1920s fashion dresses are amazing works of art (Art Deco art!). While beaded flapper dresses are beautiful and thrilling to wear, there are so many other amazing styles of 1920s dresses that you can buy today. Most trendy fashion dresses are not in the typical 1920s drop waist style. Instead, contemporary dresses are designed to fit an hourglass hugging shape. There are some exceptions, and these are the 1920s dress styles you want to find and accessorize into a unique 1920s inspired outfit.
These 1920s style dresses are especially great for non-flapper dresses, daytime events, curvy or plus size figures, or for mature women who find it hard to see themselves as a “flapper girl.” If, however, you want the iconic flapper dress, don’t worry, we have some alternative dress ideas that will fit the fringe, bead, and sequin bill.
1920s Style Dresses on Trend Now
You can find any of the following styles of dresses in just about any clothing store, thrift stores, vintage/antique shops, or your own closet. The most choices will be online. Follow the links to the shopping pages to see my handpicked selection. Most dresses I find are on the party/formal side, which is easier to find in the 1920s style. Vintage 1920s day dresses were significantly more formal compared to our very casual styles today. Daytime looks may be a bit harder to find as is, but with a willingness to add some decoration, you can transform a plain day dress back into the Jazz Age:
- How to accessorize a 1920s dress – Adding belts, ties, flowers, scarves, and wraps can transform your dress.
- 10 DIY costume ideas – See how I took some new dresses and accessorize them with hats, gloves, jewelry, and shoes. Mostly day dresses.
- 10 More 1920s Costume Ideas – Another series of 1920s dresses and clothing I thrifted into the 20s style. Day and evening, pants too.
- DIY cloche hat decorations – Most new cloche hats are very plain. You can add these ribbon decorations and create an authentic 20s hat.
On to the dresses…..
Drop Waist Dresses
Three-quarters of all 1920s era dresses featured a new waistline, the drop waist. The drop waist began in 1920 at just under the natural waistline, and ended in 1929 around the low hip. There were exceptions, but most dresses at least hinted at a drop waist with the addition of a belt, sash, tie, skirt line, or a tunic top.
Modern fashions have not embraced the drop waist look, instead focusing on creating the hourglass figure. The ’20s drop-waist style dresses I usually find are above the knee with a very short skirt length or well below the knee with an extra-low skirt line (which was a style in 1925). Dresses that are too short on a model may be the right length if you are petite like me. Otherwise, you can wear a matching longer slip underneath to create a tiered skirt effect. Hemlines should never reveal knee caps.
With a too low waist, I would consider adding a wide belt or sash above the line to bring the skirtline up like this:
You can also turn any straight fitting dress into a drop-waist dress by adding a waistline. Skinny scarves work well for the tie belt look. 4-6 inch wide ribbon works for a wide sash band. A thin leather belt pairs well with casual and knit dresses. A metal chain belt was a popular addition to column style evening gowns. A cluster of flowers or feathers or sparkling dress clips on one side is another way to create the illusion of a waist without drawing the line across the body (ideal for many full-figured women). You can see more examples of these types of placements here.
Throughout the 1920s, women’s fashion was fairly modest. Necklines were high, hemlines were always below the knee, sleeves were usually long to just above the elbow. For evenings, modesty rules were cast aside as women dined in thin-strapped party dresses. But that didn’t fare well with many women who wanted to cover their arms. They purchased dresses with a lightweight matching jacket (or contrasting jacket for an Asian inspired look). Some jackets were as long as floor-length gowns, while others were at the hip level. Some were trimmed in fur or feathers, some dripping in fringe, but most were plain and loose-fitting.
Today, women have many choices for daytime or party dresses sold with matching jackets. Most of these dresses are also perfectly ’20s with an undefined waist, tiered skirts, and flowing hemlines. You can usually find them in the “Mother of the Bride/Groom” dress category. Any sleeveless dress can become a fashion jacket+dress combination with the purchase of a separate kimono coat, scarf coat, or beaded or sheer evening jacket here.
