which trend started when and how. Hemlines may graze the ankles or run shorter till the things, sleeves may get dramatic or probably vanish, but who were the icons who made them popular?

This is a beginners guide to Style Evolution through twenties till sixties globally through the lens of pop culture, literature, music and politics.

Roaring Twenties  

Twenties was the actual “The Great Gatsby” Party of F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso ~ A Heady cocktail of intellect, art and fashion. 

When one thinks of twenties, it was a high octane party time right after the war when everyone wanted to feel good. Jazz & Blues music gained popularity. It was a charged up time with Harlem Renaissance gaining momentum. Women got their right to vote for the first time and millions of women started working in white-collar jobs. The increased availability of birth-control devices such as the diaphragm made it possible for women to have fewer children. And new machines and technologies like the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner eliminated some of the drudgery of household work. 

FASHION became simpler by giving away extra layers and corsets making it easy and fuss free. Coco Chanel popularised  “Flapper dresses” with dropped waist and creeping hemlines. Think of jazz music, women dressed in flapper dress, pearls, red lips and short bob. In fact twenties even popularised sportswear as daywear since tennis was played a lot by women. Women would wear the tennis skirts and sweater till the cocktail hours.  

The Style Icons of these times are undoubtedly Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Gabriel Coco Chanel, Louise Brooks and Mary Pickford.  

Dirty Thirties 

After the roaring twenties, fashion became rather modest in thirties with the great depression affecting the global economy. The hemlines now were between mid-calf to ankle and waistlines came back to where it was. Ready-to-wear mass garments became mainstream as they the product cost was brought down considerably. Owing to dwindling economy, penny wise housewives would make house dresses from pretty feed-sacks. In fact companies would compete in making stylish sacks to sell groceries and grains so that housewives would buy their products.  

Bias cut dresses were made popular by Parisian designer Madeleine Vionnet and backless long gowns became the staple evening party dresses reflecting the true style of old Hollywood glamour. The rise of Hollywood cinema democratized fashion and beauty like never before. The designer garments seen on Hollywood actresses like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich were copied instantly by women across classes. Macy’s sold 5 lakh copies of one organza dress worn by Joan Crawford in a movie. That was REAL Influence.  

Knit Day suits and sweater and skirt became smart day wear options for women who looked for comfort and ease beyond cinched waists. Pants were wide legged and flat fronted while palazzo – the beach wear pants became a norm for those who wanted to rebel against the feminine silhouettes.  

Hollywood stars like Katherine Hepburn popularise wide legged pants and white shirt dressing whereas Marlene Dietrich became the first woman to wear a tuxedo on-screen. Kind Edward VIII’s wife Wallis Simpson, Vivien Leigh ( Gone with the Wind), Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford are among the few stylish women that left an indelible mark for their powerful choices.  

New Look of Forties  

The forties were the decade of dichotomy, when both rationing and excesses co-existed.  The early part of the decade began with WWII and its strict military rationing globally. With occupation of France by the Germans, Paris became disconnected from the world. Most designers fled the country and some stayed back. Meanwhile US had no access to designs from Paris and thus local designers came to front. The times were difficult and men were sent to war. There were circulars on how much fabric can be used for making one dress, what fabric can be used and so on. Coupons were given to buy clothes. Either one could show coupon and buy readymade garments or buy more fabric. Many women opted for fabrics and started sewing on their own. Newspaper columns were printed on how to mend and repair clothes so that they would last longer. Frugality was the theme. 

Since men were at war, women took jobs of men and thus androgynous fashion came to front. Pants, shirts, sweaters, skirt suits and day dresses were the main-stay. Dresses were made with clean cuts, reduced flare, cinched waist and ended at knees. To add some charm, women would prefer bright prints and colours. Interestingly silk was barred for consumption by women since it was used to create parachutes for war. Instead of silk stockings, women now wore regular socks. 

But in 1947, Christian Dior in Paris broke this frugal and rationing idea and introduced his new collection that was dubbed as “New Look”. Comprising of rounded top, cinched waist and a full skirt with metres of fabric being used, this skirt suit was derided by many for its sheer waste and lauding the old world feminity. Women had already earned the place at work with posters of “Rosie the Riveter” doing rounds and it just came across as being bracketed once again as object of desire. But not everyone agreed and women started dreaming of better fabrics and prettier dresses even in America.  

Hollywood kept influencing the fashion of the masses. Style icons like Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth , Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis brought in a healthy dose of functionality along with glamour with their choice of clothes, be it midi skirt suits or slacks and shirt or sweater and wide legged pants or dress with corsage.  

