The Identity of the Americans Culture Through Fashion During the 20th Century: An Overview

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This volume traces the history of fashion and costume during the twentieth century, a period that saw the most rapid and revolutionary changes in dress so far. Home-sewn clothing declined as mass-production techniques were introduced and people were able to buy cheap, factory made clothes. Over the century, fashions for men, women, and children became far less restrictive. This partly reflected changes in society, as rules about “polite” behavior relaxed. People’s roles changed, too. Women campaigned for and won the right to vote and play a more active role in society. Dress styles worn during previous centuries, when a wealthy woman’s role was mostly decorative, were no longer appropriate.

New synthetic materials meant that clothes could perform better in extreme or even hazardous environments. Clothes also became easier to care for. Some new materials were developed during the century’s many conflicts and wars; others were side effects of technological advances, such as space travel. The biggest development of the twentieth century was the amazing improvement in global communications. Within decades of the first powered flight, air travel became relatively cheap. More people were able to travel abroad, encountering different forms of dress for the first time. Most importantly, the period saw the birth and development of cinema, television, and finally the internet. These new media helped to spread all forms of culture, including fashion, straight into people’s homes. This thesis of articles attached discuss the identity of the  Americans culture  through  fashion during the 20th century. The articles are grouped by decade, starting in the year

1900 and finishing in the year 2000.The task affirms that fashion is an ever-changing, growing entity that connects with every person in the United States; some embrace it while others ignore it, yet fashion has a place in the American society that is constant. Through world wars and depressions, fashion takes on revolutionary hardships and transforms itself accordingly, becoming selections of style that fit every occasion, taste, and social standard. What happens in society is demonstrated in fashion. Coco Chanel quoted, “fashion is always of the time in which you live.”

  1900-1920: The Beginning of Fashion in the 20th Century

In the beginning of the 20th century, women in America began to embrace their personal styles. Before the 1900s, styles in America were very modest, and clothing was only used for cover from the elements. The 1900s marked the slow movement of fashion from simple body coverings to more defined silhouettes for women. dresses were tight fitting corsets.

Corsets were underwear garments with long laces that were pulled and tied

until a woman’s body was held in a tightly defined silhouette. Corsets were

uncomfortable and meant to control how a woman moved and stood. If too tightly

laced, which they often were, it restricted eating and breathing (Steele, 2001).

No matter what type of garment, women’s clothing in the early 1900s was

designed to show off a woman’s tightly corseted torso. Such tight fitting clothes

required the perfect fit; many women went to dressmakers to be measured for

their custom dresses. The most famous custom dressmakers of the time were the

Tirocchi sisters. The sisters carefully constructed garments using dress forms built

to their client’s exact measurements; they first made the lining, which was given

to the client to try on to make sure it fit properly. After that step, the dressmakers

then sewed the more costly fabrics around the lining, draping satin or velvet to

form the skirt, and create a bodice using net, lace, and beaded trim (“Fashion in

Between 1910 and 1920, fashion began to loosen up. French designers like

Paul Poiret looked to the French Empire for inspiration. He began designing

dresses for an un-corseted figure, using loose, elegant draping. The clothes

possessed softer lines and fell over a woman’s curves rather than forcing their

bodies to conform to their clothing, as previous designers had done. By 1910,

women began throwing away their corset undergarments. Poiret claimed that his

dresses instigated the demise of the corset, but the truth is that many before him

had already taken the first steps to eliminating corsets in their fashions. There had

been a movement since the mid-19th century to abolish corsets (Steele, 2001). The

trend towards looser gowns crossed the Atlantic to the United States, where

American women adopted the new style. However, conservative women still hung

on to their corsets for a few more years. When the World War I began in 1914, the couture business suffered a loss in business. Poiret and other designers were called into the military and forced to close their couture houses. Wartime prevented trade between France and the

United States, so clientele in the couture business disappeared (“Fashion History Costume Trends and Eras,” 2009). As male designers were off defending France, a young female designer

came of age. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a pioneering fashion designer whose modernist philosophy and simple yet elegant design style helped her to become the most important figure in fashion in the 20th century. She began making hats and selling them in her boutique, which gradually expanded to include jersey dresses and menswear-inspired fashions. In a decade of wartime shortages,Chanel’s practical but expensive jersey outfits turned into an instant modern

classic, appealing to wealthy clients because it made the rich look young and laid-

back (“Famous Women and Beauty,” 2010).

