Fringe, sequins, long pearl necklaces, flappers, speakeasies and bootleggers — this is typically what people think of when they envision the 20s. That or a sexy Leonardo DiCaprio holding a fancy champagne glass inviting you into the world of The Great Gatsby in 2013. Whatever you think of, it doesn’t matter. It’s apparent in either image that the 20s were a time of booming opulence, intense beauty, and promiscuous rebellion. The 20s was the transition from the Great Depression to Great Abundance for a large percentage of Americans; this era embodied change like no other. The idea of change was present in all aspects of the 20s, from social to political to economic.
These broader areas of change often overshadow one of the most important changes that the 20s spearheaded: female autonomy. The most obvious change, of course, was the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. With this, women were given a voice that they had desperately been yearning for and deserved. Women no longer had to silently support whatever political decisions the men in their household made; they had the power to make their own decisions.
Female power was a new concept, as previously power was only associated with men. Because of this, women gained confidence — a confidence that was reflected in their clothing and style. Trends for women’s casual wear reflected this newfound power for women and began shifting from daily full dresses to more stereotypically menswear-esque clothing. This style included women’s suits, pants, button-down shirts, and vests, all of which were previously never worn by women. The introduction of this style meant that women could silently express that they demanded to be seen in the same manner as men, in terms of the authority and respect they deserved.
The 20s also presented women with other unique opportunities that had never been an option previously. During World War I, there was a severe shortage of eligible working men as most of them were fighting in the war. This opened the door for women to enter the working world, which was never considered acceptable before. However, because this was such a new development, women often faced intense backlash and were not taken seriously as members of the working force. This brought about the need for a change in the perception of women — a change made possible by redefining the gender norms through functional fashion changes. Women began ditching the tight corsets for bands around their chest that would give them a more “flat-chested” or boyish look and looser dresses that hid their feminine figure. This was their attempt to force men to see them as equal and individual members of society not solely for their feminine features, but for allowing them to fully redefine themselves as working women.
Fast forward to nearly a hundred years later, and women are still using their bold clothing choices that originated in the 1920s to redefine their role in society. In 2018, Blake Lively chose to solely wear various versions of pant suits and other menswear inspired clothing for her series of press tours of the movie The Simple Favor. She received so much negative feedback for revitalizing the pant suit that she felt the need to explain her clothing choices to critics. She explained that men wear this type of clothing every day and no one ever has any negative comments; she urged the public to allow women to do what men do without being slandered for it, even if it’s something as simple as a woman’s choice in clothing. Hillary Clinton faced similar negativity during her presidential campaign in 2016 and was consistently talked down to for her choice in pantsuits. These recent instances reveal to us, as a society, that there is still much work to be done in order for the world to fully see half of the human population as entirely equal to the other half.
Fashion allows free expression and provides a sort of independence that many people don’t realize. Women throughout history have used their clothing as a symbol of rebellion, whether it was the bold women of the 20s who decided they were done with consistently being seen as the weaker sex, or the women of today who still fight to be seen as equal in whatever professional industry they are a part of. The 20s sparked the idea that women did not simply have to be what the men in society dictated. Women have a voice that the world desperately needs to hear.
– Liana Savarirayan