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Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period
Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period

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Modern fashion in the making of modern women

As you might have picked out from Bingham’s article, early feminist historians tended to seek indicators of change that they recognised from their own experiences of campaigning for women’s liberation, including employment opportunities, shrinking wage differentials, enhanced legal status and sexual freedom (Roberts, 1994, p. 6). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were often disappointed. In few European countries did the interwar period show significant change in these categories for women. Female enfranchisement achieved in some states was often granted at the same time as universal suffrage for men and, if anything, feminist activism in the political sphere seemed to be in decline. In most states, too, the number of employed women after the First World War was roughly comparable to the number employed before the First World War; and even if general employment statistics have disguised changes in the types of work women did (e.g. an increase in white-collar and factory employment in some countries at the expense of domestic service and agricultural labour) and a growth in the employment of young women, neither of these trends had any impact on marital rates, which remained high. Also, despite provisions made in some new constitutions (e.g. in the Weimar Constitution), women continued to be paid at rates below that of men. And, finally, any new degree of sexual freedom tended to be limited to a small minority.

However, as some historians have suggested, an alternative indicator of change can be found in new fashions that emerged for women during the interwar years. Fashion could be representative of change as well as an initiator of change. Wearing new fashions could also be a way of experiencing change. Hence fashion played an important role in the making of the modern woman. At the same time, changes in women’s fashion further expose the contradictions inherent in the discourses of modernity.

Described image
Figure 2 ‘Spring 1926: Even the stork is confused!’, cartoon from German weekly periodical ULK, vol. 55, no. 11, 12 March 1926. Photo: © Universit ätsbibliothek Heidelberg.
Described image
Figure 3 ‘Business girls like Cuticura’, cartoon from Illustrated London News, 11 July 1925, p. 96. Photo: © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans.

Activity 10

Look at the two images of women in Figures 2 and 3 and answer the following questions:

  1. The two images are different types of primary source – can you identify these?
  2. In what light is women’s fashion presented in both of these images? Can you spot the similarities and/or differences in the portrayal of women’s fashion?

Specimen answer

  1. Both of these images appear in contemporary newspapers. However, the first image is a satirical cartoon published in a German weekly periodical, ULK (which means ‘joke’ or ‘fun’ in German) and the second image is an advertisement published in the Illustrated London News, a weekly British newspaper. The images probably have different audiences, the first intended to amuse (at least predominantly) male readers and the second aimed at female consumers.
  2. Both images contain a representation of the ‘New Woman’ – that is, an (at least superficially) independent woman clothed in the new rational fashions. However, there are some important differences. In Figure 2, women’s fashion is presented in a negative light. The implication is that women’s fashion has become so masculinised that even the stork cannot tell who is the man and who is the woman. (In German folklore, if a stork bites a woman she will have a baby – in the cartoon, the stork has bitten the man by accident.) In Figure 3, fashion is presented in a positive light. The woman is wearing the current fashion and purchasing new beauty products, but here that serves to enhance her femininity, despite the fact that she is outside the domestic sphere (and the test of the advertisement implies that these products help this woman to do her job).


These images capture the two competing narratives encapsulated in the image of the ‘New Woman’: that of ‘archetype’ and that of ‘consumer’ (Saunders, 2005). On the one hand, the archetypal ‘New Woman’ – employed (and hence independent), single and in pursuit of pleasure – was viewed by many contemporaries, especially at a time of declining birth rates, with scorn. Her modern or masculinised clothes were symbolic of the challenge she presented to traditional male roles and authority, fuelling a crisis of masculinity. As Mary Louise Roberts has written: ‘The blurring of the boundaries between “male” and “female” – a civilisation without sexes – served as a primary referent for the ruin of civilization itself’ (1994, p. 4). In Source 4, Bingham mentions several historians (in particular Beddoe and Melman) who have emphasised the role played by the interwar press in Britain in the ‘backlash’ against perceived new freedoms for women, presenting hostile images of the ‘New Woman’ while reasserting the role of women in the domestic sphere through advertising and special features.

On the other hand, the ‘New Woman’, with her disposable income, was also seen as a consumer. This happened to coincide with the expansion of the mass media. Hence new fashions and beauty products were promoted by newspapers, sometimes in advertisements boasting domestic scenes and sometimes in advertisements displaying women in the public sphere. Crucially, the vast majority emphasised the femininity of women and the importance of beauty products in enhancing female elegance, while offering little challenge to male authority (you might note that the woman in Figure 3, sitting by the typewriter, is employed in a secretarial role and hardly a challenge for the male executives she works for). At the same time, though, you should note the aspirational value of the advertisement.

