The Artist: 1920s style roars back

If you've seen this delightful film, you too have been mesmerized: cloches, drop-waisted dresses, t-straps, lush wrap coats.

You know the advice, "If you wore it the first time around, don't wear it the second." I doubt many of us were young women in the 1920s, so we can adopt as much as we like of this era.

Flapper dresses were on the runway for spring 2012; perhaps echoes of a prosperous decade hearten an impecunious world. At least we don't have Prohibition. ("Not that we noticed, really", my mother said, glossing over the evening the cops raided the casino.)

She was a flapper in the roaring '20s of Chicago. After nine years of courtship her father finally permitted the marriage. (They loved her Bill, but he had to establish himself first, and my mother was only 14 when they met.)

Here, her satin wedding blouse, first worn on October 7, 1931. In the height of the Depression, weddings were sensible; she wore it with an ecru and brown tweed suit, forgoing a wedding  gown.

Her sister and brother-in-law were the witnesses; the flower girl was Oona O'Neill, who grew up to marry Charlie Chaplin at seventeen. 

Look at the sleeve detail, the covered buttons and gathered cuff! This was high-end ready to wear, bought at Marshall Field's.

The silent-film nostalgia of soft chiffon, wrap coats, pearl buttons, and the dawn of knitwear for women: why not yearn for these clothes? There, romance met refinement, hand finishing was not confined to couture, fur did not incite fury.

The 2012 reincarnations:

Victor Osborne's velour cloche (featured in the New York Times), $200, shows how modern meets minimalist, and would work with a blazer or easy coat.

Vionnet's silk-twill dress would have graced the deck of the Queen Mary, and  the revival is every bit as alluring. ($2,000 at net-a-porter.)

Also very '20's, Tory Burch's hammered-silk Darya dress, the one I would pick for a spring wedding or simply to feel pretty, worn with long strands of pearls. ($450 from net-a-porter.)

A nautical sweater, but worn with soft, wide-legged knit jersey pants, as Chanel favoured, not with jeans. Markus Lupfker's has sequined stripes, reminding us of an era before synthetics. ($420 at net-a-porter.)

Shoes: soft, un-technical, retro. For casual wear, the Esquival perforated brogues are the cat's pajamas. ($665 at net-a-porter.)

Peppy Miller danced her heart out in character shoes. You can, too: Capezio still make the Manhattan Character Shoe, in 1 1/2 and two inch heights. (A steal  at $67.50 at Zappos.)

The price for this Spring '12  deco-design Etro dress (shown on the runway) is not something I'd venture, let alone afford, but look for this and other '20's-era styles to be translated into more accessible price points by the summer.

'20's inspired pieces are cut with ease and grace. I could see wearing this Balenciaga silk stripe-front top as a nod to the early century. Though it evokes Sonia Delaunay, it also looks entirely modern–that is the artistry of the house. ($1,235 at Barney's.)

"Can't I get this in a budget version?", you might wonder. Sure, stalk vintage shops, or, if you can sew, run up a shift in a '20s print. But, as we pass eight decades from the originals, authentic pieces from the era are rare. Perhaps you have a relative who has saved precious memories. 

I can no longer fit into my mother's blouse (which I recall wearing only once, to a wedding), and it shows its age, but I will always keep it in memory of the woman she was on that day and the hopes the young couple shared, even in a time of such difficulty.


william said…
What a lovely homage to your Mother, and what fabulous things you have shown! I love every single thing you have chosen and would enjoy wearing any of them! Thank you, this has brightened my day already.

Anonymous said…
Ah, how wonderful for you to have such beautiful pieces that belonged to your mother, time passes so quickly, how poignant to be the custodian of somethings worn on her wedding day, long before you arrived in the world.
Toby Wollin said…
I have photos of relatives from the 20s and as I look in the mirror and realize how closely I hew to the family geography, I have to say, "Will NOT do me any favors." That being said, however, some of the fashion aspects (hats, ropes of pearls, the shoes, the loose jackets)are helpful to me, so I will pick and choose. but a delightful collection here nonetheless!
Frugal Scholar said…
I have a few 20s pieces from my days in the vintage biz--very fragile now.

Did your family know Eugene O'Neill?