If Lady Diana’s Skirt Suits in “The Crown” got you impressed, you now know where to look for the OG inspiration for Skirt Suits.   

Fun and Flirty Fifties  

The fifties brought in the sense of prosperity and happiness after the dreary and grim WWII times. Men were back at work and women, either continued work or went back to their home management role. Double income and growing economy was reflected in most households owning a television set in America ( Think of it, we are talking of 50s in America with television set whereas India got its television in 80s) ! Ready-made garments grew in popularity as did the imported fashion from Parisian designers like Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Givenchy. Fashion Historians comment on the fluidity of fifties remarking that the only thing that mattered was “Women were very stylish and paid attention to accessorizing it well – gloves, hat and a bag were mandatory”. A woman wearing a twin suit set by Chanel would look as stylish as the lady wearing full skirt and cinched top by Dior and a lady wearing crop trousers and sweater would look as chic as the woman wearing denims and tee shirts.  

It was the decade of feminity, elegance and bright playful colours. It was the time when bikini first appeared and all Hollywood celebrities donned this risqué avatar. Brigitte Bardot popularised bandeau bikini at Cannes Film festival in 1955 and it’s a hit still. Audrey Hepburn is known for her Breakfast at Tiffany’s look with the Classic Black dress and pearls but what she also popularised was cropped pants, sweater and flats – a look we still wear it comfortably. James Dean and Brandon Marlo made denims sexy as hell whereas Grace Kelly brought class to evening wear and day wear with her choicest selection of silhouettes. Dior created a demand for A-line dresses and then Y-shaped Top and slim skirts. Think of pencil skirts and Sweaters with conical bras ( Yes that was a rage – remember Mumtaz wearing conical bra and kurta in Indian cinema ?)  

Alfred Hitchcock movies with Grace Kelly ensured that fashionistas carried a scarf, sunglasses, bag and gloves. It was non-negotiable if you intended to look sophisticated. It was also the time when Elvis Presley climbed the charts. So rock chic looks, high waisted pants and shorts, biker looks started becoming famous.  

If you want a good starting point to know fifties fashion, begin by watching Mad Men series and hop on to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday. The Style Icons to watch would be Sophia Lauren, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.  

Swinging Sixties  

What do you call a decade that was a heady mix of hedonism and activism both – Swinging Sixties ! 

Away from the centre of fashion in Paris, London made an indelible impact on the street culture in the sixties. Known as Swinging London for its youth-driven cultural revolution in music, art and fashion, London became the epicentre of modernity and excess. On one hand Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd brought in the subculture of rebellion and the quest for egalitarianism, whereas on the other hand designers like Mary Quant created aspiration among the young to dress like teenagers in ‘mini skirts and mini dresses’ to express their independence of choice in clothing, however short be the hemline. Pop Culture became famous with Andy Warhol’s famous campbell soup dress; fields like advertising, film-making, photography and product designing started being coveted and revered for the creativity it brought in commercial area.  

Meanwhile in America, civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests, political assassinations and the emerging generation gap was at its pinnacle. The second wave of feminism began in America as a reaction to women returning to their roles as housewives and mothers after the end of the Second World War. The men that had to leave the workforce to join the defence forces had returned and women were fired from their positions and replaced by men. Issues of rape, reproductive rights, domestic violence and workplace safety were brought to the forefront of the movement and there was widespread effort to reform the negative and inferior image of women in popular culture to a more positive and realistic one. 

Sixties saw three distinct styles of fashion. First was the continuation of feminine elegance with skirt suits popularised by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy ; it comprised of lady-like look consisting of boxy skirt-suits like the Givenchy suit, sheath and A-line dresses, and luxurious coats–all accessorized with white gloves, pearls, and a matching hat. Second look was embraced by youth who wanted to look younger – the MODS, wearing bright coloured miniskirts and PVC white boots or Mary Janes with white sunglasses. Baby doll dresses were also a thing. This group was influenced by Pop culture. Third was Hippie style brought forth by Eastern influence and growing movement of equality characterised by long skirts, hair bands, Afghan coats, psychedelic and paisley prints, long statement danglers. Each group had their own style icons and huge following.  

Style Icons of this decade were Jacqueline Kennedy, Janis Joplin, Twiggy, Patti Boyd, Mary Quant, Cher, Veruschka and hundred more ! What can we say – this was the explosion of style decade.  

Part 2 will cover the style decades from seventies to aughties.

Falguni Patel

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