A roaring twenties themed event is one of my favorite decades to dress up for. It is both incredibly glamorous and not too difficult to find something to wear. This wasn’t always the case. When I began researching and writing about 1920s fashion, there was little to choose from. Now thanks to several movies and TV series set in the 1920s, twenties fashion, clothing and costumes are everywhere!
For gentlemen, the pinstripe gangster is a classic, but so is the more casual vintage ’20s working man or sophisticated Jay Gatsby or urban Peaky Blinders gang.
Although the flapper dress or gangster costume are still the most popular roaring ’20s outfits to re-create, there are many 1920s costumes that are not flapper outfits you can make or buy. All of these 1920s fashion are explored below with links to help you create your unique 1920s costume.
1920s Fashion History
In a nutshell, 1920s fashion for women was all about getting loose, which applied to morals, too. Women wore dresses all day, every day, rain or shine. Most dresses had a drop waist, with a belt or sash around the hip and a skirt that hung down anywhere from the ankle on up to (but never above) the knee.
Daywear had sleeves (long to mid-bicep) and a skirt that was straight, pleated, hank hem, or tired. Daywear accessories included cloche hats, seamed stockings, a small purse, gloves and maybe jewelry. Daytime shoes were 1-2.5 inch T-straps, single or double strap Mary Janes, and low heel Oxfords.
For most men, suits were the day to day attire. Striped, plaid or windowpane suits came in dark grey, blue and brown in winter and ivory, white, tan and pastels in summer. All suits had matching lapel collar vests with a pocket watch and chain dangling from inside. The dress shirt was unique with a white round or pointed collar on a colored body of stripes or light pastel solids for most of the 1920s.
Men also wore hats such as the felt fedora, classy Homburg or round bowler. In summer, it was the straw boater or Panama that topped most men’s heads. For men’s ’20s shoes, two-tone Oxfords were the latest and greatest fashion, although solid black or brown cap toes were equally common.
If a 1920s man played summer sports, he might have worn white trousers with a white sweater or sweater vest vest like most tennis stars did. This was a popular summer outfit for playing cricket, lawn tennis, sailing, indoor sports and college team sports. More about 1920s tennis outfits.
Working class men didn’t have the luxury of custom suits. Instead, 1920s blue collar men wore overalls or blue jeans with a cotton button-down shirt and canvas coat. His hat of choice was the newsboy cap or a used felt hat. Learn more about men’s 1920s workwear.
Casual women’s clothing turned to menswear for inspiration. Ladies could wear tall argyle socks, knickers, button-down shirt and tie and newsboy cap just like the men.
Although women’s 1920s pants were uncommon, by the end of the decade, Beach Pajamas were made of wide-leg palazzo style pants and matching top. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries features beach pajamas quite often in the show’s costumes.
Roaring 20s Party Clothes
Fancy 1920s dresses were sleeveless, shapeless, ankle- to knee-length slip gowns accented with beading, sequins, fringe, and some feathers. Rich jewel tones and soft pastels made the simplest of gowns look expensive.
While ladies lavished in fancy frocks, men found relief in slightly more comfortable dinner jackets (tuxedos) instead of stuffy tailcoats.
Many men cast off formal attire altogether and embraced the colorful life of striped suits, flashy neckties, Homburg hats, shoe spats, and gold-capped walking sticks.
For a formal affair, getting a dose of fashion history (and a lot of pictures) will help you get in the right mindset for the night. Ladies, be sure to read about creating the iconic flapper costume look or getting really fancy with 1920s evening dresses.
20s Outfit Ideas
If you would rather look semi-formal, try 1920s party dresses for the ladies and 1920s suits for the gents. Knowing how popular The Great Gatsby is, men might also like to dress in all white like Jay Gatsby did, or perhaps as a bootlegger like the characters in Boardwalk Empire or Peaky Blinders.
Where to Shop – Ladies
I am an avid window shopper and thrift store addict. Whatever your style and budget, there is something that can work for you, found locally or online. Let’s start with the cheapest and move up in luxury. The stores I include here are local to me (Reno, Nevada), but regardless of where you live, you can probably find these or similar stores to shop at.
Finding a 1920s style dress in a thrift store is fairly easy. Look for a long to knee-length straight-cut dress. A drop waist will also work (where the line is around your hips or below, nothing above your navel). Any color will do, even small pattern prints.
Anything with beading, sequins, metallic thread, velvet, ruffled skirts, tiered layers, crochet, and even lace will be best for the party clothes. If it has sleeves, you can remove them for an evening affair or layer with a fringe shawl or lightweight evening jacket.
Many ’80s bead/sequin dresses can look fairly ’20s. Just remove any shoulder pads if you can. I recently put together ten thrift store 20s outfits and 10 Downton Abbey inspired clothes here for some inspiration.
For you non-dress wearing gals, I have these ideas for casual/menswear ’20s and ’30s ladies outfits.