Another jacket option is not with a dress but with a pair of wide-leg flowing pants and a simple top. Pants were not quite an acceptable outfit for women in the 1920s, but by the end of the decade, the Beach Pajama, an Asian inspired pajama outfit, was being worn by Hollywood stars, mostly for lounging at home or while hosting a casual house party. This outfit is the best option for women who feel more comfortable in pants over dresses. Shop pant sets here.
Side Draped Dresses
One of the most popular styles of 1920s dresses through the entire decade were dresses with draping from one or both sides of the skirt. The draping gave movement to the dress as the wearer walked. It was light and airy, romantic and feminine. They were especially popular in the spring for garden tea parties and afternoon luncheons. In winter, solid colors and stiffer fabrics made the draping an architectural design detail inspired by the geometric shapes of the Art Deco movement.
Side draping 1920s style dresses are becoming more popular in 2020. They range from day to night dresses in simple or elaborate designs. If you choose a simple dress, pair it with more accessories such as a cloche hat, chunky necklace, bangle bracelets, and T-strap shoes. For evening dresses, keep jewelry light but sparkling with a feather headband to add movement up top.
Another popular skirt detail throughout the 1920s was the tiered skirt. Two or more layers of fabric from the hips on down created a pretty and feminine design in the otherwise tube-shaped dresses. Small tiers and ruffles could also be found up top, although it was less common, favoring undecorated tops for the sleek lines.
Tiered dresses, also called layered dresses, have made a big comeback this year. Multiple layers of light fabric give the suggestion of fringe flapper dresses. The swinging layers are a bit more classy than fringe, which makes them perfect for an authentic 1920s day outfit. They also work very well for the early ’20s with a longer skirt. Consider adding a tie belt (skinny scarf) or matching wide sash waistband. A big flower or bow on one shoulder is a nice touch with a solid color dress. Shop 1920s style cocktail dresses or daytime dresses.
My personal favorite ’20s dress is the handkerchief hem dress, AKA the hanky hem dress. These uneven, pointy hem dresses were all the rage in the mid to late ’20s. When short dresses were still scandalous, the hanky hem was a sneaky way to wear a long dress that revealed leg with every step and GASP! a knee when sitting down. Two or more points, hi-low, or asymmetrical were all 1920s hanky hem dress variations.
Did you know you can make a hanky hem very easily by tacking a square scarf from one corner onto a skirt waistband? Be a little scandalous and DIY your own hanky hem dress, or buy a new hanky hem dress.
The asymmetrical hem skirt was yet another dress detail that was very popular in the last few years of the roaring twenties. The steeply angled skirt is usually ruffled or draped to offer some flow and movement. It was yet another way 1920s dresses had a modestly long length and a potential view of a knee. Add some rouge to your knees and roll down your stockings if you want to be floozy flapper!
There are many asymmetrical dresses coming out in 2020. Most seem to be a daytime or tea dresses with big floral prints for Spring. I like the asymmetrical dresses combined with flutter sleeves and sheer capes for the romantic almost 1930s feel. Add to this dress a faceted bead necklace (not pearls), small handbag, high heel pumps, nude backseam stockings, and maybe a fur stole for some Old Hollywood elegance.
1920s Dresses with Sleeves
Turning our attention to the top half of 1920s dresses reveals a few different sleeve styles that are either classics or ’20s revivals in contemporary dress styles. Vintage 1920s style dress sleeves were:
- Long and lean – A classic long sleeve was common year-round. It fit slim on the arm all the way to the cuff.
- Sleeveless – Afternoon party and evening dresses were usually sleeveless or had long sheer sleeves. Most sleeveless dress tops had wide straps but some had thin spaghetti straps.
- Bell Sleeves – The latest sleeve revival is a bell sleeve, that is, a long sleeve that has a wide “bell” shaped cuff from the mid-arm to the hand. These sleeves add movement. Similar sleeves were ruffled only at the wrists, others were a wide bell shape from the elbow down.
