Jazz Age attire for working women

*

In the 1920s, “Businesswomen” were advised to pay careful attention to the difference between social and working dress. According to Vogue:

“We must stoutly protest that the sport, garden party or reception dress is out of place in the shop or office. Short sleeves do not look well for such wear, ever. Elbow-length is permissible, but the really short sleeve is bad form and the sleeveless street gown is unspeakably vulgar.” [1]

Muted colors and simple fabrics were also advised. Generally, businesswear walked a line between formal social attire and at home “work” wear, combining simplicity and functionality with chicness.

Accounting Office, Brooklyn, NY, 1925. (Early Office Museum)

Where dresses were appropriate, they resembled women’s morning or house-dresses. In the early 1920s, these work dresses had waist yoke’s and raglan sleeves. Overskirts created an apron effect and pockets were a must for practicality. Similarly ¾ length sleeves were useful. These dresses were made of serge, tricotine, or gabardine. Though satin was sometimes used, trimming was kept to a minimum, so as not to appear “fussy”.[2]

Comptometer Bureau, Armour & Co., Chicago, 1926. Armour & Co. was a meat business. (Early Office Museum)

The 1920s saw the rise in the popularity of the suit, consisting of a dress and matching jacket, or of the more familiar three-piece variety (with a skirt, blouse and jacket). Throughout the decade, the skirts of the ensembles were slender and had knife or inverted pleats (Laubner 1996).

During the first few years of the 1920s, wool suits were the most popular and consisted of a calf-length tunic-like dress or skirt worn with a thigh-length unfitted jacket. Decoration on these early suits usually included Chelsea and notched collars and a number of belts, crisscrossing over the jacket (Laubner 1996).

Between 1923 and 1924, hem lengths dropped all the way to the ankles and hip length boxy suit jackets followed the general trend towards a lowered waistline (Laubner 1996). Also during this time, Coco Chanel introduced her most well known suit. It consisted of a collarless, square-cut jacket trimmed in contrasting braid, paired with a matching straight skirt. The quilted silk lining of the jacket was meant to match the blouse. Chanel’s signature suit also contained a chain inside the hem of the jacket for weight (Laubner 1996).

1929 Suit by Coco Chanel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute (1984.154.1a–c)

From 1925 until the end of the decade, both single and double breasted square suit jackets were the norm, although jackets that met at the center front, held together by a toggle were also popular. Jackets were paired with straight cut, knee-length skirts (Laubner 1996).

In general, cardigan suits of knitted jersey were a staple in women’s closets (Mendes & De La Haye 1999). Typically, suits of the 1920s were made in subdued colors such as navy, tan, brown, and black. White pin stripes were frequently seen as well. Trimming was minimal, though in the latter half of the decade, fur pieces sometimes adorned shoulders for added glitz (Laubner 1996).

[1] Watson, Linda. 20th Century Fashion. Buffalo: Firefly, 2004. 44.

[2] “Of Interest to women,” Washington Post, Jan 12, 1920; pg. 8.

*Image courtesy of Elizabeth Ewing

Additional Images available at The Early Office Museum.

Related Articles

3 Comments

  • Sarah Scaturro May 12, 2010 05.59 am

    Hi Heather, really nice topic! It looks like the middle two photos were staged – I wonder if the women knew their photos were going to be taken ahead of time and thus changed or “dressed up” their usual attire?

    Cheers!
    Sarah

     
  • Heather May 12, 2010 11.46 am

    Hi Sarah,

    It is entirely possible that the women were told they were going to have a ‘picture day’-it’s really impossible to know. The clothes shown, however, do still present a good visual reference for 1920s clothing styles in general – though you’ll note none of them seem to be wearing suits nor do they really resemble house-dresses, as I describe. As an aside, I wrote this piece without having this illustrations and didn’t use them as evidence in my discussion.

    You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to find photographs of women at work in the 1920s. The other photos on the Early Office Museum website show a good representation, and present women in similar clothing.

     
  • Curator, Early Office Museum May 17, 2010 12.46 pm

    Hi Heather,

    I am delighted with the work you have done that incorporates photos from, and complements, my Early Office Museum web site. While the photos you have used are dated, many of my photographs are not dated. I have tried to arrange the undated ones in chronological order, based in part on the office machines that appear, in part on the style of office furniture, and in part on hair and clothing styles. I hope that you and your audience will look through the hundreds of photos on my web site that date from the 1870s through 1940s and point out errors in the chronological order that you can infer from the styles of clothing, hair, etc.

    Best,

    Curator
    Early Office Museum

     

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive

Affiliations

Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.