Sew a 1920s Dress
Sewing a 1920s outfit is an affordable option for many, although I usually spend more on a pattern, fabric, and trim than I would if I bought ready-made. Sewing from a 1920s vintage reproduction pattern will give you the most accurate look. Choosing fabrics in popular ’20s colors is the next step.
New Dresses (mid price)
As of 2020, many dresses are inspired by the late 1920s/1930s version of the 1970s dress. Many of these floral, wrap top, tiered, and two piece jacket dresses look similar enough to 1920s dresses. You may only need to add a belt or 20s accessories to complete the look. Read this article for examples.
Mature women and women with curves have some great choices in the women’s dress areas, usually in waist-less (tunic), not drop waist styles. Long column-shaped gowns are good pieces to start with. Layering with a shawl or jacket, adding a belt to sash to pull in the waist slightly, and adding long necklaces will give the body the tallness the ’20s silhouette demanded.
There are also cheap Halloween flapper costume dresses available year-round online or in Halloween costume stores in October. Cheap costumes are terribly inaccurate (too much fringe, too short, too figure-hugging) but the accessories are usually nice enough. Splurge on the dress, save on the accessories!
Cheap $30-150 dresses
Unique Vintage’s sale section has bargains on beautiful flapper dresses for under $100. Long and short flapper dresses, elegant evening gowns and some daytime/ simple ’20s dresses.
Amazon – Hit or miss on authenticity, Amazon now has a number of day and evening style flapper dresses. Watch the sizing and shipping time. When in doubt, select only items available for Prime shipping and order one dress size up. 1920s clothes fit loose, not curve-hugging. You might also want to order a longer slip.
Quality brands are also on Amazon. I like the tiered dresses with an optional jacket from S.L. Fashions and the hanky hem dresses by J. Kara. Both brands have several other dresses like feel like the 20s without a literal interpretation. They also come in plus sizes.
1920s daytime dresses without all the sparkle and fringe are usually more affordable and authentic. Simple drop waist cotton dresses or white tea party dresses are ideal for casual, summer tea parties, and outdoor events. They usually have sleeves and longer hems which make them more comfortable for mature women.
Prices range from $20 to $400 depending on the brand. Shop daytime dresses here.
Etsy.com is a wonderful marketplace to find vintage 20s dresses as well as handmade 20s inspired dresses and even some upcycled modern dresses. We like LaVieDelight’s authentic 20s designs priced around $130.
eBay is another possible source of pre-owned 20s style dresses. My sister has good luck buying used Sue Wong evening dresses for a fraction of the original cost.
Luxury Dresses ($200 and up)
Macy’s, Dillard’s or Nordstrom – In the formal section they have brands Papell, and Pisarro Nights that all have the most beautiful beaded and sequin gowns in a wide range of sizes. I usually shop their online selection, but you can find them locally, too.
Komarov is a great brand for those that don’t want a beaded dress.
Nataya Brand via Wardrobe Shop – I LOVE Nataya brand dresses for a romantic 1920s look without all the bling. You probably won’t find these locally, but it is safe to order a few online and return any that don’t work for you. The website now carries other brands of beautiful beaded dresses and accessories.
Plus Size shoppers look here for many beaded or daytime dresses in sizes up to 4XL.
Petite women will appreciate my advice on what brands work best for short figures.
1920s Style Jewelry
Besides the classic long pearl necklace, long faceted bead necklaces, tassel necklaces, short bib necklaces, and drop earrings to match are all jewelry styles to consider. I prefer cheap costume jewelry to pricey antique pieces. Some of the best jewelry I find is at the grocery store, Target, ICING, etc.
Read more about 1920s jewelry styles here.
A headband or other hair decoration is a must-have piece of jewelry for a 1920s evening affair. They were made of beads or crystals and even strings of pearls wrapped around the head. They were often worn around the forehead, too. Some women went as far as to wear a tiara. Shop here for 1920s style hair accessories.
For daywear, consider a cloche hat or similar 1920s hat style.
1920s Style Shoes
Pretty much any shoe store in your town will have something that can work as a 1920s shoe – even Footwear Etc, DSW Shoes, and Target. Look for T-strap or Mary Jane shoes in black, gold or silver with or without some bling on them.
Avoid open-toe sandals or wedge heels if you want to be authentic. 1920s shoes had a mid-heel that was sturdy, not too thin, and came with straps — one, two or many.
Basic heeled pumps were also in style, so if you already have some in your closet, by all means, wear them. For daywear, look at walking Oxfords with a low heel.
Zappos – I enjoy the online selection of 1920s style shoe at Zappos. Look at heels and oxfords for all day styles.
Amazon – In a pinch, Amazon has some cheap 1920s style shoes. Give yourself plenty of time to wear them in before dancing all night.
Dance Shoes – T-strap and Mary Jane “Character” shoes are made for dancing. Your feet will thank you.
Wide shoes are available in comfort brands. See the section I found here.
