The iconic image of a woman in the 1920s is the flapper. A photo of a tall thin woman in a drop-waist shift dress and a cloche hat instantly identifies the era. However, just as fashion of the 1970s covered far more territory than bell bottom jeans and tie-dye T-shirts, fashion in the Jazz Age was about more than being skinny, a flapper, and listening to jazz.
If a woman was looking for plus size clothing in the 1920s and she wanted to wear the latest fashions from Paris, she was going to be out of luck, although she was not alone. American women considered “average” in size felt a bit neglected by the Parisian fashion designers, too. Still, that did not mean that women needing plus size clothing were shut out of the fashion world. Vogue said, “surely the makers of the mode do not expect all women whose waist-lines measure more than 34 inches to retire to one of those communities where the genial garment known as the Mother Hubbard is the last word in dress.”
1920s Plus Size Clothing Industry
When Lane Bryant opened its doors in the early 1900, the term for its plus size clientele was “stout” which was adopted by most other brands and department stores as well. Lane Bryant’s business model was a success, because by 1916 their sales were over $1 million a year. The fact that the founder Lena Himmelstein Bryant and her husband, Albert Malsin, bothered to take the time to actually research body sizes no doubt helped the company’s success. Lane Bryant did not simply want to make clothes in larger sizes. It wanted to make clothes that helped women look and feel their best.
Department stores and mail order catalog companies caught on to the plus size garment industry quickly. Offerings included dresses, coats, lingerie, corsets, hats, and shoes. Each style was designed to flatter the full figured woman by elongating the body with vertical details, subtle colors, and flat fabrics. In their stores and catalogs, they also made maternity clothing utilizing similar design principles.
Charles Williams 1926 catalog describes this dress:
“The circular flare has proven itself very becoming to the stout woman. Slender lines are achieved on this ALL Silk Satin-Faced Canton Frock. The narrow panel set in with fagotting down the front is of contrasting color. The collar and long tie string at the front are very smart and effective. There is a half belt of self-materiel, which ties at the back. The tiny glass buttons on the panel down the front add a smart finish. Stout sizes 38 1/2 to 54 1/2 inch bust. Navy, Brown, Black. $10.98”
In some ways, the style of the era actually created more plus size options. A woman could wear a straight evening gown that dropped straight to the floor, perhaps with an uneven hem, and be fashionable while still camouflaging her build. Wide, bell-shaped sleeves with fluting, buttons, or unusually shaped cuffs provided interest. Deep V-backs elongated the body, as did longer flared skirts. Tall women wore blouses with attached capes that started just under the shoulder blades, paired with a long skirt. Tulle capes were flattering and great for adding a touch of youthfulness.
Here are some photos of women from average to stout sizes:
Women in search of plus sizes also benefited from the popularity of sportswear. A big appeal to this clothing was that it came in colors other than black or navy blue. Manufacturers rarely created plus size clothing in bright colors (only in the past few years has that trend began to change). Other casual clothing that was popular was loose, unbuttoned cardigan sweaters worn with a long skirt. Stockings and shoes matched to avoid drawing attention to the ankle.
Of course, the marketing emphasis on plus size clothing was concealment and to that end, fabrics were “quiet.” No swishing satin or ruffling taffeta. No high shine fabrics that glistened under bright light. That did leave a wide range of other fabrics, though, including crepe de chine, crepe Romain, jersey, and twills. Hats were not too large and not too small, with perhaps a drooping brim.
It seems that regardless of the decade and a woman’s frame, finding clothing that is both fashionable and flattering can sometimes be a challenge. However, the clothing industry made important strides in the 1920s in acknowledging that women come in all sizes and shapes. The fact is that most women were not flappers, but that did not mean that they were relegated to the sidelines when it came to the fashion and fun of the roaring ’20s.
Plus Size 1920s Fashions Today
I hear over and over again “twenties clothing does not look good on my curvy figure.” This is really a shame because when dressing in the right ’20s clothes, “stout” women look amazing. For example, take Cherie S. posing in a beautiful 1920s reproduction dress from Unique Vintage:
Cherie chose a straight fitting beaded dress worn with a long scarf coat that came to mid shin. Both the long beads on the dress and fringe on the coat create vertical lines that are very ’20s and very slimming. Well done, Cherie! You look amazing (and congrats on your wedding).
Here is another example. A few summers ago I helped my sister in law, Tricia, find a thrift store costume for the Great Gatsby Festival in Lake Tahoe. We started with a black ’60s velvet shift dress, added a matching velvet evening jacket, cute beaded purse, scarf for a headband, Mary Jane shoes, and simple long gold necklace. We were both really happy with the final outfit. Based on pictures of ’20s plus size catalog dresses, this is pretty darn accurate and quite flattering.
There are many tips women were given the 1920s to choose the right clothing based on their figure as well as hair color, face shape, height, and age. I put all these tips in the free 1920s Fashion or Your Body Type eBook. I just finished revising it with even more information and about 40 new pictures of ’20s clothing. It should help you pick an outfit that is the most flattering.
Click to Download a PDF copy of the 1920s Fashion for Your Body Type.
Here are some types of dresses that would be great choices:
Sewing patterns- many in plus sizes. See the BIG list of ’20s patterns.
The Plus Size 1920s Facebook group is a good one to join to get costume help, show off your looks and occasionally purchase vintage 1920s clothing.