The period from the turn of the twentieth century to the end of World War I (1914–18) was one of great transition in the world of fashion. Not only did styles for women undergo a dramatic shift in their basic silhouette, or shape, but the very system through which new styles were introduced and popularized also changed. Paris, France, was the center of the world of fashion, but more and more people got their fashion ideas from magazines and their fashionable clothes, ready-to-wear, from department stores close to home. Social changes, especially the increasing liberation of women and the coming of war, also had a dramatic impact on fashion. These and other changes made this the period in which the fashion system, or the way that new styles were created and adopted by people, truly began to resemble what we know today.
Ever since the end of the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), when rich kings and queens secured power and were surrounded by wealthy nobles, European clothing traditions had been sharply split between the wealthy and the poor and middle classes. The wealthy were concerned with fashion: following the latest clothing styles, usually those set by monarchs (royals) or their families, and wearing the richest and most luxurious garments available. Everyone else simply wore costume, everyday apparel that was chosen for its durability and its utility. Over time, as incomes increased, more and more people became concerned with fashion, but true fashion, with frequent changes and expensive and luxurious fabrics, remained only for the very wealthy. In the first years of the twentieth century, however, the system began to change.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Paris was the center of the fashion world. Clothing designers from Paris introduced clothing at seasonal shows and sold clothes to the wealthiest people in Europe and the United States. Increasingly, however, these fashions began to reach more and more people. Dressmakers outside of Paris might buy an expensive gown, take it apart, and make a pattern, or design to make a dress, which they sold, allowing the dress to be reproduced. Publishers began to sell pattern books of fashionable clothes that allowed people to make the clothes at home if they were good sewers. Soon, department stores, which were becoming popular throughout the West, also began to sew and sell dresses modeled on the latest Paris fashions.
These changes were small compared to the introduction of ready-to-wear clothing. In the past all clothing had been made by hand in the home. But the introduction of the sewing machine combined with the factory system allowed for the mass production of clothing in the nineteenth century. Men's clothing was the first to be mass-produced in a variety of different sizes. This form of clothing was called ready-to-wear. By the end of the nineteenth century men could go into a store and buy ready-to-wear trousers, shirts, or jackets, but women still had to buy cloth and sew the clothes themselves. By the first years of the twentieth century, ready-to-wear clothing was available to women, too.
The first widely available ready-to-wear garment for women was the shirtwaist, a blouse that was worn with a long, flowing skirt. Designers in Paris might offer a beautiful shirtwaist, and before too long a factory in Massachusetts would be making a close copy that could be purchased at the local department store for a much lower price. Though most clothing, and certainly the more luxurious gowns of the day, was still made at home or by a skilled tailor, ready-to-wear clothing became an important industry in the 1900s and 1910s.
The clothing styles that dominated the first years of the twentieth century were carried over from the late nineteenth century. Long flowing dresses with highly decorated sleeves were common for women and were worn with elaborate hats. While the details of these dresses changed from season to season, the essential outline of the woman's figure, or her silhouette, remained in the S-shape that was so fashionable at the turn of the century. Rigid corsets, or stiffened undergarments, gave the woman a prominent chest, a very narrow waist, and extended buttocks, bolstered with padding. This silhouette was uncomfortable and made movement difficult.
This restrictive women's clothing was increasingly at odds with the way women viewed their lives. Across Europe and in the United States, women began to resist the confining social systems that gave men more power and kept women in the home. They began to push for more rights, such as the right to vote and the right to work outside the home. Restrictive, uncomfortable clothes were soon identified with restrictive social systems, and they too were rejected. After about 1908 women quit wearing confining corsets and impractical long gowns. They sought out garments that had a more natural shape, such as a tube-shaped dress or a simple skirt and shirtwaist combination. Clothing designers followed suit and soon began to produce a range of clothing that was more natural and comfortable.
The feeling of liberation that came to women's clothing, especially in the 1910s, came from other directions as well. The widespread popularity of motoring, or riding in automobiles, created a need for practical clothing that wouldn't get ruined by dust and wind. Also, as sports such as tennis and golf opened up to women, clothes changed to allow women to move more freely. The rising length of women's skirts was a big symbol that women's clothes were becoming more practical.
One of the biggest social factors that influenced fashion was World War I. World War I drained the resources of every country involved, including the major European powers and the United States. Fabrics and materials used for clothing were rationed, and clothing became simpler and less ornamented as a result. Perhaps the biggest impact was on women's dresses, which were made with far less material than ever before. The slim profile demanded by the war became the dominant fashion of the 1920s. The war also brought more women into the workplace than ever before, and women wore new clothing, including the once-forbidden trousers, in the workplace that they later adopted for regular use.
Men's clothing in general changed much less frequently and less dramatically than women's clothing. Standard wear for men in nonmanual work was the sack suit, or three-piece suit, usually worn with a shirt with a detachable collar, while working-class men generally wore trousers and a button-down shirt. These outfits didn't change on a seasonal basis like women's, though men's suits did see a slimming in profile that came in about 1908, around the same time as changes in the women's silhouette. Men took advantage of the greater availability of ready-to-wear clothing, especially the newer, less restrictive forms of underwear that replaced the union suit, an undergarment that was shirt and drawers in one. They also enjoyed the looser, more casual clothes created for use while playing sports or motoring. While Paris was the center of women's fashion, London, England, was the center for men.
The years from 1900 to 1918 were filled with many more important influences on clothing customs, including the growing popularity of fashion magazines, the importance of advertising in shaping people's ideas about clothing, the rise in the status of the fashion designer as a trendsetter, and the influence of trends in art and dance.
Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.