More Ladies’ Outfit Ideas
- Read 10 easy 1920s costume ideas that can be put together from things you already own. Day and evening dresses, casual clothing, gangster girls, garden party, DIY, thrifted and more.
- How to Dress like a 1920s Flapper – Love the iconic flapper girl costume? Read this article for tips on staying authentic yet fun!
- Ten Downton Abbey Costume Ideas – Looks inspired by the 1920s costumes in the Downton Abbey TV series. Day, sporty, summer and winter looks.
- One Hour Dress Tips and Reviews – Sew a simple dress in just 2 hours. See many examples of how to adapt this vintage 1924 pattern into day and evening looks. This article on accessorizing a plain dress will help, too.
- 1920s Casual Outfits – When you don’t want to be a flapper, choose a casual look instead. This guide will give you ideas.
- Non-Flapper Outfit Ideas – Even more non-flapper dressy to casual outfit ideas.
- 20s Costumes – cheaper Halloween costumes are affordable and fun!
- More articles on 1920s fashion history.
1920s Men’s Clothes
A tuxedo will be your best formal choice for a classy event. Choose a standard black notch lapel tuxedo jacket with flat front tuxedo pants. A white button-down shirt (not a pleated tuxedo shirt) will look good underneath.
A white or black vest is optional and a good choice if you want to take off your jacket. Add a white or black bow tie and a snazzy pair of cufflinks. A top hat will take you to new heights, but isn’t necessary (and proper etiquette says it is to be removed inside). Read this guide to Men’s 1920s Formalwear.
You can rent a tux from almost any department store, wedding shop or men’s clothing store (they all come from the same source). Better yet, buy a good tuxedo at Jos. A Bank. They have them in stock and will make the necessary alterations.
Oscar has lucked out a few times with suits by Perry Ellis. They tend to be more trendy and slim fitting, which is good for an early ’20s look. Modern vintage inspired suits focus on patterns such as stripes, plaid and tweed along with matching vests!
You can make an entire look from the suits, vests, shirts, shoes, ties, and sometimes hats from multiple online shops. Men’s USA features all kinds of cheaper suits. I like their wide fit fashion suits with big stripes for a late ’20s Gangster look.
For UK shoppers, look at these 1920s men’s clothes.
1920s Style Men’s Suits
Thrift Stores – Sometimes you can find tuxedos, but usually thrift stores will have some good used suits. Look for stripes, checks, and plaids with a definite pattern — subtle was not in style. Grey, brown and dark blue are the best colors, although if you want a summer look try white, ivory or pastel colors.
1920s suits were fitted and usually three pieces with a matching or similar shade of vest. Add a bow tie or necktie in diagonal stripes, paisley, or small repeating patterns and a pocket square that matches at least one color in the tie.
A men’s dress shirt had a detachable white collar on a striped, colored shirt. You won’t find detachable collars anymore, but a white collared shirt is trendy right now. A white dress shirt or solid color is fine, too, but the striped shirts with white cuffs and collar really look vintage! Shop 1920s style men’s shirts here.
Here are some more 1920s costume ideas for men:
1920s Men’s Hats
Besides the formal top hat, most men went for felt hats in winter and straw hats in summer. Consider the center dent fedora, the round bowler or derby, or the unique Homburg for felt hats.
The classy straw Panama or round crown Boater or Skimmer are great for summer. The casual flat cap, AKA newsboy cap, is versatile year round.
Fedoras are classic, too, although most modern Fedoras have very narrow brims. 1920s fedoras had wide brims and tall crowns. Your best bet is to buy a hat online. Read more about 1920s men’s hat styles.
1920s Style Men’s Shoes
DSW Shoes, Footwear Etc, Off Broadway Shoes, any men’s shoe department store — they all have some basic lace up Oxfords and wingtips (what you would wear to the office). 1920s shoes were either black or rusty brown leather Oxfords with a cap toe or wingtip design. Brown and white, and grey and white were also common but less formal. Wear these with a brown or grey striped suits, not with a tuxedo.
Formal shoes were shiny black slip on or lace up shoes. Lace up boots were the most casual or working class shoe. Here are some online shoe options you can also find locally:
1920s Men’s Accessories
A necktie or bow tie is needed for all but the casual looks. Paisley, small patterns and wide stripes were all common in the 1920s. They were quite colorful– never bland choices. Mustard yellow, burnt orange, red, gas flame blue, pink, etc. Shop 1920s style neckties here.
A pocket square was neatly folded into the suit coat. It did not usually match the necktie, but coordinated with at least one color in it. For example, a gold, navy and maroon paisley tie may have a gold pocket square with it. It’s a little detail that makes a big difference.
Gloves are a nice accessory as well, although hard to find in warm weather. White gloves are needed with formal suits, brown or grey leather gloves with semi-formal business suits.
I am just an email away to help you with your costume needs. Contact me here, and I will get back to you quickly.
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.