The Myth of Chanel and the 1920s: X - Rising Hems

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

As hem lengths rose and flowerpot hats moulded themselves to the side of the head, a voluntary simplification of clothing spread across a wide spectrum of society.

The hemline was on a slow rise from the beginning of the twentieth century.  The stereotypical Edwardian skirt, for example, had a shape like an upturned lily, with a train even in daywear.  According to Vogue, the skirt began to shorten in 1907, due to some sort of alleged American influence - however, looking through fashion plates and advertisements, the change is more gradual than sudden.  It is not until 1909 that fashion truly got rid of the train and showcased narrower skirts, and not until 1910 or 1911 that the top of the foot was exposed.

(This post is fairly image-heavy - I feel the point's best made by showing specifics.)

Debenham & Freebody advertisement, April 1915; NYPL 816928
Bradleys advertisement, September 1916; NYPL 816904
Bonwit Teller advertisement, Harper's Bazaar September 1917; NYPL 816925

The skirt first widened into a flowing, full shape, then began to creep up the leg again.  To our eyes, the 1916 skirt appears long and the 1917 skirt is quite modest, but from the perspective of someone who had grown up in the previous few decades this would have been a significant change from the floor-brushing gowns of the 1900s.
Lord & Taylor advertisement, September 1918; NYPL 816926
Debenham & Freebody advertisement, January 1918; NYPL 816685
"Mme Ida Rubenstein, dressed by Worth", André-Edouard Marty, 1919; MMA 1973.516.3
During 1918, there were competing hemlines - ankle-length skirts, and skirts at the mid-lower-calf - but the longer skirt failed to make a comeback at that time, and the slow climb up the leg continued.

Evening dress design, Hilda Steward, 1920; VAM E.1045-1988
"Fumée - Robe du soir, de Beer", Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921; MFA 2004.36.8
Costume print, Erté, 1922; MMA 47.53.18
However, the skirt had hit its high around 1920, and by 1922 it had returned to roughly the level it had been in 1914, and it would not rise again until 1924 or 1925.

The narrative of skirts suddenly shortening due to women's new-found independence after the war only works if one takes a quick view, comparing a fashion plate from 1914 to one from 1919 - and adding one from the later 1920s into the mix creates the impression that the "sudden jump" in 1919 remained in place for the next decade.  But this skirt-shortening was not a leap made in 1919, cannot be laid at Chanel's door, and, if one is trying to relate it to a statement on society, a more nuanced discussion involving research into the longer skirts of the early 1920s must take place.

I have already discussed the notion of an increased simplicity, so I will move on to the last point in this series, one which is less related to Chanel but is highly connected to the popular conception of the 1920s - the cloche hat.

"Cloche" is the term given to the iconic headwear of the 1920s, which is perhaps only second to the Castle band.  However, it actually was not the most fashionable option during the romantic years following the war.  Fashion vacillated between non-existent, small, and large brims, but the crown of the hat was usually larger and softer if the brim was small.
Good Housekeeping, 1919
"The Modes Indorses Brims for Fall and Winter", Ladies Home Journal, September 1921
"Alina Tell", Theatre, February 1922, p. 115

The cloche does appear as early as 1920, but these early mentions do not go along with illustrations showing "flowerpot hats".  The hat of that shape does not really appear until 1924 or 1925, just as the beaded, short "flapper dress" does not appear until that time.

Why is it that so many stereotypes about the 1920s exist?  My belief is that nostalgia in the following decades, during a time when fashion history was barely studied and period movies were more concerned with incorporating contemporary aesthetics than accuracy, promoted a very rigid idea of what the 1920s were like.  Women all shingled their hair, hats and clothing were plain and form-fitting, and legs were always on view.  And while there's not much harm in the general public being unaware of the niceties of historical dress or which designer had the most clout, the political and feminist viewpoints that are attached to this time period are strongly influenced by impressions of the clothing - short skirts, no corsets, and tiny, light hats - and the particular couturiers we associate with them.  The past provides a prism through which we understand the present day and the future, so an accurate view of women's roles and rights through history is necessary to accurately evaluating where we are now and where we are going.