Thursday, November 16, 2023

Clothes Make the Woman By Skye Alexander

The fashion world is ever-changing, and in the 1920s when my Lizzie Crane mystery series takes place the clothes a woman wore not only expressed her sense of style but also the changing ideas and mores of the Jazz Age. Modern ladies were shedding outdated social roles and restrictions as fast as they cast off their corsets. Hemlines rose to previously shocking lengths, baring ankles and calves. Some daring young women even painted images of their beaus on their knees––their short skirts revealed the pictures when they danced the Charleston. Glittery flapper dresses, resplendent with sequins and fringe, exposed plenty of skin. On the beaches, swimming costumes crept up high enough that policemen known as “beach censors” trod the sand, measuring ladies’ legs to make sure no more than six inches of flesh showed between hem and knees.


Wearing trousers, too, signaled not only a desire for comfort and convenience, but a shift toward equality between women and men. In most circles at that time, a lady dressed in pants raised eyebrows. Some towns in the Midwest and South even outlawed wearing trousers and fined brazen women for doing so. In the first novel in my Lizzie Crane mystery series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, my jazz singer heroine from Greenwich Village gets off to a bad start her first day on the job by wearing trousers when she meets her conservative Yankee employer. Sportswomen, however, were grudgingly allowed to wear knickers on the golf course or men’s white trousers while playing tennis. Although off-the-rack pants for ladies weren’t available in the early ’20s, the 1927 Sears catalog offered tweed woolen knickers to golfing girls for $2.98. If you wanted something more in line with what Katherine Hepburn popularized a decade later, you had to have them custom-made or buy menswear and alter them yourself.


The Inside Scoop on Intimate Attire


As women’s outer garments changed, so did their underwear. No longer confined by tight corsets and multiple petticoats, liberated ladies shed the many layers their mothers wore in favor of slinky teddies, camisoles, and bloomers that slid comfortably beneath their slim-fitting dresses. Nylon, polyester, and other synthetic materials didn’t exist at that time, so wealthy women chose undies made of silk whereas ladies of lesser means garbed themselves in cotton, rayon, and wool. Instead of boring white, lingerie now became available to style-conscious women in pink, peach, beige, light green, and naughty black.


Prior to the Roaring Twenties, women wore thick stockings primarily for warmth. Now, with their legs on display in their new short skirts, modern ladies switched to sheer stockings that showcased their calves. Silk stockings were the preferred choice for those who could afford them at $1.48/pair in 1925, in colors ranging from champagne to black. Rayon provided a cheaper alternative for cost-conscious women––and if they objected to the material’s sheen, they dusted their legs with powder to soften it.  


Women who still chose to wear girdles clipped their stockings to attached garters. Free-spirited fems held their stockings in place with elastic bands positioned just above the knee. The bands, sometimes called “jazz garters,” soon became a fashion statement in themselves, decorated with lace, ribbons, and rhinestones in sexy colors such as purple, red, and black. And if a woman wanted to keep a nip nearby in defiance of Prohibition, she could roll on a garter flask that featured a pocket with a small silver container to hold her drink of choice.


Shopping for Clothes in the Roaring Twenties


Prior to the 1920s, most women made their own clothes. But as more entered the workforce during the Jazz Age––half of single women were employed outside the home in 1930––they had less time to devote to sewing. In response to this trend, department stores such as Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman began selling off-the-rack garments. Now, busy ladies could purchase ready-made dresses, coats, and other clothing rather than engage in the time-consuming task of creating their own wardrobes or paying seamstresses to fabricate them.


For people who couldn’t afford to buy at upscale department stores, a shopping alternative arose during the 1920s: thrift shops. Prior to this time, peddlers hawking used clothing and other goods were common in America’s cities and towns––especially in less affluent neighborhoods. Many of these merchants were Jewish immigrants. But during the Twenties, Christian churches began establishing outlets to sell clothing and other products donated by parishioners with the goal of raising money for their churches. Goodwill trucks collected used clothing from more than a thousand households in the Twenties and proceeds from thrift stores made up half the Salvation Army’s budget. Chanteuse Lizzie Crane, my style-savvy protagonist, realizes that the wealthy ladies for whom she performs wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the same evening gown twice, and she buys most of her attire secondhand at church charity stores.


Hemlines and the Economy


Not only do the clothes a woman wears reveal her personal tastes, social class, and ideology, they may also be an indication of the economy. According to the “Hemline Index,” skirts rise during periods of prosperity and lengthen during leaner times. The short skirts of the Twenties celebrated a post-war boom as well as newfound freedoms for women. During World War II and the recession that followed, women’s hemlines dropped again. When times were good in the 1960s, the fashion world gave us the miniskirt and the bikini.


That’s not to say investors should take tips from haute couture––it’s likely that the fashion industry follows economic trends rather than predicting them. But perhaps something more than personal taste or vanity influences a woman’s choice of clothing. Risqué styles reflect a sense of playfulness, confidence, and freedom from limitations or worries, whereas more serious garb suggests a desire for protection, endurance, and the security of tradition. Whether or not these psychological connections have any merit, certainly the Roaring Twenties transformed the way women thought of themselves and their place in the world––and their clothes reflected that transformation.


Skye Alexander is the author of nearly 50 fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have appeared in anthologies internationally, and her work has been translated in more than a dozen languages. In 2003, she cofounded Level Best Books with fellow crime writers Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. So far her Lizzie Crane mystery series includes three traditional historical novels set in the Jazz Age: Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife,What the Walls Know, and most recently The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors––she’s working on the sixth now. After living in Massachusetts for thirty-one years, Skye now makes her home in Texas with her black Manx cat Zoe. 


Watch the trailer for The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors here.


  1. What a fascinating look at historical fashion! Oddly, I hadn't given much thought to the connection between hemlines and the economy but it makes total sense.

  2. Interesting. I come from a (fairly urban) family where we made most women/girls clothing into the 1950's, and "good" clothes well beyond that. We also knitted mittens, hats and winter socks for everyone in the family.

    Maybe I should check hemlines before I decide where to stow my retirement fund.

  3. I enjoyed the trailer. Clothes tell us a great deal about the society in which they are worn - especially when we look at what those who are trying to change society wear (both those trying to maintain the status quo and those trying to change the system).

  4. A fun overview of women's clothing in the twentieth century! In 1947, when longer, full skirts were again in style (Dior new look), Mom owned one skirt and one overcoat. And she sewed all her own clothes.

  5. Coming from a family involved in fashion (how they got me, they've never figured out), I remember the reactions to changes in the style of clothing that we experienced -- especially women wearing pants suits.

  6. Love this retrospective of clothes in the 20th century. I remember some of this from my own life. And I've always heard the thought about skirt lengths and the stock market.

  7. Very interesting article. Thank you. So many people don’t realize how much the clothes they wear says about them.
    Grace Topping