Historical inaccuracies aside, the 2013 Great Gatsby movie’s depiction of the infamous party at Gatsby’s mansion was a showcase of everything glamorous about the roaring twenties. All of the simplicity and girlish styles of 1920s day and afternoon dresses disappeared on women’s 1920s evening dresses. Glitz and glam, rich and flashy — those were the only rules governing party dresses.
Whatever a woman could afford, she wore with great expense when she dressed up for a night on the town. Perhaps dinner and dancing at a swanky night club followed by a risky nightcap at the local speakeasy, or for the moral citizens a night at the opera, ballet or theater would be the occasion. Special occasions called for the best evening gowns and fanciest accessories.
1920s Evening Dresses Go Bare
In general, 1920s evening gowns separated themselves from formal afternoon dresses by going sleeveless. Bare arms were wrapped in silk shawls, furs, caplets, and the hands of a special gentleman for the night. Dresses were designed to be as loose as day dresses, but were made with the most expensive fabric and trimming a woman could afford.
Beading was all the rage for the entire decade. At first, beads were placed in small clusters to accent the hip, bust, shoulder, or hem. Pretty soon, all-over glass beading on net created the “fabric” with elaborate Art Deco designs. These gowns are what you probably think of as flapper dresses and rightly so. Handmade in Paris, they were extremely expensive to own. Only the wealthiest of flappers could afford one.
The majority of ’20s formal dresses were made of layers of light pastel chiffon or heavy velvet in winter. Clusters of crystals and beads accented the layers. Gold or silver metal embroidery created the illusion of beadwork, especially in the later years.
Designers from Callot Soeurs loved using metal sequins (also called spangles) on their designs. When “gold sequin-like disks” were discovered on clothing in King Tuts Tomb in 1922, the sequin industry boomed. Metal bits all over a dress made them heavy, so they were only used sparingly.
If metal sequins and thread were too expensive to purchase, a shiny taffeta dress homemade with large silk flowers acted as luxury bits for lower class party dresses.
Bare arms weren’t the only source of skin exposure. Evening gowns grew shorter into dance dresses, copied from sporty day dresses. Long gowns persisted in the winter months, but they, too, were not modest. The front round or square neckline remained high but the backs? Forget it. They plunged lower and lower, reaching the waist by the 1930s.
Needless to say, formal dresses did not need any bras or undergarments. Even stockings attempted to reveal as much skin as possible. Very sheer, nude colored tights were worn along with sheer pastel peach or apricot colors.
Evening accessories were just as elaborate as the dresses. Beaded or metal mesh handbags, bejeweled cigarette holders, crystal headdresses and hair ornaments, and lavish shawls were all part of the party dress. In 1922, the evening turban and beaded skull caps became one of the few headwear items made especially for evening wear.
1920s Formal Dress Styles
This series illustrates the development of evening dress styles over the decade.
Timeline of Designer 1920s Evening Gowns
It is sometimes difficult to date a specific ’20s formal dress because most styles lasted the entire decade. If a Paris designer came out with something new, it took 6 months to 3 years to become mainstream, and then it stayed in fashion for a few more years after that. That said, Vogue magazine tracked the major trends in 1920s evening dresses through each season and year. Here is what they said:
1920-1921: The full skirt or pannier hip flounces remained popular through the next year or two. Lanvin spearheaded the Robe de Style gowns which were copied by other designs. Lanvin continued the style, while other designers preferred the straight line, long, and fully beaded dress.
1922-1923: The straight line, almost no defined waist, ‘chemise’ dress remained popular. They were very long, and even when the day trend was to go shorter, evening gowns kept their length. Round boat Bateau necks were the most common shape of formal wear. Dresses that had some kind of waist were accented with oversized bows on the center-low back or to one side of the hips. Turbans and beaded headdresses were all the rage in 1923.
1924: Designer Chanel insisted on cutting the length of evening gowns and turned them into shorter more danceable ‘dance frocks.’ The torso of the dress was quite long with very low necklines, bare backs and heavy decorations of gold embroidery and dangling crystal gems. Lace and chiffon were the preferred summer fabrics while velvet in beige, black, or green were the favored colors in winter. Many dresses started to have some kind of skirt effect with flounced or feather hemlines. Chiffon ‘capes’ flowed down the back of dresses or off the sleeves creating points on either side of the skirt. It was a big year for formalwear designers.
1925: Low low backs were still on-trend. Skirts featured layers, tiers, flounces, and the first sighting of fringe. Fringe was used as an accent on silk dresses, not to cover the entire gown. A few heavily fringed dresses were adopted by dancing showgirls. They liked the movement fringe or feathers gave while dancing. Unfortunately, the fringed dress has become the stereotype for “flapper dress,” when in reality they were worn only by a few performers.
1926: The styles were still in line with the past two years. Backs continued to be bare with front necklines dropping ever so slightly, too. Heavy beading also continued on an assortment of pastel lace, crepe, chiffon, satin, and taffeta. Hemlines were straight or uneven with even bigger puffy bows at the back, side, or front hip.
1927: Dresses were straight up top with a fuller skirt on the bottom. Necklines now strayed away from just round to become oval, V-neck, or square. Hip flounces, flying back and side panels, and a bustle effect on the back called attention to the open backs yet again. New bright colors were in favor: black, white, yellow, lavender blue, turquoise, pale green, terracotta, and Chanel’s favorite: lipstick red.
1928: Short was in. Evening and day dresses started to be built from the same patterns with only the material and beading to set them apart. New colors were seen for winter: burgundy, midnight blue, and autumn red. The handkerchief hem was especially popular with multi-points on the bottom hem. It allowed dresses to appear long while standing while still flashing a lot of leg while dancing or sitting.
1929: Finally, some sleeves were added back onto formal gowns (with much relief to most women). Long sleeves, 3/4 sleeves, capes, or cap sleeves were all added to gowns. The first “hi-low” hem was seen, meaning the back of the gown trailed on the floor while the front hung around the mid-shin. There was some shape and definition to the figure as well. These were the beginnings of the more feminine gowns that would be in vogue in the 1930s and epitomized during Hollywood’s Golden years.