Back Then

Before I was born — hell, before my father was born — women dressed in the fashion of the day without regard to what it actually looked like. (Yeah, not much has changed.) Here’s one example, from the Roaring Twenties:

Of course, while that was what women wore in public, in private was a whole ‘nother story, as they say. Here, for your delectation, is a series of pictures of some of the Ziegfeld Girls of the era — most of whom were physically tiny, by the way — dressed (or rather, partly-dressed) in some private fashions.

This all came about when I was looking for some reference pics for a novel I’m working on — I needed to describe how a female character dressed back in the day, and suddenly, as so often happens on Teh Intarwebz, I ended up looking at these.

I’ll get back to the research any day, now…

Dramatis personae, from the top:
Adrienne Ames
Jean Ackerman
Olive Brady
Madge Bellamy
Lillian Bond


  1. My mom & Dad were born in the early 1900’s, raised in their early childhood without electricity or indoor plumbing however by by the mid 1920’s they were in college, times airplanes, automobiles and fashions had changed, skirts lifted, shoes smaller (May Janes), demon Jazz music, bootleg liquor, movies with talkies coming in 1929 and it was for them a truly Modern Era. However, when my dad’s sister turned 100 in 2000 we asked what most signifgant change she had seen in her lifetime and her answer surprised us; she said the radio.

    Before the radio my aunt said she and her sisters, living on a hardscrabble little bit of a plains farm, three kids riding a one-eyed broken down horse to school were taught piano and had to take music lessons. Ester Pearl was her name and she told us that every family had members who could read music, they would
    sing in harmony doing chores and at school and church, the only way to have music was make it yourself and in her opinion, the radio, later followed by TV, came into homes and people’s activities changed from being active to passive, letting the radio entertain with music and update with news. At 100 years old she could still sit down and play the piano.

    In 1927 my mother, as a college grad was a 20 year old music teacher in a county seat school where the competitions between schools for vocal music were followed almost as much as football where my pop was the coach. As they began to date they were called to the principal’s office and warned they could lose their jobs because she had been seen riding in the same car with dad to an out of town football game, of course it was a day game an hour away, and it was unseemly for two single teachers to together, out-of-town in the same car by themselves.
    * (historical footnote, my mom was instructed in college that part of dating protocol was to never sit down on a chair where a young man had been sitting without allowing at least 60 seconds for the heat from his posterior to dissipate other wise the young lady could be reprimanded and written up.)

    As for the beautiful Ziegfeld girls, I wonder if they took a few rides on the casting couch? They are stunning women, mostly small features with the Clara Bow mouth and slender in the breast area with excellent arms and legs, more modern than the decade before and the graceful Art Deco streamline styles coming on fast. Little pretty things, smoking, drinking, laughing and driving the Bible thumpers crazy with their negro jazz music and fast dancing.

    The ten years, 1919 – World Wide Flue Epidemic to 1929 – Stock Market Crash were a time of stupendous change. Lots of social & political too commies, etc.

  2. The other thing to remember about the Ziegfeld girls (and most of the actresses of that period)was that they were mostly very young(13,14,15) when -they started their careers.

  3. For some reason, images of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis flashed into my mind when looking at those flappers (in fact, the one on the far left is a dead ringer for Tony [aka Bernard Schwartz]). Thank goodness THAT era of curve-hiding fashion is over. Yuck!

    Conversely, the other photos are inspirational.

  4. I really dislike the 1920’s fashions. It seemed to do everything possible to hide a woman’s curves and hair. Was it ugly first wave feminists who made these designs to ugly up all the ladies?

    1. I’ve come to realize that the hideous fashions of the twenties paralleled what was happening in the culture at the time. I.e. greater freedom for women in nearly all things. The flappers’ loose freedom of movement (and louche attitudes) plus the de-emphasis on shape were in large part a reaction to the bizarre absurdities of constrictive and wildly exaggerated shaping of clothes, and social restrictions, of the entire Victorian era. For women the clothes of the twenties broke the stranglehold, in a very literal sense, of the clothing of the previous several hundred years.

      Once the stranglehold was broken the interregnum of the twenties quickly moved into the more shape sensitive, yet comfortably unrestrictive, styles of the forties and beyond, thank goodness. The same happened with hairstyles and makeup as well. The transition from the insanely restrictive clothes of the Victorian era, across a span of no more than about 20-30 years, to the casual yet sensual body consciousness of the late thirties and forties represent changes more profound than any similar period before or since. The changes very precisely tracked the increasing freedom of women.

  5. Wowzers! Lillian Bond would be a classic beauty even today.
    The others, with the hair and makeup of the time, are just OK. But Lillian!

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