As we get closer to the detailed clothing sections of the 1920s Style guide series you are going to be learning about what fabrics and what colors certain clothing came in. When I first picked up a vintage 1920’s clothing catalog I read the descriptions about dresses made of voile and stockings made of lisle. Huh? Voile, lisle? These are not fabrics I read on my clothing tags.
Turning to the colors I get even more confused. What is Gas blue? Palmetto green? French beige? Briar Rose? At least the men’s wear was a little more basic: wool, cotton or silk in brown, black, army green, grey, and navy blue.
Let us see if we can figure out how these fabrics and colors looked in the twenties first for women and then for men.
In general 1920’s fabrics were very delicate, thin and airy for women and stiffer but getting softer for the men. There was great care taken with 20’s clothing. Most garments were not washed as a whole, only spot cleaned as necessary to preserve the shape and colors. Dye ran easily turning your brightly colored dress into a faded frock quickly. A few special dresses in my collection have never been washed in their lifetime!
Cotton- A growing industry in the 1920s was cotton mills. More and more clothing was made of durable, breathable cotton. During the chemical treatment called mercerizing, cotton took on the texture of silk making it an affordable alternative to real silk. Mercerized cotton was especially popular with men’s dress shirts. Lisle was another very smooth cotton, slightly shiny, thread used to make affordable stockings. Voile was also made of cotton and it was soft and sheer. It could also be mixed with linen for a bit more shape. Voile was an excellent fabric for formal afternoon dresses.
Wool – Wool came in two forms. Worsted wool is a textured wool used to make tweeds, whipcords, and twill type materials most often used in outerwear. Woolen is the other form. It is finished with a flat look and feel. It is more common in men’s suits, shirts, and ladies skirts. Most wools were also mixed with cotton, flax, or silk to make finer, softer, materials less prone to shrinking.
Silk – The cream of the crop in terms of quality. It is very labor intensive to make so it was quite costly to buy. The fine silk thread weaved in a large assortment of different textures. Crepe was the roughest silk texture. Chiffon is very light and airy. Velvet was thicker but not the incredibly thick velvet we see in fabric stores today. It was buttery soft with a brushed effect. Taffeta was a crisp, flat fabric with a shine to it. Most other silks were matte, very low shine materials. Many silks like Canton silk was blended with cotton.
Georgette is a sheer crepe silk, heavier than chiffon and with a crinkle surface. It was called “the material that both concealed and revealed” because it was see-through yet still fabric and thus considered a modest cover-up. It was used most on sleeves, necklines, upper backs, and overlays. It replaced lace from the previous decades as a fancy fabric and trim. Cotton voile is similar but less sheer.
Rayon – Made of processed wood pulp. Commonly called Artificial silk until almost the 30s. At first, it was stiff and hard and not nice on the skin. It was blended with cotton to soften it up. Also mixed with wool for outerwear. Eventually, Rayon improved enough by the end of the 1920s that is was used for delicate underwear, dresses, men’s ties and even some men’s undergarments. Going into the 1930s Rayon began replacing silk all together.
Linen- A natural fiber used by the Egyptians it is light, breathable, repels dirt, and wrinkles badly. It is mostly used for fine home “linens” and summer suits for men. Some undergarments were made of linen because it was very “hygienic.”
Knits – Knitted items were originally only associated with underwear or sports activities. The word “sport” appears frequently in advertisements and knitting patterns, where we would probably use the term “casual” today. The 20s and its use of knitwear as high fashion propelled the home art of knitting. Women had knitting clubs and collected knitting magazines for the free patterns inside.
The downside to knitwear of the 20s was that it was stiff. With no stretch to it clothing hung straight. Ladies sweaters were pulled in with a knit belt to give some shape to the body. The stiffness of yarn worked very well for men’s knit ties. They actually held better shape than silk ties which were prone to stretching out of place with just one wearing. Men’s socks, on the other hand, did not hold up with stiff yarn so the use of socks garters was necessary.
1920s Men’s Suiting Fabrics
Men’s suiting fabric was not found in most catalogs. Suiting was sold for boys which were often the same colors and patterns available for men. Most men’s clothing was tailored made not home sewn. Women might sew a shirt or tie but that was it.
Solid colors were preferred over prints for most of the 20s. A solid color showed off beads, embroidery and ribbon decorations better than patterns. The early 20s didn’t have such bold colors as the mid and late 20’s. Early colors were mostly black, dark blue, tan, deep pink and violet. Common prints were stripes, polka dots (yes!), repeating geometrics, large plaid and simple florals. Patterns were used most often in skirts, children’s wear, house frocks, and lingerie. Everyone owned a plaid overcoat and every man had a plaid, check or stripe suit, dress shirt, and pajamas.
Colors were overall of a muted or pastel palette. Such as jade green, dusty peach, deep pink (called Rose), navy blue, medium blue, faded yellow, light grey, sand, burnt orange, buff, and violet(purple.) Black was another fashionable color that no longer meant you were in mourning.
Prints encompassed all of the solid colors in some pretty opposite color combinations. Orange and blue. Blue and yellow. Grey and rose. Orange and black. Pink, purple and red. Green and violet.
Where to shop for Fabrics
Here is a mega list of reproduction or new fabrics. Happy shopping!
- Fabric.com – An assortment of basic fabrics. Sometimes I find great options here.
- Rick Rack – Authentic vintage cotton prints from the 1920s and beyond
- Donna Flower Vintage (UK) – Lovely authentic vintage fabrics
- Antique Fabric – Vintage 1920s fabrics
- Telalinda – 1920s-1940s reproduction fabrics
- Thai Silks – A huge assortment of silks and silk blends
- Damask Raven – Silks appropriate for historical clothing
- Renaissance Fabrics – Historical fabrics and trims
- Maltings Fabrics (UK) – Early 20th-century reproduction fabrics
- eBay – Vintage Sari Fabric, especially with a deco print, is a great option for evening gowns
- Reproduction Fabrics – Mostly heavier cotton/crafting weight fabrics
- Spoon Flower – Vintage reproduction or inspired designs printed on a variety of fabrics
- Liberty Fabrics (UK) – Cotton and lawn printed fabrics. Also silk and linen
- Farm House Fabrics – Cotton, lawn, suiting, silk and more
- Sew La Di Da (UK) – vintage inspired cotton, linen, crepe, etc
- Til The Sun Goes Down (UK) – Vintage inspired designs from the 20s-60s
- B Back and Sons – Wool, cashmere and silk. Wool suiting ideal for menswear
- Dharma Trading – Dyeable silk, cotton, rayon and linen fabrics
- Burley and Trowbridge– Cotton, wool, silk and linen historical fabrics
- NY Fashion Center – Fashion fabrics, all kinds
- Mood Fabrics – Designer fashion fabrics, all kinds. Trims and leather too
- Fashion Fabrics Club – More fashion fabrics
- Fabric Mart Fabrics – Organized by fabric type
- IKEA – some amazing historical clothing has been made from Ikea’s fabric and curtains
- Farthingale– Corset, garter, petticoat making supplies and some fabric
1920s Style Guide Series
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~Debbie, aka the VintageDancer