Political agency

Though the gaudier fashions seemed to violate Victorian standards of propriety, the social and moral contexts had not embraced modernity in the sense that emerged in the Jazz Age. Women still lacked the political agency and economic clout that twentieth-century women enjoyed, frank expression of female sexuality was still very much taboo, and basic social standards remained in place despite what seemed a minor rebellion. Indeed, women did not challenge the basic assumptions about feminine appearance that made the crinoline necessary.

British historian James Laver writes that “the crinoline was a symbol of the supposed unapproachability of women. The expanded skirt seemed to say: ‘You cannot come near enough to me even to kiss my hand. ’” The changes were primarily on the surface, because the basic roles and assumptions had not changed despite the uproar. Laver claims that the steel crinoline “must have seemed to women an instrument of liberation” because of the comfort it provided.

Unlike heavy petticoats or cumbersome iron crinolines of the past, the lightweight wire contraption let women move their legs more freely and enjoy some degree of comfort while still maintaining proper appearances. Still, hoop skirts of the 1860s and 1870s, which flared out at the waist like bells, became so exaggerated that, Laver maintains that “it was impossible for two women to enter the room together. . . . A woman was now a majestic ship, sailing proudly ahead” of her male companion.

For all the new choices they had, women still lacked the ability to dress practically. Though the hoop skirt’s heyday was relatively brief, its demise did not bring any great changes to women’s clothing, nor did it challenge prevailing assumptions about dress reinforcing gender roles and assumptions. In time, the crinoline became less circular, moving to the rear by the 1870s and ultimately transforming into the bustle, which let dresses fit the front and hips somewhat closely while forming a great bulge (almost a shelf) at the rear.

This development was no great leap forward for Victorian women, because this style required confining, “ferociously tight-laced” corsets (Figure 4) which artificially narrowed the waist, emphasizing the hips in a somewhat more painful way than the crinoline skirt. Though bustles vanished after 1900 with the rise in physical activity among women, such as bicycling and hiking, dresses remained as long and confining as ever, attesting to the persistence of Victorian ideals of modesty, propriety, and gender roles confined to motherhood.

While Victorian fashions evolved somewhat but retained their emphasis on presenting a distinctly female but not sexual image, women’s fashions of the 1920s presented a more obvious kind of liberation based on newly-revised assumptions about women’s roles. Indeed, the social, political, and cultural contexts of the 1920s offered women new and vastly broader horizons, including the right to vote and greater economic and educational opportunities in education and the workplace.

In addition, numerous cultural and intellectual trends had converged by 1920, including challenges to the religious dogmas by which many Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic had lived, and the rise of modern psychology, which removed sexuality from its formerly taboo status and viewed it without moral taint. The result was a society in which once-rigid gender roles were gradually relaxed (though emphatically not eliminated), and liberation for women meant significantly more than simply the ability to choose different clothing styles.

As a result, British and American culture in the 1920s had entered a phase of modernity that embodied moral and sexual freedom; where women’s fashions a half-century earlier were liberating because they offered slightly more comfort and choice, Jazz Age fashions facilitated a more extroverted sexual style. While the Victorian Era saw the rise of mass clothing production, the new array of choices did not include challenges to dominant assumptions about women’s roles. By the 1920s, however, women were far less confined to roles as demure, compliant wives and mothers.

Where Victorian style emphasized a demure vision of femininity following proscribed roles based on duty, propriety, and motherhood (as seen in dresses that emphasized broad hips and enhanced bosoms but also covered women almost completely), Jazz Age dresses were far from matronly; instead, they emphasized youth, even girlishness. They were generally short, ending anywhere from the knee to midway between the knee and ankle, and generally straight, de-emphasizing both bust and hips, resulting in a straight, somewhat adolescent figure.

British fashion scholar Elizabeth Ewing writes that “a perfectly straight figure, without a hint of curve, became the ideal. The waist disappeared and . . . [the] brassiere reversed its role of booster and became a flattener. ” In addition, Ewing quotes the Duchess of Westminster, who claims that “throughout the twenties bosoms and hips were definitely out. A lovely figure meant a perfectly straight figure and the slightest suggestion of a curve was scorned as fat. ”