In the aftermath of World War I, the United States entered a prosperous

era. Social customs and morals became relaxed in the optimism brought on by the

war’s end and the booming stock market. Women gained the right to vote in the

1920s and were entering the workforce in record numbers. The prohibition on

alcohol was being ignored by many, and new music and dance came on to the

scene. There was a revolution in almost every sphere of American activity, and

fashion was no exception.

Clothing changed with women’s changing roles in the modern society, particularly within the idea of freedom for women. Although women of a certain age still continued to dress conservatively, forward-looking younger women now made sportswear into the greatest post-war fashion. Women wore shorter skirts with pleats, gathers, or slits to allow motion to rule women’s fashion for the first time in the new century.

Low waist dresses with fullness at the hemline allowed women to dance more freely. This design was the beginning of the flapper style, which became the ‘20’s biggest fads of the generation.

1930s: The Great Depression and Hollywood Glamour

The Great Depression of 1929 left little in America’s 1930s unchanged,

including fashion. The crisis of the economy profoundly affected what people

bought, and therefore, what they wore. What seemed to be overnight, the high-

spirited, vivacious look of the flappers disappeared and, instead, mature

sophistication became the mark of a fashionable woman. Looks were classless,

ageless, and reasonable, all easy to wear and in affordable materials. Monetary

hardships faced by Americans forced fashion back into a more conservative


Clothing during the Depression was usually comfortable pants and tops that women already owned prior to the Depression, since most did not have th

Despite the stock market crash, the Tirocchi sister’s business remained strong into the early 1930s. Customers continued to order sport dressing, evening gowns, afternoon dresses, and wool suits, but as the years went on they placed fewer orders, many of them were forced by circumstance. By the end of the decade, there were half as many customers as in the beginning. The Depression affected fashion profoundly, through designers and consumers, but the affluent

celebrities kept fashion alive; stars were never more glamorous than they were in the ‘30s, with sparkly gowns, fur shrugs, and perfect curls.

1940s: Women’s Workwear

In 1939, World War II began, but fashion still had its place, even again in a time of war. As America entered the landscape of war, fashion responded to the restrained mood and economy. This shift in all aspects of life provided a change in clothing that would revolutionize how clothes were manufactured and sold to the American public. In the meantime, the drabness and uniformity of clothing was inevitable, as people were encouraged to make do with the clothing they already owned and mend whatever old pieces they had. Service uniforms were

constantly worn by both men and women at all types of social events. The reality of the war became impossible to ignore as military style became the most popular trend in clothing.

In all the countries at war, fashion took a second place to providing basic necessities to the men and women in the armed forces. Many factories that made clothing were closed to help in the war effort by producing military supplies. The remaining fashion houses worked with restrictions on how much fabric could be used in any garment, and consumers had to fit clothing into their allotments of ration coupons. All types of cloth were needed during the war for a variety of

purposes, so material for clothing was severely rationed. Women were issued a limited number of ration coupons to use for clothing purchases each year, and this number declined steadily as the war progressed. Due to the limited number of materials, fashions of the decade emphasized shorter skirts than ever before, solely because they used the least amount of fabric to make. Buttons for any type of apparel were limited to three per clothing item. Nylon stockings, which were very popular, became scarce, so women began wearing just ankle socks or showing their bare legs. During the war and its aftermath, there was rarely an adequate amount of any clothing item available, so women were forced to be creative, and dressed as femininely as they could with the items that were13p1Paris fashion trends have always been followed in the United States, but travel difficulties owing to the war meant that American designers were receiving more attention from the public and press than ever before.

 In France, most couture houses kept going until the German army occupied Paris. Some couturiers then closed down. Another popular skirt style was the pencil skirt. The goal with this style was to create an hourglass shape, and girdles were often worn underneath these types

of dresses. The pencil skirt was a straight, tight-fitting skirt for older women, as it was seen as too provocative for younger girls. Dresses often had bolero sleeves, and were in floral prints. Popular accessories for women were cat-eye glasses, which are still a popular style in glasses for women today.

Later in the ‘50s era, America was overflowing with glamour.

Lastly, the style moved more towards a sexy, but still very feminine look, with women

emphasizing their hourglass shapes even more than the pencil skirt allowed.The 1960s in America were a time of change, and the fashion world was not excluded from this. The fashion revolution in the ‘60s witnessed an explosion of youth that again changed styles completely. The Western world began to rebel against the runway collections of designers in Paris and create their own trends instead. Designers then followed their creations and desperately tried to include

them into clothing for the masses (“The People History,” 2010). This era is when the ever-popular wardrobe staple of blue jeans became the fashion staple that it is today.

November 13, 2023




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