The 1920s was a decade filled with all-night partying. Jazz music exploded and people danced the night away in clubs around the globe doing the Charleston, the Shimmy, and the Tango. Money seemed plentiful, and electrifying parties at mansions and ballrooms were always in the mix. Women in the 1920s went all-out for evening entertainment. Opulence, decadence, glamour – whichever way you want to say it, 1920s formal dresses had it! (Skip the history and start shopping).
History of 1920s Formal Dresses
There are many names for 1920s formal dress. Party dresses, cocktail dresses, prom dresses, and evening dresses. In the 1920s, all after-6PM dresses had the same look and feel and went by many different names.
The boyish shape that was so stylish during the decade for daywear, was sought after for nighttime too, with a flattened bust, dropped waist and a loose-fitting straight cut – perfect for dancing! Cocktail dresses were almost always sleeveless and daringly short (from below the knee to mid-calf), although women often lengthened their hems a little bit for very formal occasions.
Popular necklines for the evening included a low square cut, scoop or V shape. One style trend was with a very low V (down to the waist) with a contrasting fabric panel inset in it. This achieved a square finish to the overall neckline and when the inset was nude it nodded to the naughty side of fashion.
Having your back to someone in a crowded room was no excuse to skimp! The backs of dresses were often just as dramatic as the front, with a low-cut scoop or V shape. Shawl-like draping was popular with low-cut backs too.
The fabric was sometimes draped and gathered in interesting shapes at the dropped waistline (waist around the mid hip or lower), which was also often decorated with a big sash and bow at the front or on the side. Decorative jewelry such as large clips and pins carried a very Egyptian look and feel on the dresses. The recent discovery of King Tut’s tomb made anything ancient Egypt very fashionable.
Asian art decorations were also fashionable. The entire art movement of this time was called Art Deco and it played a large role in geometric shapes found in fashion.
Even the hems of dresses were not neglected on 1920s formal dresses. Contrasting beading or embroidery around the hem made them something special in and of themselves. Scalloped or uneven handkerchief hems made dresses unique and fringe trim along the bottom gave them some swing! The all-fringe, very short “flapper” dresses most people identify with the 1920s were NOT worn in good company. These dresses appeared on showgirls and other ladies of the night in the mid 1920s. The design and the length was simply to risqué for the average woman.
When choosing a 1920s evening dress, don’t skimp on the fancy! Fabrics were very luxurious – velvet, silk, satin, layers of chiffon and lamé. Gold and silver metallic were eye-catching color choices. Cream, pastels and jewel tones were also common to see. Really, the sky was the limit in terms of color. Even black became acceptable (and wanted) for evening wear – before the 1920s it was only worn by ladies in mourning. Thanks to Coco Chanel, who introduced the now-famous ‘Little Black Dress’ during the ‘20s, it became an extremely popular color for the evening and remains so to this day. It was perfect to show off those gorgeous decorative elements and jewelry!
More history of 1920s formal dresses with details year by year can be read here.
Explore even more history and details about 1920s Evening dresses by year.
1920s Formal Dress Accessories
Women wore layers of long necklaces over their evening dresses such as strands of fake pearls and beads. Cuff bracelets in gold or silver were often worn with several going up the arm and around the bicep. Motifs of gold snakes, Egyptian cats, butterflies, and dragonflies were, especially in demand. Even beaded or feather headbands or turban hats made it into formal wear for the first half of the decade.
The very fancy evening attire may have included a long feather boa, oversized ostrich plume fan, or a single long feather. Feathers were a flirty accessory and fun to tease a gentlemen caller with.
Silk stockings were a must with those short hems, and shoes had to both look good and be comfortable for dancing. Stockings for the day were usually solid tan or dark nudes while evening hues matched dresses or were white for light colors and black for dark colors.
Metallic gold or patent leather black Mary Janes were the shoe of choice and were sometimes decorated with sparkly buckles and heels for added evening appeal. Learn more about and shop for 1920s Shoes.
Hair jewelry replaced hats for evening wear. Beautifully beaded headbands or all rhinestone hair combs and tiaras accented ladies’ short hairstyles. There were many different styles of headbands and placement on them on the head. Placement across the forehead gave them an Egyptian queen look while others wrapped around the top of the head for a youthful “girlish” look. Read more about and shop for 1920s headbands.
The final accessory is an evening bag. Women didn’t have much to carry, so bags were small, lightweight, and beautifully beaded or designed in metal mesh. The new fad, makeup, was carried in the evening bags along with a few cigarettes and a jeweled cigarette holder. Evening purses complemented, but did not necessarily match the dress. They were a work of art in and of themselves.
Buying 1920s Formal Dresses
Vintage dresses are very hard to find as well as very fragile to wear. Reproduction 1920s dresses and patterns to sew your own dress are great alternatives if you have the time and skills.
Buying 1920s evening dresses has been a challenge until now. In the past, very few clothing designers had introduced 20s style dresses to their line. All of this has changed recently as more and more TV shows and movies set in the ’20s have influenced popular fashion. Beaded or sequin long and short flapper dresses are easy to find.
Downton Abbey has created a wave of interest in the early 20s long bead and chiffon gowns while Boardwalk Empire, Cable Girls and the Great Gatsby movie feature short flapper dresses. I have found many formal 1920s style dresses online that are modern but with enough 1920s style to make them great choices for proms, black tie weddings, galas and other formal occasions (see below).
My absolute favorite site is Unique-Vintage for 1920s reproduction beaded flapper dresses and twenties inspired prom dresses. Offline, formal dress departments inside Macy’s, Dillard’s or Nordstrom will carry many beaded gowns by Papell, Pisarro Nights and J Kara. Non-beaded dresses are much harder to find, but it is not impossible with sites like WardrobeShop.