Thanks for the picture of the character shoes. I used to have a pair. They are the only "heels" I've ever been able to wear. In fact, I wore them to job interviews.
Susan B said…
Your mother's blouse if stunning, and such details! I've always loved the styles of the 1920's. Back in the late 70's, I found a wool cloche hat at a vintage store that was probably from the 1920's or 30's, have longed to find another in that style ever since. I have a beaded evening handbag of my grandmother's that was probably from the 20's, too delicate to use but too beautiful and sentimental to sell.
Duchesse said…
Francie: Thanks; we might see an interest in the styles like we did with "Out of Africa".

Tabitha: I can just hear my mother say, "It had better be before any of you were present."

Toby: We all have to pick and choose, with any era, no? But at least the 1920s did not feature women in four-inch heels, trying to walk.

Frugal: My mother's family knew the O'Neills, Eugene only casually.
Duchesse said…
Francie: Thanks; we might see an interest in the styles like we did with "Out of Africa".

Tabitha: I can just hear my mother say, "It had better be before any of you were present."

Toby: We all have to pick and choose, with any era, no? But at least the 1920s did not feature women in four-inch heels, trying to walk.

Frugal: My mother's family knew the O'Neills, Eugene only casually.
I clicked on the character shoes and was thrilled that they also come in a wide width! However, some sizes are missing. Moreover, I only saw the higher heel indicated. I had a pair of those once too, and they were comfy to walk and cycle in!

I'm sure we'll see more cloches in the shops and online... The 1920s clothes can be difficult for the busty, though we must remember all the style, class and geographical variations across this decade - from the aristocratic elegance of the mother of the current Queen as a young woman, to Jazz and Blues artists, or avant-garde artists (Dada, surrealism etc) in Europe and of course how "ordinary people" interpreted these styles.

I actually found a 1920s (or very early 1930s) sequinned flapper dress in a steamer trunk, in an unrenovated old flat I had moved into, where two old ladies (one, the aunt of the other, was very old indeed and certainly dead by now - she may well have worn the dress). The steamer trunk had set off from France; the dress actually fit me back then and you can rest assured that I actually did wear it to parties and once going out on rue St-Denis (a street where there are many restaurants, cafés and bars).

But the dress started to fall apart; I gave it away to some kind of charity, don't remember what. It was blue and gold, in a wave pattern.

Such vintage clothes tend to look better on young people, as I was back then (around 1980, if I recall?) As for the flat, it was a steal, but I don't think I'd ever strip off layers of wallpaper and linoleum, patch up plaster and have the wooden floors refinished for a place I was simply renting again!
HB said…
What a beautiful treasure! I've always been partial to the silhouettes of the 20s and even into the 30s. The clothes allowed for a little more movement and yet "style" was not missing.
Duchesse said…
HB: Because the stretch synthetics (such as lycra) were but a gleam in a chemist's eye, clothes were cut looser then.

pseu: That bag would be beautiful to display on a shelf, or even hung on a wall.
Your mother's wedding blouse is lovely. Such a pretty shade with sumptuous details. How fortunate that you have kept it in pristine condition.
It would be interesting if a future bride in the family were to wear it !

I can see you in that new flapper dress by Tory with your beautiful pearls....
materfamilias said…
Fabulous post! I love the way you`ve brought together family history, a piece of beautiful personal vintage, and an array of pieces for giving a nod to the 20s through modern interpretations. Thank you -- I can only imagine how much work you put into this!
LPC said…
The blouse is lovely, as is the story of your mother and father. As they wore no trousers in those days, I'm not likely to acquire much in the style. I have to admit, however, I've always loved a dropped waist.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful blouse of your mother's. Love the color, the details - how wonderful that you have it. Love the cloche hat, but would never have the nerve to wear it.
Duchesse said…
hostess: Yes, it is a marvelously rich ecru, but too fragile to be worn by anyone now, except possibly posing for a photo.

LPC: They did wear pants by the end of the decade, and you might enjoy this interesting bit of history; imagine being one of the early women to do so!

lagatta: That means they are s/o in your size @ Zappos, but a search will find them on other sites, especially vendors selling Capezio Dancewear, e.g.

materfamilias: It was fun and engrossing, like your post on your wonderful French book.

kathy peck: For me, a cloche demands a nice coat, not a down puffer parka such as I've been zipped into all winter. But with a trench coat or swing coat in spring, why not?
Anonymous said…
I do love the details, sequins, interesting cuts etc. but as an hourglass I just *can't* do a flapper dress! 1930's and 40's style cuts are much more flattering to me.

