Golden Age of Travel Dream Birthday — The Ideal Figure

I’ve been hearing some comments regarding the clothing of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s that have motivated me to write a blog post about the ideal figure in the early decades of the 20th century.  More specifically, I’ve been hearing people say, “I could never wear clothing from that era.  I’m the wrong shape for it.”

Are you human?  Then you can wear clothing from that era.

Yes, my darlings.  I am here once again to correct your misconceptions of fashion history and enlighten you as to the truth.

I understand from where this misconception comes.  In almost every coffee-table book, TV documentary or website about the 1920s, you’ll hear about the hipless androgynous figure of the ideal flapper.  You’ll read about how the corset went out of fashion and the bra hadn’t yet come in.  This puts a picture in our heads of skinny little waifs, girls who aren’t fully mature.  The art of the period — often depicting women as rectangles with egg-shaped heads and stick arms and legs — reinforces this visual in our minds.  But this is a caricature that is exploded once you start looking at photographs of the period.

Would it shock you to know that the base measurements in pattern books from the 1920s are 34-26-42?  (That’s six inches larger in the hips than the modern analogous size!)  Doesn’t sound very hipless and boy-like, does it?

The silhouette of the early decades of the 20th century is columnar.  But this effect was not created by a lack of hips.  The lack of the waist is the desired end.

To understand from whence this misconception springs, we must analyze the stylish figure of the previous time period.  From the middle of the 19th century, the emphasis of fashion was on the waist.  Corsets were employed to make the waistline smaller and crinolines were used to fluff out skirts and increase the visual effect of a tiny waist.  Eventually crinolines shifted to the back in the form of bustles and then reduced to mere petticoats under the smooth skirts of the Edwardian period.  By the end of the 19th century and the very early years of the 20th, the skirts were no longer large, but the shoulders took their place and were further adorned by shirtwaists with decoration on top of decoration.  Marry this to the S-curve corsets that forced the female figure forward and we have a very top-heavy effect occurring in fashion.

Paul Poiret (center) and his models. Not a hipless androgyne among them.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, along came Paul Poiret around 1906 discarding the corset and narrowing skirts to an unnaturally encumbering hem width.  Poiret is often given credit for this rather radical change in style, but in fact it was happening in a few different quarters at once.  The columnar shape of the 1910s was profoundly natural compared to the heavily-structured figures of the previous decades.  But that doesn’t mean that only women shaped like columns could wear these fashions.  The hourglass-figured women of the previous decade were not suddenly locked in cupboards and not allowed to show their faces in polite society.  They just did what everyone else did — they took off their corsets.

When one has an hourglass figure, wearing large skirts and over-decorated blouses tend to make the figure look larger than it really is.  We have this notion modernly that Victorian and Edwardian clothing looks good on larger women, but that the clothing of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s only looks good on fashion models.  This is simply not true.  The return to simple, tailored forms with beading and embroidery for decoration rather than layers on layer of lace and trimmings caused women to look more slender.  The lengthening effect of the narrow skirts also made them look taller.  A survey of extant garments, patterns, and tailoring books from the time period will demonstrate figure measurements that can hardly be called “boyish” or “hipless”.  These are the same women who had hourglass figures five or ten years earlier

Famous actress Tallulah Bankhead age 23 looking like not a waif in 1925

Diaghilev dancers Sokolova and Woizikovsky in December 1924. The 28 year-old Ms. Sokolova looks like she has no waistline in this clingy knit bathing suit.

As the years progressed from the columnar 1910s to the dropped-waisted 1920s, this slenderizing, lengthening effect was not lost.  Removing the narrowing at the waist and dropping the focus of the eye to the hipline creates the illusion of no waist.  It is this “unfeminine” figure that the flappers sported, not a hipless one.  As the decade progressed, dresses hung from shoulders to hips without much change of breadth in between.  The focus was less on the female figure and more on the exquisite beadwork and embroidery that decorated many of the fashions of this time period.  In a time that ushered in a record number of rights for women, is it any surprise that fashion became about the clothing and not about the body they covered?

By the final years of the 1920s, a new trick was being employed that would become the stylistic mark of the 1930s.  Clothing began to employ the bias or cross grain which naturally clung to the body rather than requiring careful fitting and tailoring.

Archival photo of one of Madeleine Vionnet's creation on a model.

So make yourself a Vionnet Handkerchief Dress and have no fear!

Next:  More wardrobe planning!


© 2012 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material.

 

4 Comments

  1. Heidilea

    I’m wondering if people’s issue with it is not the excuse of “hipless,” but that the rectangle waistless shape to most modern eyes is not considered attractive.

    • That’s my issue with it, personally. But what people have been saying to me is “I don’t have the right figure for that. I have hips!” So I’m specifically addressing that.

  2. Heather G

    Good clear explanation of change in silhouettes. As I was reading, I was imagining a video where you start with wearing late Vic or Edwardian clothing, take it off on-camera to reveal a 1920s dress. The 1920s dress could, in this case, replace the undergarment layer of the earlier period so that you aren’t wearing more layers than a late-19th/turn=of-the-century woman would be wearing.

    The last model is particularly interesting to me, in that she appears to be an older woman. In our current youth-oriented culture I think she’d come as quite a surprise.

    • I don’t have any information on Vionnet’s models, but I would be very surprised if she were an older woman. Many of these photographs from the 1910s and 1920s show women I’m sure are in their 50s, and they turn out to be 22! You’re absolutely right about our youth-oriented culture, but I think it’s clouding our perceptions.

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