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Women's Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1900-1920

CEO Tinh Phung
Women's fashion has always been a captivating subject, and in the 20th century, newspapers played a crucial role in documenting and capturing the evolution of fashion trends. From full newspaper pages featuring the latest Parisian...

Women's fashion has always been a captivating subject, and in the 20th century, newspapers played a crucial role in documenting and capturing the evolution of fashion trends . From full newspaper pages featuring the latest Parisian fashion to department store advertisements showcasing popular frocks, these newspapers provide a fascinating glimpse into the fashion world of the time. In this 3-part series, we will explore the history of women's fashion from 1900 to 1960. Let's start with the period from 1900 to 1920.

1900 to 1910: Silhouette and Sophistication

During the first decade of the 20th century, women's fashion retained the structured silhouette of the Gibson Girl, which was the epitome of Edwardian era style. Lace and elaborate embellishments were in vogue, and modesty was emphasized with long sleeves and high necklines. The fashionable look was that of a mature and sophisticated woman.

Detail from a Montana newspaper from 1900 of a drawn portrait of a woman wearing a large feathered hat captioned "The Girl of 1900." Image: "The Girl of 1900," Daily Inter Mountain (Butte, MT), January 6, 1900.

During this period, the S-shaped silhouette became popular, thanks to the introduction of the "health corset." Loose and blousy tops, dramatic sleeves, and heavy skirts with frilly petticoats accentuated the top-heavy figure. The emphasis was on creating a balanced yet curvaceous look.

Embroidery from Neck to Hem." The Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), April 19, 1903. Image: “Embroidery from Neck to Hem.” The Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), April 19, 1903.

Evening dresses followed a similar silhouette but with more revealing features like low necklines and short sleeves. Long gloves were often worn, and sleeves were sometimes draped off the shoulder.

As the decade progressed, many women began to enter the workforce for the first time, leading to a demand for practical attire. The "tailor-made" suit emerged as a symbol of independence for women and became a fashionable choice for those entering the workplace.

1911 to 1920: The Impact of War and Changing Silhouettes

The 1910s can be divided into two distinct periods: pre-war and during the war. The First World War had a profound effect on society, culture, and fashion.

At the beginning of the decade, the S-shaped silhouette began to fade, making way for a more natural shape. The empire waist made a comeback, and skirts started tapering down to the bottom. Orientalism influenced fashion during this time, with draped fabrics, vibrant colors, and a column-like silhouette gaining popularity.

Example of Orientalism in fashion. Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), November 12, 1916. Image: Example of Orientalism in fashion. Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), November 12, 1916.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought significant changes to women's fashion. With women joining the workforce in munitions factories, utilitarian clothing made of cotton became popular. Tunics over skirts, overalls, and trousers were part of the uniform.

Detail of photographs of three women wearing various military and service uniforms during WWI, published in a 1918 Nebraska newspaper. Image: “Women in Wartime,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), July 14, 1918.

After the war, simplicity in style continued to prevail, and a barrel-like, tubular silhouette emerged. Skirts remained long, but the attempt was made to give the body a more cylindrical shape. This shift in fashion eventually led to the iconic flapper look of the 1920s.

Conclusion

The period from 1900 to 1920 witnessed significant changes in women's fashion. From the structured and sophisticated silhouette of the early 1900s to the influence of war and the emergence of new styles, newspapers documented it all. They provided a window into the evolving tastes and trends of the time.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our series as we delve further into the fascinating journey of women's fashion through the decades.

*Discover more:

  • Search Chronicling America* to find more historical newspaper coverage of women’s fashion and more!
  • Check out these related Topics in Chronicling America research guides: Gibson Girl: Topics in Chronicling America Flappers: Topics in Chronicling America
  • View the online collection of Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919.
  • Fashion History Timeline, Fashion Institute of Technology*

The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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