- Flutter sleeves – Flutter sleeves are shortish sleeves with a loose ruffle. They “flutter” in the wind. They didn’t hit the mainstream until 1930-1931 but fashion designers were introducing them earlier.
Keep an eye out for unique sleeve dresses this year, especially in Spring and Summer. Paired with one of the skirt styles mentioned above, you will have a near-perfect 1920s tea dress. Wearing a cloche hat is a must for daywear. In the evenings, I see a feather boa draped off the shoulders as a must-have accessory. T-strap shoes and a long tassel necklace would also pair well for day and night.
’20s Cape Dresses
One sleeve style deserves a mention of its own. The dress cape. It wasn’t a sleeve, but it did add another layer to the arm/dress top. Most full-length capes acted like coats in the early ’20s. By the end, small capes or capelets were attached to dresses, hanging loosely around the shoulders with a center bow tie or placed asymmetrically around one shoulder. 1920s dress capes either matched the dress or came in a sheer neutral like white/ivory or black.
Cape dresses are VERY popular again. You can find them with matching capes or complimentary capes in luxurious fabrics. If your dress doesn’t come with a cape and you want to add one (always a great idea), you can purchase them separately. Save the beaded capelets for the evenings and choose an airy chiffon cape for daytime and party looks. A short bead or Deco gemstone necklace looks best with cape dresses. A crystal hair comb would also look very chic!
1920s Lace Dresses
Handmade lace was a pretty but time-consuming trim in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (1840 to 1910s). A lace-trimmed dress was feminine, romantic, and old — the opposite of the 1920s “New Woman.” Lace dresses were still in fashion in the early years and continued to be used as small trim throughout the 1920s. Some lace makers designed Art Deco motifs into the lace pattern to make them more appealing to young women (or older women keeping up with the times). Embroidery became the new “lace” of the 1920s, with all over designs on solid and sheer layers.
Lace and embroidered dresses are on the rise, according to some fashion predictors. They are currently on trend with the hippie/bohemian look as well as the romantic soft vintage style. Lace dresses are usually modest and in light colors, ideal for spring and beachy summer vacations. Dark colors have an evening look, perfect for the vampy aesthetic.
Embroidery dresses in the colorful peasant-style returned to fashion in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Many dresses came with a stamped print, which the home sewer was expected to finish with embroidery thread. Blouses were heavily embroidered during most of the 1920s, too. Paired with a coordinating skirt, this two-piece ensemble is about as casual as the ’20s could be.
Sandals were not yet in style, but white canvas shoes like the classic Keds Champion is a sporty and period-correct sneaker. Speaking of sport, a white cotton dress may just be an ideal 1920s tennis dress outfit.
I look for peasant style embroidered dresses that are light and airy with a natural waist or no waist tube shape. If the embroidery dress has string ties, I will remove them and stitch the neck opening together, or if the string is at the waist, I will replace it with a sash tie.
Geometric / Art Deco Patterns
The Art Deco movement introduced new colors and shapes to the 1920s fashion scene. Geometric shapes, color blocking, chevron stripes, circles, tiles, and sea shells found their way onto dresses and sporty knit clothes. Black and white was the most dramatic color combination but jade green, rust orange, teal, blue, deep red, and gold were equally associated with Art Deco fashions.
I am seeing a few more Art Deco-inspired designs, mostly put out by high-end fashion designers, but some have come into the mainstream. Chevron stripes seem especially popular. Color blocking is as well, although many lean towards the ’60s mod style. An Art Deco inspired dress is a bold statement. Make sure you play it up with chunky Art Deco jewelry, a gold turban hat, and two-tone Mary Jane or T Strap heels. A dramatic velvet coat is also a fashionable accessory.
Long Dresses- Beaded
The most beautiful dresses worn at Downton Abbey were always the long dinner dresses. In all 6 seasons, the evening gowns were made of the richest silks. They were also the most heavily decorated with embroidery, beads, metal sequins, and gems. Long, column-shaped gowns were usually waistless and loose, but not baggy. If you wear one and feel like a sack of potatoes, the dress isn’t fitted enough.
