Straight and loose, with a waistline at the hips and a hem anywhere from the calf to the knee, flapper dresses define the 1920s almost more than any other image. While the distinct look itself has never wholly come back, aspects of it can still be felt in current trends.
History of Flapper Dresses
The flapper dress as popularized in media images from the 1920s and ready-made costumes was actually only in vogue from 1926 through 1929. In 1918, after World War I, hemlines rose above the ankle. Many were shocked, but women had taken a lot of traditionally male jobs during the war (this would later be repeated on a much larger scale during WWII) and the suffrage movement was gaining momentum and it was time for fashion to be liberated. Until 1924, hems hovered at about calf length, although waists had decidedly dropped.
Hemlines rose in 1925, and it was in 1926 that you could actually see some knee, although this was usually only when a skirt caught the breeze while walking, or when dancing. Wild dances like the Charleston demanded freedom of movement and the dresses accommodated that need. More than that, women wanted to free themselves of restrictive corsets and fussy fashions. Young, unmarried women in particular reveled in their newfound freedoms to enjoy activities healthy and not and live more widely in the world without fear of condemnation. The flapper dress both allowed and personified this mindset.
The Classic Flapper Dress
Any time of year, a flapper dress left the arms bare - cardigans or jackets were worn when it was chilly. The dresses were cut straight and loose and deemphasized the female form. Coupled with bobbed hair and the freedom to smoke, flappers successfully adopted a mannish look. The silhouette was simple and gave flappers something of an equal playing field with men. That said, the look was more naked than it had ever been historically. No one had seen so much skin, what with the bare arms and the short dresses. Stockings, which had always been black, were now beige, adding to the illusion of nudity.
During the day, dresses and outfits were influenced by the designs of Coco Chanel, who was interested in clothes that were comfortable and easy to wear. She preferred neutral colors like cream, navy and black and jersey fabrics. For cocktails, she devised the original Little Black Dress - very simple, but wholly elegant.
Most flapper evening wear, although still cut simply, was made from a more expensive fabric and featured bold designs. Clothes and jewelry echoed the Art Deco style that was so prevalent in architecture and design. Geometric motifs, often created via sequins, adorned many evening dresses. Beads were another very popular addition to an evening dress. Not only were they stitched into the dress itself, loose strings of beads were often attached to the waist or even the shoulder, so that they would fly about when dancing the exuberant dances. Although many modern costumes feature fringed skirts, traditional dresses would only have had fringe as an overlay.
Buying Flapper Dresses
Although many vintage shops will occasionally have a genuine flapper dress in good condition, a buyer should proceed with caution. Most of the dresses are too delicate for wear, especially if they are beaded, because the fabric around the beads will have weakened over the decades. Someone interested in a flapper dress is best off getting a pattern and making their own dress, or looking into vintage reproduction wear.
The Lasting Influence of the Flapper
Although the flapper look only lasted a few years, its reverberations are still felt. These dresses forced an end to the traditional corset and women never wore such excessively constrictive undergarments again. Fashion in the 1950s saw a return to some fuss, but the desire for comfort and practicality was never far off. Most of all, the flapper was a strong, independent woman, and she set the standard for modernity and feminism to come.