I saw a similar (original) cloche hat in a vintage store for far more than I can afford. It was burgandy felt with a buckle on the side and very flattering... it's on my wish list! I would need a more lady-like fitted wool coat and some pretty leather gloves to go with it though. My everyday duffle coat just wouldn't do!

Rubiatonta said…
One of the things I treasure most is a set of watercolors my paternal grandmother made of her 1920s trousseau. They're a really charming look into how women dressed back then, all the way down to the side buttoning tap pants.

She was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago and got into all kinds of scrapes, including losing her sight for a couple of days as the result of drinking bathtub gin. (I wonder if she and your mother ever crossed paths.) I don't think she noticed Prohibition much, either.
Duchesse said…
Eleanorjane: The duffle deserves a post of its own. A cloche would work with a jacket or dress, and you might find a current one for less- sometimes history bears quite a premium.

Rubi: Perhaps, as Evlin got around, and took art classes there. Isn't it fun to think about!
Anonymous said…
What an absolutely delicious post, from start to finish--that cuff, those buttons, that sweet love story! And all the '20s-inspired beauties you've pictured...I LOVE the clothes of that era. The clothes in The Artist and Midnight in Paris made my mouth water.

I've found two wearable examples in my thrift-shop searches: a simple bias-cut gown of black cotton lace from the early '30s (fits my lissome daughter like a glove) and a 1920s dress of cinnamon-colored (originally poppy red, to judge by the hidden parts) cotton gauze. It has elbow-length sleeves, a slightly dropped waist, gathered skirt, thickly embroidered all over with tiny white beads in Deco rose patterns. I think of it as my Mrs. Dalloway dress, and would love to wear it at least once, because it actually fits--and suits--me. Until an invitation to a '20s-themed garden party arrives, I'll welcome any new clothes with that wonderful jazz age simplicity and slouch. A sailor jersey with wide-legged knit pants and espadrilles sounds especially appealing right now. Thanks so much for this feast--

Anonymous said…
Dear Duchesse, thank you for this totally delightful post!
Honestly, I find it hard to believe that you are the daughter of a woman married in 1931!

Duchesse said…
Evita: I was born the month my mother turned 40; I'll be 64 in July. Glad you enjoyed the post.
coffeeaddict said…
As many others have commented before me: what a gorgeous blouse. Today something like this would be called couture and be sold at an incredibly high price. I so enjoyed reading bout your mother and interesting snippets of her life.
diverchic said…
Was your mother a red-head like you? That fabulous blouse would have looked gorgeous on her. How wonderful that you have kept it through all your moves-a soft part of your mother.

Being rather not tall enough for my weight, the straight flapper clothes look dreadful on me. I admire them on skinny girls. My era is the 40's when things had shape.

You do such wonderful posts!
Duchesse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
coffee addict: Ready to wear then and now is a world apart!

divechic: She was of an entirely different body type, short, curvy and movie-star looks.
Mardel said…
Oh what a wonderful post, with its blend of the personal and the modern reinterpretations of vintage styles.

I adored the clothes in The Artist and have always loved the look of the 20's. Shortly after I graduated from college I was given my grandmother's coat, which she purchased in 1926 when she lived in Chicago. I loved it to pieces and wore it to death. I still have happy memories of it though. I also had a cloche hat around that time. It is a good style for me. I would look for another if I lived somewhere I was likely to need it.
la fourchette said…
I really like some of the things that come out of the 20's...those cuff buttons, for expample. In fact, Marion Cotillard wore a dress in Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris, that I absolutely loved...and wanted!

(Lovely post!)
dana said…
Thanks Duchesse, what wonderful fun! My grandmother was of that era. When my grandfather died, one of her junior high school boyfriends walked into the visitation with a photo of her taken on a river boat, with bobbed hair. It must have been about 1928.

Due to the Depression, she learned to make her clothing, and she could manage blouses with almost that much detail up into her 70s. She and my grandfather postponed their 1938 wedding until she could make enough money to assist her parents in purchasing a refrigerator.

The difference in the issues of the day between eras is astonishing! Many thanks again
Duchesse said…
dana: She sounds like a wonderful ,talented woman. My mother and her friends thought nothing of whipping up an outfit or knitting a sweater; they canned, darned, made curtains. Much has been made of how the current recession has revived those skills, but I don't think we'll ever return to so many women being able to create as much, in their own lives.

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