1920s Fashion: A Fresh Look for the Decade

30 April 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Have you ever wondered what your great-grandmother wore when she went out on a Friday night? Or perhaps what your great-great-grandfather wore when he went to work? Fashion in the 1920s was certainly different than today. In fact, 1920s fashion was a category all its own, with distinct differences from fashion in the 1950s, ’70s, and beyond. A move to casual simplicity with a touch of glitz and glamor defined this period. Discover how the style changed in America after World War I and what women and men wore during this decade—maybe even your relatives.

What Women Wore in the 1920s

Chances are, if you’ve ever seen photos of 1920s women’s fashion, you’ll recognize several staple pieces of the wardrobe during this period: 

  • Loose-fitting dressings
  • Long pearl necklaces
  • Fur wrap-style coats
  • Cloche hats

Footwear for women also changed in the 1920s, with the Mary Jane shoe becoming a popular style over the Edwardian-era Oxford shoe. The change in footwear to something with a lower heel that offered more comfort and freedom was a natural choice, given the evolution of women’s style in the 1920s toward a more casual look. 

Gone were the corsets and restrictive dress materials of the past; the 1920s for women signified a distinct movement for freedom of expression and a priority of liberation over custom. This is depicted in the famous book The Great Gatsby by American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, and 1920s Great Gatsby fashion for women was colorful, spirited, and freeing. 

1920s fashion

What Men Wore in the 1920s

Just like women in the 1920s, men’s style shifted. However, 1920s men’s fashion wasn’t as attention-grabbing as women’s, but it took on a distinctly more casual style. Men no longer had to wear a formal suit at all times but instead began introducing sportswear and leisure clothing into their styles. Sweaters, baggier pants, and caps became part of the choices for men to express a sense of individuality. 

This doesn’t mean suits weren’t popular, though. On the contrary, when men dressed up, the three-piece suit was the obvious choice in the 1920s. Patterns and material compensated for the otherwise simplistic style of these suits, with many men sporting tweed, wool, plaid or pinstripes on their blazers and pants. High-rise cuffed trousers also made a prominent appearance in this decade. 

The Most Popular Dress of the 1920s

The iconic flapper style emerged in the 1920s, and with it, the flapper dress, which remains well-known today. As more Americans began to live in cities, an increasing number of women joined the workforce. While cars were out of an everyday woman’s financial reach, most could still go out to dance halls and partake in dancing.

Flapper was a term used to describe a young woman who was unconcerned with the social conventions and taboos of the time, which notably expected women to dress conservatively and avoid alcohol. She wore different fashion styles than previous generations, specifically shorter skirts and hair cut into a bob. She also lived a socially adventurous lifestyle that was seen by many as outrageous or even scandalous, such as dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes, and driving cars.


flapper dress

The fashion of flappers has become popular to recreate in the modern age for parties or Halloween costumes, largely because the wardrobe for this look is so distinct. Flappers dressed in straight-silhouetted dresses that were sleeveless. Often these dresses were bedazzled or had tassels, adding some flair to compensate for the simplicity of the style. The hemline of these dresses was much shorter than women wore in previous decades, adding to the notion of flappers being edgy or rebellious. 

Black women embraced the flapper style and wore dresses with higher hemlines and lower-cut necklines. Jazz vocalists performing in Harlem clubs donned cocktail dresses, large earring, and fur collars.

The Modern-Day Impact of 1920s Fashion 

You might not realize that the clothes you wear today were impacted by the fashion evolution of past decades. But tracking these changes over time through physical documents and records helps demonstrate that current fashion trends have their roots deep in American history. 

The spirit of 1920s fashion, particularly 1920s women’s fashion, lives on today. The 1920s saw women’s first chance for economic freedom and rebellion through their fashion choices. The looser-fitting clothing and shorter hemlines that started with this freedom of expression can be seen in modern women’s dresses, shorts, and even shirts. 

The 1920s was also the first instance of sportswear becoming popular in everyday life for both men and women, from tennis outfits to swimwear. In the 2020s, this trend is hitting an all-time high. America loves athleisure, which has become an entire sector of the fashion industry. 

To learn more about your ancestor’s fashion choices and see if you had relatives who thrived in the 1920s fashion boom, you can refer to historical Sears catalogs and yearbook collections.  If you want to do even more digging, you can consult the 1920 census.

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