PRIOR TO THE twentieth century, in Victorian days, a person's economic status in the community could almost always be determined by the type of clothing he or she wore. Ladies of leisure wore long flowing dresses of exquisite design, color and manufacture; working class women wore dark homespun clothing made by hand. Gentlemen wore dark three-piece suits with high collars, cravats, spats and fine hats; working men wore trousers and jackets, collarless cotton shirts, work boots and caps. During the 1920s and '30s, however, these class lines were blurred as fashion adopted less structured styles and attitudes.
Etiquette was very important in the 1910s and '20s, especially to the “upwardly mobile” merchant class. One had to know the proper way to call on friends and what to wear while doing so. The type of dress a woman wore to go calling depended on if it was a formal reception or an informal get-together. Some things didn't change, however: whether it was winter, spring, summer or fall, every well-dressed, proper lady wore a hat and gloves when calling, regardless of economic status.
As America's class system became less important, social acceptance was based more on behavior and style than purely on income. As one dressmaker stated in 1917, “It's not so much WHAT we wear that counts, as HOW we wear it!” Fortunately for those not trained to etiquette from infancy, there were many magazines and books available to provide guidance on both dress and behavior.
Between 1913 and 1933, women's silhouettes shifted from narrow to full and back again, hats grew steadily smaller, and waistlines rose and fell along with hemlines and heels. Arbiters of fashion were a bit confused by all the changes. Fashion writer Cora Moore noted in 1920:
One feels toward the present fashion situation much as one does toward a precocious child or a fractious horse – first indulgent, then tolerant and finally exasperated. We are at the stage of exasperation now. The erstwhile authorities seem to have dropped the reins and lost control. At any rate, there are not adjectives to describe the incorrigible waywardness of La Mode, nor is it possible to so much as conjecture with any assurance the exact direction in which she is tending.
While some style changes can be attributed to the changing nature of society, others were pushed on the public by the fashion industry. After the austerity of the First World War, the 1920s saw a resurgence of the great European fashion designers. Established houses such as Worth, Paquin and Lanvin were joined by a new crop of youngsters including Chanel, Patou and Vionnet.
These couture houses influenced fashions further down the economic line. While some women were lucky enough to be able to afford designer gowns, most were far beyond the means of the housewife, maid or professional woman. For years, these ladies had to either make their own clothes, hire a seamstress to do it for them, or buy ready-to-wear fashions of dubious style and quality from mail-order catalogs. By the mid-20s, with the help of new factories that could turn out clothing in great quantity, retail outlets were opening, selling ready-made, affordable versions of the latest Paris styles. Sheridan had several clothing stores in 1924, most of which placed dual emphasis on both the stylishness and affordability of their wares:
Significant changes in women's fashion included the shortening of skirts during and after World War One and the introduction of the bra in the 1920s (replacing the corset for many young women). For a time, it was even fashionable for women to wear men's clothing: suits, trousers and ties. Combined with the new shorter hairstyles, this gave women a very "boyish" look, one that was considered quite sophisticated in some circles.
HAIR & MAKEUP
Prior to the 1920s, the use of make-up was not something “nice girls” did. It was reserved for actresses, prostitutes and other unsavory types. Even so, some women's magazines in the 1910s advertised face powder and rouge along with wigs and wrinkle creams. With the Flapper came wider acceptance of make-up, hair color and nail polish. Some modern young women took things to extremes: jet black “helmet” hair, heavily made-up eyes, beauty marks and deep red “cupid's bow” lips were not uncommon. As noted in 1925, the intent was "not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect: pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes – the latter looking not so much debauched (which is the intention) as diabetic."
By the 1930s, platinum blonde hair was in vogue, as were plucked eyebrows and Marcel waves. Actresses Marion Davies and Jean Harlow personified the look of the early 1930s. Oddly, skirt lengths went down again after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, helping to give rise to the "skirt length" theory of economics (when stock prices go up, skirt lengths go up and vice versa).
EULA KENDRICK'S SENSE OF STYLE
Throughout her life, Trail End's Eula Kendrick was a great follower of fashion. From the corsets and bustles of the 1890s to the dropped waists and shorter skirts of the 1920s, if styles changed, she changed with them. Writing in Delineator in 1931, author Francis Parkinson Keyes described Eula as:
A slender, sprightly, little lady, whose trim erect figure sets off to perfection frocks which are always the last word in smartness and elegance, and for which every accessory and adornment is always perfect; her soft, prematurely gray hair is always exquisitely dressed; and the perky, close-fitting hats which she affects frame a face that is always fresh, always animated.
Unfortunately for her, many people seemed to resent both Eula and her sense of style. When John Kendrick was elected Governor in 1914, Eula was falsely accused by newspaper reporters of going to New York and spending $10,000 for her inaugural gown. Although that particular story was untrue, there is little doubt that Eula loved to shop. She and Rosa-Maye frequently traveled to Chicago or New York to shop at Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and other pricey shops.
As for menswear, the 1920s brought a new informality and classlessness. No longer could a man be pegged economically based solely on his clothes. At the same time as it became acceptable for anyone to wear a tuxedo to a formal affair, baggy pants (called "Oxford Bags"), pullover sweaters, suede shoes and soft caps became popular for both "upper crust" and "working class" men.
For the most part, men's fashions haven't changed greatly since the introduction of long pants in the early 1800s. Some differences have appeared now and then, mostly in regard to lapels, collars, buttons, cuffs and vests. Two changes occurred in the 1930s, however, that should be noted and appreciated by all men: zippers replaced button flies on trousers, and men's bathing suits lost their tops. It would be a decade or two before these two alterations would impact the world of feminine fashion.
The Arrow Man, introduced in the 1910s as an advertising device by the Cluett, Peabody Company of Troy, New York, defined the male look of the period. The Arrow Man was square-jawed and clean-shaven, with slicked-back hair, a healthy complexion and impeccable taste. Arrow Men always looked fabulous, whether they were wearing tuxedos (with Arrow Collars, of course), golf clothes or raccoon coats.
(Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1999 - December 2001
Detail from movie poster, 1916 (Private Collection)
State Historic Site