An Overview of Women's Jazz Era Fashion

This blog post is dedicated to dancers looking for some vintage inspiration in their closets. Specifically, I will be doing a brief overview of women’s fashion in the jazz era (1920s, 1930s, and 1940s). I am focusing on everyday looks - fashion statements that are danceable and not limited to a season.

How do you create a 1940s inspired ensemble with items in your closet? What styles and cuts do you seek when shopping in modern outlets or thrift stores? What is the difference between day wear and evening wear in the 1920s?

We can learn to train our eyes to find inspiration in each decade while still feeling comfortable on the dance floor. A vintage look does not need to be expensive or require authentic pieces if you know how to style yourself. Please take this as a guide to begin your learning process, it is in no way a complete tour of every era. It takes time to build your wardrobe and know which pieces create a stunning outfit; be patient and have some fun with your clothes!

1920s

The most stereotyped image of this era is the flapper girl; dressed in fringe, pearls, feathers and perhaps toting a flask of gin. This is NOT the only way to evoke the freedom of the “modern woman” embraced in the roaring twenties. In fact, there is a much broader range of styles that we see in this era. The most iconic look of the decade is the dropped waist dress that flattens and hides a woman’s curves. Dresses could also be straight lined and most featured pleats, gathers, or slits for ease of motion. Most dresses and skirts were worn about an inch below the knee. Day wear dresses were adorned with bows, fake flowers, and sashes at the waistline. Evening gowns were embellished with beads, rhinestones, and fringe and typically made of a luxurious fabric such as satin or velvet. Many evening dresses were sleeveless and featured low necklines on the back.

1920s day wear: Drop waists, cloche hats, pleats, and prints

1920s evening wear: drop waists, satins, long pearls, elaborate detailing

Women's accessories were glamorous. Often we see the cloche hat topping an outfit. Many dresses were paired with glamorous headbands and rhinestone hair clips. Long beaded necklaces were in vogue. Typically, hats, headbands, or bangs would cover the forehead

1920s hats

Hair and makeup for the decade is most easily represented by the bob and heavy makeup. Hair was often cut straight and short (Eton crop or bob) or waved (finger and Marcel waves). Daytime makeup was often lighter on the eyes but we see a very smokey, dark charcoal eye beneath thin brows in the evening and night. Skin was powered pale with red rosy cheeks.  Red lips were lined to create a small puckered shape called the cupid bow.

1920's makeup style: finger waves, small lips, eyes.

1920's makeup style: waves, eyes, brows.


1920's makeup style: crop hair, Clara Bow, brows


At a glance:

  • Drop waist
  • Sleeveless
  • Below knee length
  • Long beaded necklaces
  • T-strap or mary jane heels
  • Decorated headbands/hair scarves
  • Stockings rolled to above knee
  • Elaborate details
  • Cloches
  • Finger waves, marcel waves
  • Bobs
  • Red lips in Clara bow, dark smokey eyes

Check out my 1920s Pinterest board for more ideas and inspiration! 

1930s

After the boyish figures of the 1920s, the 1930s turned to higher waistlines and soft feminine curves. Puffy sleeves, broad padded shoulders, and narrow waists were launched into fashion through imitation of 1890’s fashion as seen in films. Soft, fluttery sleeves were also popular on calf length dresses for day wear. Empire waistlines became popular with short bolero jackets or capelets. Dresses often had darting sewn into the midriff to highlight the bust and shoulder. Shirtwaist dresses became popular due to their functionality and classic shape (belted waist, blouse-y top, pockets, and buttons). Evening wear featured long, elegant gowns with a bias-cut so that the fabric draped over the feminine figure. Short sweaters began to see popularity as did bare midriffs and beach pajamas during the summertime.

1930s: longer length, belted waist, big sleeves

1930s: Beach Pajamas (my favorite!)

1930s: puffy sleeves, natural waistlines, prints

1930s: Evening wear, bringing sexy back

Accessories varied during the depression era. Hats were often asymmetrical and worn tipped over one side of the face. Berets became popular worn on the side of the head. Gloves were a large part of every outfit; long elbow length gloves for evening and short ones for day wear.

1920s vs 1930s, for comparison

1930s: beret hat and accessories.

Short hair remained popular and was often curled to frame the face. Women wore eyeshadow in light colors, copious amounts of mascara, and rouge to highlight the cheekbone.  Eyebrows remained thin but lips were less full than the 20s. Raspberry, maroons, and dark reds were popular lipstick shades.

1930s makeup: thin brows, soft eyes

1930s makeup: mascara, red lip

At a glance:

      • Natural waistline
      • Flutter sleeves
      • Puffy sleeves
      • Ruffles
      • Floral patterns
      • Bias cut gowns
      • Mid-calf length dresses and skirts (shorter as the decade ended)
      • Soft curled hair
      • Tilt hats
      • Red lips, soft eyes
      • Shoes with cut-outs and rhinestone buckles

      Check out my 1930s Pinterest board for more ideas and inspiration! 

      1940s

      Wartime shortages created some of the most characteristic shapes and styles of the 1940s. Dress hemlines rose to just below the knee as fabrics became rationed. A simple pencil or A-line skirt was often worn with a nice blouse and a square-shouldered jacket. Sweaters continued to be popular paired with high waisted trousers or skirts. Pinafores and jumper dresses were popular among the younger ladies when paired with a blouse. Many dresses had collars, matching belts, and fun cotton or rayon prints. After the war, longer pleated skirts, day dresses with fitted bodices, shirt dresses, low-cut necklines, and peter pan collars became popular.

      1940s: A-line skirts, blouses, and skirt suits

      1940s: knee length, belted waist, square sleeves

      1940s: shapes, patterns, and pockets

      Gloves were an essential part of each outfit. Women wore bright colors and color blocking became popular. Many dresses were decorated with embroidery in coordinating color combinations.  Despite the war shortages, woman continued to wear elaborate hats and hair pieces. Draped turbans became fashionable as well as straw hats. Snoods were a good choice to keep your hair back and off the face.

      1940s: hat styles

      Luscious red lips became one of the most defining looks of the decade.  Most woman lined their lips to enlarge their mouths before applying a shade of red matte lipstick.  Eyes were highlighted with mascara and brown highlighting.  Hair was grown long and set into elaborate curls that either cascaded on the shoulders or were pulled back.  War shortages kept clothing fairly simple, so women created fancy updos featuring victory rolls - which became one of the most iconic images of this decade.  

      1940s: fancy hair with victory rolls, lips!

      1940s: strong lips and brows, pulled back curls

      At a glance:

      • Belted waistline at natural waist to emphasize hourglass figure
      • Just below the knee length dresses and skirts
      • Pencil skirts
      • A-line skirts
      • Military style jackets
      • Shoulder pads
      • Boxy blouses
      • Peter pan collar
      • "Working style" clothes
      • High waisted pants/jeans
      • Platform heels
      • Ankle Strap shoes
      • Wedges
      • Victory rolls
      • Red lips with full shape

      Check out my 1940s Pinterest board for more ideas and inspiration! 

       1930s style

      1930s style

       1920s style

      1920s style

       1940s style

      1940s style

      Originally posted on DanAndLainey.com on 12/03/2014.