Few would deny that women’s fashion changed dramatically at the end of the First World War: skirts were shortened (to above the knee, for the first time in history, by 1924) and rigidly shaped garments replaced with looser-fitting clothes, hair was shaped into bob styles, and cosmetics and other beauty products were both widely accepted and used to enhance features. As Mila Ganeva has written, ‘it was during the 1920s that women began … to dress in a way that we can identify with today’ (Ganeva, 2008, p. 3). Historians such as Martin Pugh have argued that these changes were rooted in wartime experiences: in Britain at least, as a sign of patriotism, women shortened their skirts to economise on material (Pugh, 2009, p. 171). However, others have pointed to the influence of trends in the major Parisian fashion houses on the eve of war (McElligott, 2001, p. 201; Søland, 2000, pp. 22–3), as well as state- and market-driven changes in clothes production that favoured mass-produced ready-to-wear garments over traditional artisanal creations (De Grazia, 1992, p. 221). I could also point to the impact of new employment opportunities for women in the white-collar sector as clerks and sales assistants, which sparked demand for more rational and functional clothes.

Whereas previously the affluent would have ordered clothes from a fashion house, while those at the lower end of the social hierarchy would have relied on a few garments sewn by local artisans or themselves and often passed between family members, the new simple styles allowed for the tremendous expansion of the ready-to-wear market across Europe. By the mid-1920s, Konfektion (ready-to-wear) had become an essential branch of the German economy, and by 1927 there were 800 firms located in Berlin alone employing more than one-third of the city’s workforce (Ganeva, 2008, p. 4). The industry increased the choice that was available to women seeking employment. Elizabeth Bright Jones has shown how female agricultural workers in rural Saxony actively sought alternative employment in these and other factories, and a range of surveys of German schoolgirls highlighted changing aspirations for future employment, some of which had been initiated by changes in the fashion industry (Jones, 2001; McElligott, 2001, pp. 198–200). Moreover, at least a portion of the wages that these young single women earned fed back into supporting the fashion industry, as they became important consumers not just of ready-to-wear but also of cheap cosmetics (Todd, 2005, p. 803).

Even if the common image projected across Europe was one of the urbane, fashionable New Woman, the reach of fashion, and its potential to generate change, stretched much further than this. A number of historians have pointed to the democratisation of fashion during the 1920s. The latest trends thought up in the haute couture fashion houses of Paris were now rapidly copied by the ready-to-wear factories and put on sale in the department stores for the middle classes. Moreover, those working women who could not afford the rack prices were able to sew their own as a result of a booming pattern market and the availability of cheap fabrics (Stewart, 2008). Ease of copying also helped to break down traditional urban–rural divides. Victoria De Grazia has suggested that the village girls in Italy ‘wore the same bright colors, “autarchic” silks, hiked-up skirts, and shorter hairstyles as urban working girls’ (De Grazia, 1992, p. 221). Age, however, continued at least in some areas to be an important differential, as some women of the older generations refused to adopt the new styles (Søland, 2000, p. 1). Figure 1 also suggests that peasant women of central Europe found new fashions inaccessible or impractical.

The introduction of new fashions for women was not always a smooth process. Roberts has described in detail the tensions and rifts that erupted in French families: ‘Throughout the [1920s], newspapers recorded lurid tales, including one husband in the provinces who sequestered his wife for bobbing her hair and another father who reportedly killed his daughter for the same reason’ (Roberts, 1993, pp. 657–8). You have already examined a negative portrayal of masculine fashions that appeared in print culture. However, these must be balanced against evidence that changing fashions were fairly rapidly accepted. Contemporary surveys of German men suggest that many were finding it easier to accept changes in the appearance of women than is sometimes believed (McElligott, 2001, p. 205). Finally, new fashions were central to the sense of modernity that characterised the identity of the postwar generation. Evidence from autobiographies and oral history interviews has led Birgitte Søland to argue that young Danish women used new fashions to set themselves apart from older generations. One interviewee, Charlotte Hensen, explained that: ‘Our generation was different. We were not content to just sit still and do nothing. Corsets and stays, that was not for us. We did not want to wear all those heavy clothes. They just did not fit us’ (Søland, 2000, p. 41). Yet, even if new garments, hairstyles and cosmetics made young women feel modern, they did not necessarily offer liberation, nor was it sought. New fashions demanded as much time and upkeep as previous fashions, and the majority of young women, even those fortunate enough to have some disposable income from their employment, continued to marry and enter the domestic sphere.