You too can find many long beaded evening gowns today. Sequin covered gowns are also very trendy, although they often take on a ’70s disco look. Most beaded dresses have an instant 1920s look to them. Add simple accessories and close-toed heels so as not to distract from the elegant gown. My favorite brands are Pisarro Nights, Andriana Papell, and Phase Eight (UK). Shop here for long dresses and formal gowns. Petite ladies can wear long dresses too — see my advice about the best brands here.
Column Dresses- Not Beaded
In 1923-1924, long column-shaped dresses returned to fashion for day and evening looks. Most dresses were not beaded but instead made of lace, damask, printed silk, or decorated in embroidery and soutache. They had no defined waist, but many came with a thin belt tied to the side or back around the hips for a “faux” waist look. Single and multi strap shoes, very long pearl necklaces, and turban hats were fitting evening accessories. For daytime, a wide brim hat was preferred.
For women today who have a waistless body shape, the column gown is perfect. Women who are top-heavy may also have good luck with a column gown with a belt or side clasp to accentuate the low waist. A higher natural waist and even empire waist was also common in the 1919-1922 years, so feel free to pick whatever style of long gown that suits your fancy, as long as the overall shape is long and tubular. This may mean sizing up to avoid too many accentuated curves, in addition to using shapewear. Shop plus size dresses and formal gowns (all sizes).
Art Deco was the art and design movement of the mid-’20s to the 1940s. The influence was felt in fashion with the use of geometric shapes and metallic tones of gold, silver, black, emerald green, and rust orange. In the 1920s, there was also influence from Asia, ancient Egypt, and other Middle Eastern cultures that fashion designers embraced. The tunic, Kaftan/ Caftan, and tabard dress were each shapeless rectangle sacks decorated in colors and designs inspired by these rich cultures.
The caftan designs never went mainstream, although you can see some influence in early ’20s long dresses:
The kaftan dress can easily be found today in the swimwear section. These light, shapeless popover dresses are made into swimwear coverups. Most of them will be very sheer, so it is best to wear a long slip underneath. Also, look for designs that have some Art Deco (geometric) or Middle Eastern style. 1970s boho or hippie fashion designers are reviving the kaftan dress. I expect to see the options only increase in 2020.
While you can wear the caftan dress as is, you may also consider adding a tie sash/belt to define your low waist. Heels or flats would be acceptable shoe choices (satin slippers for a boudoir look). A turban hat or wide headscarf would create a 1920s gypsy or fortune teller vibe.
There is nothing that says 1920s flapper quite like a short fringe covered mini dress. Those 1960s-does-’20s costumes are not accurate to the decade, but fringe itself was frequently used on designer dresses. Most fringe was very long strands dripping from sleeveless party dresses, as well as shawls and evening jackets. Showgirls such as those in Ziegfeld Follies used fringe, feathers, and metallic lace to make their sexy and exotic costumes dazzle on stage.
The all-over fringe covered dress is back in style today in both short and long lengths. Fringe dresses are very fun to do the Charleston dance in, so why not give one a twirl at the speakeasy? Add long dangling earrings and a crystal headband. Dresses in metallic gold or silver look best with matching pumps.
What 20s Style Dress will you Choose?
Now that you are armed with information and examples, you can shop online or in-person and find that perfect non-flapper dress for you. I have handpicked 20s dresses that feature all of these details on the following pages. You may have to scroll down, past all the flapper dresses, before finding these unique styles:
1920s Day / Tea/ sleeved Dresses – Non-flapper, non-evening dresses perfect for daytime events
1920s Plus Size Dresses – Day and Evening styles for the full figured woman
1920s Dresses UK – Where to shop dresses in the UK / Europe area
1920s Dresses in Australia– A growing list of dresses available in the AU and NZ
As always, if you need help with your outfit, please ask.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.