Fashion, technology & women’s rights are intertwined today– just like they were in the 1920s. Trends in wardrobe, hair, and makeup are a visual sign of the times that speak to women’s current roles and values plus technological advances throughout the decades. A few historically significant trends come to mind:
1920s: Flapper dresses that embraced physical freedom through functionality and accessibility
1960s: The mini skirt (named after British designer Mary Quaint’s favorite car The Mini) debuted in 1940s pulp and science fiction and became streetwear for “Ya-Ya Girls” in the ’60s. It eventually became a symbol of female power to be feared by men who might succumb to its seductive nature.
1980s: Power suits and shoulder pads told corporate powers that women can compete with men in any workplace role. While suiting was popularized by Hollywood starlets as early as the 1940s, this decade’s suits were devoid of curves– mimicking a masculine projection of competence and confidence. Think of the movie Working Girl.
Major changes in women’s roles, rights and values are reflected in fashion and are many times considered to be rebellious or associated with immoral behavior (like the mini skirt). One example is the notion that flapper fashion was directly tied to mobsters, speakeasies, and booze. Evan Casey, who is the Public History Graduate Assistant at University of Nevada, Las Vegas says otherwise. She’s the student curator for Ready To Roar, a Prohibition Era fashion exhibit showing at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas through February 2017.
“Dispelling this myth is one of the primary themes of Ready to Roar. In retrospect, it is easy to imagine the Flapper springing from the booze poured into the gutter in January of 1920, but the historical record shows she was a long time coming. Many hallmarks of the ‘flapper’ silhouette predate the 1920s. Beginning at the turn of the Twentieth Century, American culture saw an increase in the importance of health. The sports and youth culture that developed from this shift dramatically changed society, as well as the way women dressed. The S-shape corset was discarded, and changes in hemlines and tailoring increased range of motion as the Twentieth Century matured. By the time speakeasies became the social hotspot, women’s attire had accommodated their ability, and desire, to kick up their heels.”
And just like today, young women didn’t want to look (or act) like their mothers. “The chaperone died at the hands of dating as interactions between the sexes changed during Prohibition. Automobiles carried young adults away from parental eyes to socials, petting parties, sporting events, and theaters, while Hollywood productions portrayed, and simultaneously manufactured, this modern courting culture,” Casey explains.
Technology enabled fashion to become more accessible to women outside the upper class. According to Casey, manufacturing finally matured (it lagged behind men’s fashion) and built the needed relationships with retailers for broad accessibility. Shopping became a “hobby.”
How about those cosmetic compacts that fit neatly into your purse? It all came down to modern marketing. “Central to 1920s beauty culture was the idea of the ‘ritual,’ a concept that cold cream companies actively promoted. During Prohibition, the visible use of cosmetics became a point of demarcation between the old guard and the new,” says Casey.
How do technology, socio-economic and political tides influence fashion? According to Casey, the more things change the more they stay the same. “Despite the extremely varied result, the influences are pretty much the same. Clothing is a mechanism by which the social order is experienced, communicated and reproduced. The passing of the 19th Amendment did not inspire women to suddenly shorten their skirts any more than the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s made everyone grow long hair. What we wear and how we look is a lived experience that happens in real time. It is proactive, not reactive, and will always be shaped such factors.”
The objects in Ready to Roar came from a combination of nearby institutions and private lenders. Lending institutions include the Nevada State Museum, the Clark County Museum, Death Valley National Park, and Spring Mountain Ranch. Most of the private lenders are local, including several who are part of the UN LV community.